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Breakout stars: 12 young players to watch at the Women’s World Cup
The long-awaited tournament is here and with it the next generation of talent
As the showpiece tournament of women’s football kicks off this week, our latest guest column sees Yash Thakur pick out a dozen young players that are ready to light it up down under.
The summer of football — technically winter of football, at least down under — has arrived. Australia and New Zealand are ready to host the ninth edition of the FIFA Women’s World Cup, a tournament riding the high of its predecessors and expanding for the first time from 24 teams to 32.
The World Cup is a stage on which stories are told and legends are born. For the stars of tomorrow, the pantheon of legends awaits.
Germany’s Giulia Gwinn was named Best Young Player back in 2019. Here are a dozen players that have the potential to claim that accolade four years on…
🇦🇺 Kyra Cooney-Cross (2002)
Position: Central midfield
Club: Hammarby IF (SWE)
Kyra Cooney-Cross made her A-League (or ‘dub’, as it is known in Australia) debut at just 15 years old and hasn’t looked back. The Queensland-born midfielder, who started out as a forward, has become more well-rounded with every passing year. She moved to Swedish side Hammarby in 2022, where she’s continued to progress.
Currently an offensive 8, Cooney-Cross is versatile enough to play different roles in the midfield and can slot in as an option across the front line if need be. She’s capable of playing on either side of midfield three, thanks to her ambipedal nature.
The former Ballarat kid is blessed with impeccable vision and tidy footwork, allowing her to orchestrate from the middle of the park. The former Melbourne Victory star is a delight on the ball; she demands possession regularly and constantly escapes cover to offer an outlet. Her proclivity for high-risk, high-reward passes still gets her in trouble, however - her execution is a mixed bag and often results in a turnover.
While her short-to-medium passing to recycle possession is good, it’s her line-breaking via carrying and long-range distribution that makes her stand out. The 21-year-old loves to drive with the ball through the middle of the pitch over long distances, adding valuable progression.
Her press resistance to evade incoming challenges from all directions using her body as a shield and tidy touches to change direction adds value as a press breaker for her side. She can resist multiple challenges, buying contact and often a foul.
These traits make her take-on savvy as well; while not flashy she is able to manifest space with her 1v1 attacking duels. Her low center of gravity grants her better close control of the ball, allowing her to navigate congested spaces. Her sharp touches (she likes to chop the ball inside) and body feints are her bread and butter in 1v1 situations.
While she can deputize in a deeper midfield role, bringing her long-range passing to the limelight, she’s not best suited to such a position yet. She is still learning the trade of screening and often fails to track runners from midfield.
Her skillset is more valuable in the opposition half - and from dead ball situations. Her deliveries are excellent, targeting space with accuracy and struck with a great balance of lift, power and curl.
Her trademark? A very specific affinity for scoring Olimpicos (directly from a corner), which she did in the final minutes of extra time in a Championship final.
Cooney-Cross has the potential to go from being a local star to a global one at this World Cup.
🇿🇲 Racheal Kundananji (2000)
Club: Madrid CFF (ESP)
Quick, explosive and effective. Those three words encapsulate Racheal Kundananji.
Starring for Madrid CFF, the Zambian forward took Liga F by storm and was one of its best forwards during the 2022-23 season. She finished the domestic season as the second top goalscorer with 25 goals and three assists.
Kundananji can play on the left of a front three or as a part of the front two alongside a strike partner. Her versatility arises from the kind of movements the 23-year-old executes on the pitch; she can be seen ghosting into the channel between the CBs and FBs or bending her run to the outside of the defender and in-behind.
One of her biggest assets is her pace. The 23-year-old is rapid over long distances and explosive on her feet, allowing her to generate separation from her marker and making her effective in 1v1 attacking duels. She understands her strengths and often takes heavy touches into space to best her opponents in a foot race.
The right-footed forward is a transition demon that eats up space; her ball-carrying ability adds another string to this bow, as she provides penetration into the box with her carries.
She generated ~50% of her shots from her ball carries (55/112) in 2022/23 - no player in Liga F managed more and she converted 16 of those into goals. Her pacy nature and eye for picking out the right run allow her to create high-value chances on the counter. She also recorded the most key pass-ending carries (20) in the league.
Her positioning is excellent - not only does she provide depth by pinning the centre-backs but offers verticality as an outlet, too. The former Eibar forward is relentless with her runs in behind, always keeping the backline in check and further creating space for operators between the lines. She excels at delaying contact with the ball - buying contact from the marker before turning on the afterburners to get in behind the backline makes her a threatening presence.
While not the tallest player on the pitch, Kundananji is physically strong in her duels and is good at putting her body between the ball and the opposition.
Zambia are high on the vibe quotient (extremely electric attack and a very shaky defence) and Kundananji is an integral part of that.
