LONDON – The youth movement has started. We're less than one week into the 2011 FIFA Women's World Cup, and there are already a slew of young stars who look poised to live up to their potential. Just as impressively, breakout stars with no previously notable track record are emerging as new players to watch in Germany and beyond.
They're players that are hoping to step into a void left by the last truly transcendent group of players, a group made up of were the Mia Hamms, Sun Wens and others that led the women's game to prominence at the turn of the millennium. Even iconic Germany captain Birgit Prinz is retiring following this Women's World Cup. US captain Christie Rampone, the last player left from the 1999 team that won the title, is in the middle of her final chance to re-lift the World Cup.
That there have been few icons to develop since that great US team is a function of a game in flux. We are in the middle of largest transition the women's game has seen since the World Cup era began 20 years ago, a transition highlighted by serious changes on the horizon for the U.S. Women's National Team.
Youth being served
Forward Alex Morgan is the poster child of this change. She's an emerging American star who is currently used as a super-sub at the end of matches. Her pace and raw athleticism combined with a nose for goal make the 22-year-old the clear next generation of the U.S. attack.
She is joined by midfielder Tobin Heath (23 years old), attacker Kelley O'Hara (21) and Lauren Cheney (23), who scored the critical first goal in Tuesday's 2-0 win over North Korea. Waiting in the wings (and likely to contribute in the next cycle) are untested players like midfielders Tina DiMartino (24) and Meghan Klingenberg (22, not to mention the even further off the radar, defender Melissa Henderson and attacker Sydney Leroux ).
Although the United States is one of the oldest teams in the tournament, we're very close to a time when these 20-somethings become regulars. This edition of the Women's World Cup, despite the amount of time they may or may not see in actual matches, will provide them with great experience as the US moves toward the 2012 Olympics and 2015 Women's World Cup.
But the US is not alone in its integration of young talent, with this year's tournament serving as a proving ground for so many proving players.
Beyond these borders
Undoubtedly, the surprise of this tournament thus far has been the breakout quartet of French youngsters. Midfielder Louisa Necib (24) has led the way with her flashy ball skills, while Gaëtane Thiney (25) has made her mark in the goal scoring department, netting twice in Thursday's 4-0 thumping of Canada.
Elodie Thomis (24), also scored on Thursday, and Marie-Laure Delie (23) has been France's go-to goal scorer over the past year. With all four players are age 25 or younger, the form this French team is showing now could carry on over the next decade, provided these players continue to develop.
For Germany, just as Prinz exits the scene, on comes 20-year-old Alexandra Popp , who led the Germans to the 2010 U-20 Women's World Cup in absolutely dominating fashion (scoring 10 goals in six matches and winning the Golden Boot and the Golden Ball). Popp is a pure goal-scorer, but she'll have some big shoes to fill. Fatmire Bajramaj (23) is also considered the next big star for Germany, although she has seen very little action in the team's first two games.
Clearly the superpowers of the United States and Germany seem ready to deal with the changing of the guard that they are presented with (and France may not be far behind), but there as you survey the world, you see other young stars ready for breakout tournaments - prospects that deserve attention, too. Here is a list of other young players to watch at the 2011 FIFA Women's World Cup:
Kyah Simon , 20, Australia, Forward - Simon just turned 20 on June 25 but already plays a pretty key role in Australia's attack. She started and was active in Wednesday's 1-0 loss to Brazil. Genoveva Anonma , 22, Equatorial Guinea, Midfielder - By far the star of the Equatorial Guinea, Anonma might be the best and least known about player in Africa, all at once. Ali Riley , 23, New Zealand, Defender - At 23, Riley is actually one of the more experienced New Zealand players - their stalwart in defense. Sofia Jakobsson , 21, Sweden, Midfielder - Jakobsson played a relatively important role with Sweden in the months leading up to the tournament, In Germany, she looks to provide the Swedes a spark off the bench. Emilie Haavi , 19, Norway, Midfielder - She was Norway's best player in its opening game 1-0 victory over Equatorial Guinea, very going forward. Mana Iwabuchi , 18, Japan, Forward - Japan lacks a legitimate goal scoring threat. Iwabuchi has not developed enough to provide that yet, but she is dangerously speedy and developing her finishing. Yoreli Rincon , 17, Colombia, Midfielder - She said she wants to be the next Marta, but she showed no signs of that quality on Tuesday. Can she show well against the United States? Monica Ocampo , 24, Mexico, Forward - Ocampo struggled in WPS in 2010 but she is off to a strong start in the Women's World Cup, scoring a rocket of a goal in Mexico's 1-1 draw with England on Monday. Helen Ukaonu , 20, Nigeria, Defender - Ukaonu shut down Germany's Kerstin Garefrekes on Thursday. Unfortunately, she'll only have one more game against Canada on Tuesday after Nigeria's early elimination.