The wait is finally over.
The month-long celebration of Christmas in June is finally upon us, as the Women's World Cup kicks off this week in France.
As with last year's men's tournament, I have been buzzing about this event for weeks, after four years of waiting since the United States women lifted the trophy at the end of the 2015 edition.
On a personal level, this year's tournament means more than any other before, as I've cultivated what I'll admit is an obsession with soccer ever since that 2015 Cup. That group of US women made me fall further in love with the sport than I ever had been -- despite playing and watching from an early age, along with many other little girls who grew up admiring Mia Hamm and the rest of "the '99ers."
In 2015, the United States' defensive line led the way for a team that captured the country's attention and hearts, and all of us watching the final on July 5 (a record TV audience for soccer in the US) were treated to an incredible display of individual talent when Carli Lloyd completed a historic 16-minute hat trick -- capped off by an iconic goal from mid-field.
It was hard to imagine that tournament ending any other way, at least from the perspective of US fans. But this year it's hard for me to pick a favorite, either in terms of which team I'll be rooting for the hardest or who I think is a lock to win it all.
The USWNT of course is near the top of the list in both respects. America has historically been the best women's soccer nation -- becoming the first to three World Cup titles with the last one -- but the 2019 squad isn't the same one that rose to the top in Canada. Many of the stars of that World Cup are now retired (Hope Solo, Abby Wambach, Heather O'Reilly, Lauren Holiday -- all US soccer legends) and plenty of the ones left over are near the end of their careers. The majority of the new blood on the team is untested in a major tournament, so it will be a challenge for the US to overcome its recent decline -- as small as that may be -- to retain the title of world champions.
My players to watch: Becky Sauerbrunn, Megan Rapinoe, Tobin Heath and Samantha Mewis.
One team hoping to take advantage of the USWNT's potential shortcomings will be France, the host team and, historically, the tournament's biggest underachievers. Each major tournament, Les Bleues are among the teams that could challenge for the gold, but appearances in finals have been scarce. But with the home crowds and the momentum of the men's team's World Cup championship last year, France could find itself with back-to-back gold medals on the sport's biggest stage.
My players to watch: Eugenie Le Sommer, Delphine Cascarino, Wendie Renard and Amandine Henry.
Another perennial favorite is Germany -- my personal favorite team in the year's tournament. Like the US, Germany has lost some of its biggest stars since 2015, but with a new coach getting the squad to peak at just the right time, it could be the year for them to get back to the top. And with the men's team flopping out in the group stage last year (after winning the previous Cup), the country would gladly welcome a respite from that embarrassment.
My players to watch: Dzsenifer Marozsan, Carolin Simon, Lea Schuller and Alexandra Popp
More than anything at this year's tournament, I'm looking forward to seeing the level of competition higher than ever before. France, Germany and the USA all have a shot at winning, but so do at least half a dozen other teams. Women's soccer (football) is on the rise across the globe, and it shows.
Australia, England, Spain and the Netherlands are all legitimate contenders, while teams like Japan, Canada and Sweden all have a shot if everything goes right. Like last year's men's tournament, I expect any result to be possible in each and every match.
My players to watch: Sam Kerr (Australia), Lucy Bronze (England), Alexia Putellas (Spain), Vivianne Miedema (Netherlands), Saki Kumagai (Japan), Kadeisha Buchanan (Canada) and Stina Blackstenius (Sweden). I would also be remiss to leave out Canada's Christine Sinclair, who is currently three goals away from tying the all time goal scoring record -- among men and women -- currently held by Wambach.
While the end result may be up in the air, this year's Women's World Cup is sure to provide millions of viewers with incredible drama and action, as some of the world's most talented athletes take the stage.
I know I'll be glued to my TV. I hope you'll join me.