🇺🇸 Sophia Smith (2000)
Position: Left winger
Club: Portland Thorns (USA)
Dribbly wingers are fun, but effective dribbly wingers are game-changers and Sophia Smith is arguably one of the most effective wingers in the world.
Voted as the NWSL’s MVP last season, Smith has gone strength to strength this season, scoring 10 and assisting five goals so far. Capable of playing across the front line, the Portland Thorns winger is an absolute menace on the ball. She is quick and skilled, capable of going on the inside or the outside of her marker equally well. Blessed with tidy footwork, it’s almost impossible to stop her once she starts running in full flow.
A phenomenal ball carrier, the former Stanford athlete adds value with every single touch. Her feel for the angle of her runs is amazing and makes her a threat from multiple directions. She is consistently progressing play to high-value zones after receiving possession away from goal.
Using American Soccer Analysis’ Goals Added model, we can see the value Smith adds with her dribbling and ball carries. Her 1.48 goals added via dribbling is second best in the league (only behind a certain Kerolin). Her cumulative goals added of 4.65 via all her actions is almost twice as much as the next best (Cecilia Kizer 2.42).
Her ability to drift out wide and ghost in space behind the fullback or go full-throttle between the center-backs is remarkable, making her a threatening presence at all times. Once she is in-behind, her decision-making is ace. She can initiate good one-twos in the final third and threaten in behind with inventive flick-ons.
She can cross well and generates space to do so with her pace and timing of the runs. Her ball striking is clean, allowing her to either finesse or power through her strike when in at goal. She is a voluminous shot-taker, always looking to get one-off after getting in behind the backline. These reflect in her numbers as well. Her 6.03 shots per 90 this season is more than anyone else in the league and as such she tops the chart for goals added via shooting (1.21), thanks to her sheer volume.
Smith can ruin defences with her electric nature and USWNT will rely on her exploits in the hunt for their fifth star.
🇨🇴 Linda Caicedo (2005)
Position: Left winger
Club: Real Madrid (ESP)
Not often do we see a player simultaneously featuring at the U17, the U20 and senior level of the national team. Linda Caicedo did just that this past year - and lead her side to the finals of the U17 World Cup and Copa America Femenina, winning the golden ball in the latter.
That she achieved all this at just 17 speaks volumes of her talent.
That talent was spotted by Real Madrid earlier this year, who picked up Caicedo when she turned 18. The Colombian starlet is a winger/ attacking midfielder with a maturity beyond her years in the final third and didn’t skip a beat transitioning to top-flight football.
Despite her normal wide starting position on the left flank, she has a tendency to operate in a free role floating inside and across the width of the pitch. She consistently pops up in the half-spaces between the opposition lines, turning playmaker and breaking lines from these positions. Her pass selection and weight on final balls is superb, allowing her influence to reflect on the scoresheet.
Her ball-carrying is arguably her biggest asset. She can drive with the ball for almost two-thirds of the pitch, despite not being the quickest over long distances. She has the first-step acceleration to grant her a window of separation, but her long-distance carries rely on her shifting between gears rather than raw pace.
At just 162 cm, she has a small frame but her low center of gravity allows her to have incredible balance on her carries. This further allows her hold-up play to shine. Her touches while carrying the ball are extremely measured, varying between delicate to heavy depending on the space available. She angles her foot on these touches in such a way as to shield the ball during the carries.
The Colombian has incredible close control and a feathery first touch, giving her an edge in tight areas, making her an able press-breaker and allowing her to operate from congested spaces.
She loves to initiate combinations in the final 40% of the pitch. Her feel for flick-ons, combination down the flank, quick one-twos or dummies is excellent and separates her from her peers. The technique on her shooting is great; she can wrap her foot around really well and generate just enough power to slot past the goalkeeper.
She exudes an aura of leadership too, having captained her youth sides and been decisive in crunch moments with Real Madrid already. She doesn’t shy away from the bright lights but thrives under them.
Colombia are returning to the World Cup after missing out last time and there is reason for optimism around the camp - not least of which is the presence of their 18-year-old prodigy.
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🇯🇵 Maika Hamano (2004)
Position: Central Midfielder
Club: Chelsea (ENG), on loan at Hammarby IF (SWE)
After picking up the Golden Ball and Silver Boot at the FIFA U-20 World Cup last year, Maika Hamano has seamlessly transitioned into senior football. Her international exploits were noticed across Europe and Chelsea were the first to react and secure her signature.
Out on loan at Hammarby, the young forward has been lighting up the stage, scoring seven goals in the Damallsvenskan this season so far. She even scored in the cup final, helping her side secure the trophy for the first time since 1995.
From a country of nimble-footed magicians, Hamano is a technician of the highest quality - but what sets her apart is an innate tactical understanding on the field. Primarily a right-footed supporting striker, Hamano excels at the link-up part of the game.
