Why the USWNT should keep a close eye on World Cup Group C

Vietnam's midfielder #07 Thi Tuyet Dung Nguyen fights for the ball with USA's forward #20 Trinity Rodman during the Australia and New Zealand 2023 Women's World Cup Group E football match between the United States and Vietnam at Eden Park in Auckland

The players aren't supposed to do it. Indeed, it's pretty much the cardinal sin of a World Cup participant to look ahead into the bracket of the knockout round and speculate on opponents down the road.

But the same rules don't apply to fans, writers, commentators or even the casually interested. Which means that while Alex Morgan, Sophia Smith, Lindsay Horan and company need to do the right thing and remain intently focused on the immediate matter of the United States' Group E clash with the Netherlands on Wednesday (coverage begins at 7 p.m. ET, with kickoff at 9 p.m. on FOX and the FOX Sports app), the rest of us can have a little fun and glance forward.

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Doing so would appear to bring rather good news, at least at first look. 

If the USA finishes at the top of its group, smooth sailing seems to appear on the horizon, and, no, we're not talking about the fact the Americans have to cross the Tasman Sea and journey from New Zealand to Australia for the round of 16, then back again.

First, the USWNT's opening game of the second round would bring a clash against the runner-up from Group G, currently predicted to be world No. 16 Italy. The highest-regarded team in that group is Sweden, the Olympic finalist, which struggled before squeezing by South Africa thanks to a late winner over the weekend.

Against either Italy or Sweden, or even more so if South Africa or Argentina rebounded to clinch the second spot from Group G, the USA would be overwhelmingly expected to advance.

It is at the quarterfinal point where the Americans figure to have caught a break. The bracket points the eyes toward a possible matchup with the winner of Group A, which is by far the weakest in the tournament, mostly on account of co-host New Zealand being granted a top seed — as is always the case with home nations.

After two rounds of Group A action, Switzerland surprisingly tops the table, the Philippines caused a shock by beating New Zealand, while former World Cup champion Norway is in all kinds of turmoil, having managed just one point, dropped two of its star players, and having ace striker Ada Hegerberg sustain an unexpected injury.

So far, so star-spangled, except that all this doesn't necessarily help the Americans, the reason being that the Group A winner, whoever it turns out to be, will be a massive underdog in its own round of 16 clash.

The reason for that is the strength of Group C. Spain and Japan are the standout teams in that group and on the early evidence, two of the very best in the entire tournament. Japan's 5-0 drubbing of Zambia was one of the performances of the competition so far, and the Nadeshiko were in similar mood in breezing by Costa Rica.

Spain had already beaten Costa Rica 3-0 and racked up another convincing victory on Wednesday, putting five unanswered goals past Zambia.

[USA needs to send a message to the world vs. Netherlands]

Spain's Alexia Putellas and Aitana Bonmati are arguably the top two players in the world, and certainly In most experts' top five.

Japan is less star-centric but no one who has followed women's soccer in recent times needs any reminding of the squad's ability. Winning the World Cup in 2011 was the obvious highlight, but Japan also secured a spot in the final of both the London 2012 Olympics and the 2015 World Cup, and is hitting form at just the right time.

Neither would be an easy foe for the Americans, assuming of course, it works out like that. World Cups are a reflection of the contrarian nature of sports, all the things we think we know are going to happen, so often don't.

Which is why we watch. And why the players play, not speculate.

Martin Rogers is a columnist for FOX Sports and the author of the FOX Sports Insider newsletter. Follow him on Twitter @MRogersFOX and subscribe to the daily newsletter.

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