The 2023 Women's World Cup in Australia and New Zealand gets underway on July 20th with the task of continuing the evident growth in audience, reach and quality that the women's game has experienced in recent years, including the huge success of Euro 2022 in England.
United States remain the favourites to retain the trophy they won in France four years ago but there are other quality teams capable of offering them a credible challenge.
Throughout the tournament, we will have the opportunity to check out various young players who are doing great things with their clubs, players born in the new millennium who have enjoyed the fruits of what the older generation have fought so hard to achieve.
In this article, we will analyse five under-23 players on teams with a realistic chance of competing for the trophy, players capable of not only helping their countries in this World Cup but also in those to come.
Sophia Smith, United States, Striker
We kick off with the oldest player on the list: Sophia Smith.
It's a name we'll become very much accustomed to hearing over the course of the World Cup because the 23 year old will be a key player for the United States.
In the current NWSL season she has already scored nine times from 6.77 expected goals (xG, without penalties) in 13 matches with the Portland Thorns.
Smith is a strong penalty area presence, registering a lot of touches inside the 18-yard box. But she is also comfortable outside of it, working shooting positions on the edge of the area and finding the back of the net at a better than expected rate.
And she doesn't only provide goals: she also assists teammates and adds a lot of value with her ball-carrying.
At the World Cup, Smith will form a potent partnership with Alex Morgan in the United States' attack.
Salma Paralluelo, Spain, Forward
We head to the other side of the Atlantic to take a look at a young player on a Spain team who have suffered serious dressing room strife but still possess plenty of quality out on the pitch.
The Barcelona side who dominate the domestic game in Spain and consistently compete strongly at a European level provide some key players to the national team, and the next player on our list is one of them: Salma Paralluelo.
It isn't easy to stand out on a team like Barcelona with such a high-quality squad, less still at just 19 years old, but Salma is already an important player for las culés. After impressing at Villarreal, Barcelona had to move quickly to snap her up.
Last season, Salma ranked second amongst Barcelona players in terms of dribble volume, but was the player who added most value with her dribbles and carries according to our On-Ball Value (OBV) model.
Her contribution in the final third helped Barcelona to both domestic and European honours last season. She completed more passes inside the final third and the penalty area than any other player.
She also provided a finishing touch, with 11 goals from 7.48 xG in the league.
At national team level, she has become an important game-changing substitute for when Spain need an injection of youthful energy and talent to turn matches in their favour. She will not only have a key role at this World Cup, but surely, too, in future tournaments.
Lauren James, England, Winger
Next up we have a player on the reigning European champions. England played brilliantly to win last year's European Championship on home soil and are certainly one of the favourites for the World Cup.
Lauren James wasn't a part of that tournament, so doesn't yet know what it feels like to taste success with the national team, but the 21 year old will have a key role to play if the Lionesses are to challenge for glory in Australia and New Zealand.
If you haven't yet had the pleasure of watching Lauren play, this World Cup will provide the perfect opportunity. It is what she is able to do with the ball at her feet that makes her stand apart from other players.
Not only visually but in the data, too. Filtering to Women's Super League (WSL) right wingers with at least 600 minutes of playing time, she is the player with most deep progressions (passes, carries and dribbles to the final third) and also the one who has added most value with her dribbles and carries.
With important players like Beth Mead, Fran Kirby and Leah Williamson missing from the England squad, James might be just what the team are looking for to offer a different threat and change up the style of play a little.
What is certain is that the World Cup offers the perfect stage to acquaint the world with her delightful dribbling.
Charlotte Grant, Australia, Full-Back
We continue with a player from the host nation.
The Matildas come into the World Cup as one of the favourites, in part due to playing on home soil but also because of the strong performances they have put together this calendar year, including victories over Spain, Czech Republic and Jamaica in February, and an impressive triumph over England in April -- one that broke the Lionesses 30-match unbeaten streak.
In that match, Charlotte Grant scored the second goal that gave Australia some breathing room on the way to an ultimately comfortable victory.
Charlotte currently plays in the Swedish Damallsvenskan, and the 21-year-old has shown herself to be a versatile operator, capable of playing on either side of the defence. She began the season at Rosengard playing at right-back, only to switch to the left upon signing for Vittsjo.
Her first chance to show her quality at national team level came due to the serious knee injury suffered by Ellie Carpenter in the 2022 Champions League final, and even though Ellie is now back playing again, it is Charlotte who is the undisputed starter for the Matildas. It isn't hard to see why:
Grant is in the 90th percentile among all full-backs we have data for at StatsBomb in terms of ball recoveries and dribbles successfully defended -- first and second respectively amongst all Swedish Damallsvenskan full-backs with at least 900 minutes of playing time.
Her ball recovery abilities and strong one-on-one defending will be vital to Australia's chances of performing well. They are lucky enough to count on one of the world's best forwards in Sam Kerr, but the defence behind her will have to be strong if they are to go deep.
And if England and Australia face each other once more over the course of the next month, the duel between Grant and England's Lauren James will be one of the most fascinating of the entire tournament.
Lena Oberdorf, Germany, Defensive Midfielder
We wrap up the list with a European runner-up at both club and international level.
With the quality in the squad and their good mix of youth and experience, Germany are always among the favourites to win any tournament. They showed very well at Euro 2022, and many believe that if Alexandra Popp had been on the pitch for the final, the trophy would have been theirs.
At club level, the German side Wolfsburg reached the final of the 2022-23 Champions League, where they faced off against Barcelona. It was a vibrant final in which Wolfsburg shocked the favourites by leading at the interval, only to then be overcome in the second half.
Germany's World Cup squad features a strong base of nine players from that team, including the final one on our list, indispensable at Wolfsburg and making her presence felt in the national team: Lena Oberdorf.
With talent, energy and youth in abundance, the 21 year old has been a sensation at the base of the midfield this season.
On the defensive side, she presses a lot, regains possession and wins a good number of duels. She tends to start from left of centre depending on the formation, but she is active across the entire central midfield zone.
In the Frauen Bundesliga, among players with at least 600 minutes played, she is the central midfielder who makes most ball recoveries in the opposition half per 90. More than half of her ball recoveries are in opposition territory. And when we adjust the defensive numbers in line with the possession of each team, she is also records more tackles and interceptions per 90 than any other player in her position.
On the ball, we can see that she isn't a player who provides lots of opportunities to her teammates. She is, though, involved in build up play. Among all defensive midfielders in our database, she is in the 93rd percentile for xGBuildup, indicating that while she doesn't often provide the final pass, she still plays her part in her team's possessions that end in shots.
She is also in the 95th percentile for deep progressions, with eight per 90.
Oberdorf will provide Germany with great balance in midfield by contributing strongly on both sides of the ball, and will be vital to the country's hopes of winning their first World Cup since 2007.
Three More Young Players to Watch
As a little bonus, let's extend our view beyond the teams likely to compete for the trophy to highlight three more young players to watch at the 2023 Women's World Cup:
- Frida Maanum, Norway, Attacking Midfielder
- Melchie Dumornay, Haiti, Striker
- Racheal Kundananji, Zambia, Striker
We hope that Australia and New Zealand 2023 is a World Cup that breaks records, sees strong support and provides good quality out on the pitch -- one that inspires more young girls to play the game, and eventually appear on this kind of list.