Although 2017 has been kinder to the NWSL than the last two years in terms of numbers of players pressed into international duty, the Thorns are still losing key players to a major tournament: the women's edition of the UEFA Championship. Losing Amandine Henry, Dagný Brynjarsdóttir, and Nadia Nadim is a blow to the Thorns, but for us, it means three weeks of exciting international soccer, without the teeth-gnashing stress of worrying about how the US is playing.
This year, the Euro is a 16-team tournament—expanded from the 12-team competition of previous editions—with a straightforward format: four groups of four teams, with the top two from each group advancing to the quarter-finals, at which point it's a straight knockout bracket.
Historically, only three teams (Germany, Norway, and Sweden) have ever won the tournament, with Germany claiming the last six titles. Germany are still favorites going in this year, but with women's football growing across the continent at both the club and international levels, this looks to be the most competitive edition yet.
Let's take a look at how each of our wayward Thorns' squads is shaping up:
Allez les Bleues
Over the last ten years, France has grown into one of the global superpowers of the women's game, currently sitting behind powerhouse Germany and the USA in the FIFA rankings. France's lack of major titles belies the high quality of their players, and Les Bleues are serious contenders to lift the trophy.
The stereotype of the French has long been that their squad is technically and tactically sophisticated, but lacks the all-American grit that's carried the USWNT through some of their best (or worst, depending on how you look at it) moments. And, well, that stereotype isn't wrong.
On one hand, some of the best players in the world right now are French: Lyon midfielder/forward Eugenie Le Sommer belongs on that list, as does the Thorns' own Amandine Henry. That eight members of the 23-woman squad called up for the Euro—all of them likely starters—play together in Lyon gives the team a cohesiveness that's a stark contrast with, oh, say, the USWNT.
Nevertheless, the French have a tendency to underperform in key moments. Their Achilles' heel has long been an inability to play to the end of big matches, and tellingly, when I talked with Amandine Henry last year, she said one of the main reasons she came to the US was to learn the mythical never-say-die attitude the American women are known for.
Then, earlier this year, in the SheBelieves Cup, Les Bleues did just that—after going down a goal against England in the first half, they equalized in the 80th minute, before putting away the game winner in stoppage time. They went on to thump the Americans and take home the comically-named trophy:
1/2 I told her stop smiling it was mean she said w.French accent "she believes" . Losses are inevitable. Failing is how you learn&grow.... pic.twitter.com/op6MDeWAiO— Allie Long (@ALLIE_LONG) March 9, 2017
We are red, we are white, we are Danish Dynamite
Of the three Scandinavian countries, Denmark has long been the also-ran in the women's game. Don't count them out, though: they've got a good chance of getting out of their group, and could go far if they're firing on all cylinders.
Nadim, who fled to Denmark from Afghanistan with her mother and sisters as a kid, only broke onto the national team at the old-for-Europe age of 21, thanks to the combined bureaucratic barrier formed by Danish citizenship laws and FIFA eligibility rules. As we all know, Nadim isn't just a prolific goal scorer, but a workhorse on both sides of the ball, and she's one of the key pieces of the Danish attack.
The other piece to watch is Pernille Harder, the 24-year-old Wolfsburg striker, who forms, with Nadim, an attacking duo as exciting as any on the international level right now. They're a threat anywhere in the attacking third, whether they're cutting opposing back lines to shreds with incisive short passes, or outrunning opponents on transition plays.
If you only watch one match in Denmark's group, make it the one against Norway (Monday, July 24, at 11:45). Norway have a similarly exciting young striker, 22-year-old Ada Hegerberg, who's been an absolute monster for Lyon the last few years, with multiple goals per appearance in two of the last three seasons.
When I talked to Nadim earlier this year, she noted that Denmark beat top-ten-ranked Sweden "while they were at their top, just after Olympic qualification." She sounded cautiously optimistic for her country's Euro run, saying, "Everyone needs to be at 100%. It's not one of those teams that four people aren't having a great game and we still win... Everyone needs to be there. I think we're hungry. I am."
Iceland is one of the smaller fish going into the tournament, but like Denmark, they stand a good chance of making it out of their group: Austria is one of the truly small fish, and Switzerland, especially without their star, Ramona Bachmann, should be beatable. The tiny island nation's now-legendary development program, which built the foundation for the Icelandic men's electrifying run in last summer's Euro, has boosted the women's game, too, and stelpurnar okkar have gone toe-to-toe against some of the best sides in Europe in the run-up to this tournament.
After a storybook run in the qualifying round—posting a first-place finish in their group, with seven wins, 34 goals, and one loss—Iceland took some hits to their starting lineup, thanks to several ACL tears, their top scorer, Harpa Þorsteinsdóttir, taking maternity leave, and, of course, Dagný Brynjarsdóttir's nagging injury and fitness issues. They've had to rebuild their squad in the last six months, and have gotten some good results, but did suffer a shutout loss against the Netherlands this spring.
Captain Sara Björk Gunnarsdóttir, who plays her club soccer at dominant German side VfL Wolfsburg, runs the midfield for Iceland, playing alternately as a holding mid or a #10. When Dagny is on the field, look for Gunnarsdóttir to link up with her in the attack, a pairing that's been successful in the past.
The game to watch here, of course, is against France (July 18 at 11:45). Expect Iceland to press hard and counterattack against the tactically sophisticated French. Depending on how she's deployed, we should also get to see Dagný facing off against Henry, a fun matchup for obvious reasons.
Oh, and if you want to get pumped up, either for Iceland, or the Euro, or just life in general, watch this promo by Iceland Air:
Watch it on: ESPN3 and ESPN app (all group, quarterfinal, and semifinal matches), ESPNU (final)
When: July 16-August 6 (full schedule)