She can be spotted all across the field, drifting wide, dropping deep and between lines. This ability to disengage from the backline to become a blind spot for opponents is deliberate and purposeful; it allows her to manifest space for her trailing runs into the box following a lay-off to a teammate. Her affinity to consistently support play and bring numerical parity in different phases of the game is innately valuable.
Her wizardry on the ball is evident in tight spaces and on the touchlines, where her quick footedness and repertoire of skills allow her to release the ball when crowded with opponents. Her close-range passing is crisp and she has really good long balls in her arsenal, too: she can ping a ball over the top for runners from a deeper receiving position, allowing her side to switch the direction of play.
These passing qualities are helped by her amazing vision, allowing her to see non-existent passing lanes - the idea is always novel even if the execution is imperfect.
Her ball striking is so clean with either foot that she can shoot a ripper first time or on her trailing runs. Her awareness shines through inside the box as she is first to react to second balls.
This World Cup might be a little too early for a significant breakout, but the transferability of her skills into the senior setup has been proved and she undeniably will be a key figure in the future.
🇵🇹 Kika Nazareth (2002)
Position: Attacking midfielder
Club: SL Benfica (POR)
Francisca Nazareth, or ‘Kika’ as she is fondly called, is a beacon of light for Portugal. Heralded as one of the most talented youngsters in the country, the 20-year-old has been impressive for Benfica since her breakthrough at the age of 16.
She showcased her brilliance at this season’s UWCL, picking up three assists in the group stages. She was also a vital part of Portugal’s World Cup qualification campaign, making five direct goal contributions, the second highest in the squad, in just as many starts.
Kika is a right-footed midfielder who’s best deployed as an advanced 8 or 10. She is excellent at connecting the thirds with her passing and is often involved in the second phase of build-up or progression. Blessed with great first touch, the Benfica midfielder is capable of receiving in-between lines.
A spatially aware cadet, Kika often offers verticality via her positioning between lines and outside the cover shadows. She is fairly decent at receiving on the half turn and quickly facing goalwards.
“Portugal is a nation on the rise, and Kika is a talent worth your attention.”
A very good passer in all sorts of ranges, the Benfica midfielder has a wide variety in her locker: she can thread the needle while also being able to distribute and circulate possession. She has a feel for the tempo of the game and can set it with her passes, helping her side progress without losing control.
She isn’t explosive or quick over long distances, making her reliant on shoulder drops, body feints and nifty touches to generate separation. Instead of speed, she exhibits quick footwork with the ball glued to her feet in order to beat incoming challenges, which makes her valuable in tight spaces.
When in the final third, she has a knack of attacking the box and offering an option. While she does score goals, her performance as a finisher can still improve, which will only make her a more valuable attacking asset.
Her off-the-ball work when her side is in possession is good but there is scope to improve on her output in defensive phases; she tends to chase the ball and can improve on her angle of approach among other things.
Some players master a footballing move and are known for it. The 20-year-old Lisbon born rising star has one such move: behold the “Kika” Special!
Portugal is a nation on the rise, and Kika is a talent worth your attention.
🇩🇪 Jule Brand (2002)
Position: Left winger
Club: VfL Wolfsburg (GER)
Scoring and assisting inside five minutes of your international debut at just 18 will generate hype - and Jule Brand has lived up to that hype. The winner of the first-ever Golden Girl award by Tuttosport in 2022 - ahead of others on this list - is an electric talent and an important player for both club and country.
The 20-year-old is a left-footer capable of playing on either flank but most predominantly stays on the left. She is the perfect blend of explosive and technical ability; being left-footed and playing on the same side, she has a tendency to take a touch towards the inside of the pitch when receiving with back to goal and darting into the inside channel.
Her first step acceleration shines in these situations, where she races past her marker and into space. Standing at 176cm, Brand has a lanky but tall frame. Her long legs allow her to take heavy touches, thus baiting the opposition into a challenge and beating them while they are off-balance.
She is a creative powerhouse and her repertoire of skills boasts a lot of variety. She can play driven balls, cutbacks and crosses with equal proficiency, and likes to attack the box before dishing out delights for her teammates.
Due to her long legs, she is deceptively quick and that makes her an asset in pressing sequences. She can close down the opposition in a blink of an eye and doesn’t shy away from doing the unglamorous defensive duties, recovering possession high up the field. Despite her tall frame, her jump time and reach are not otherworldly and she isn’t much of an aerial threat.
Her left foot is magic and she can power the ball into the back of the net. Her balance allows her to let off a shot in stride - this, combined with her knack to make well-timed runs in-behind, adds to her goal threat.
While the 2021 winner of the Fritz Walter medal in the U19 category might have to compete for minutes (with Klara Buhl and Svenja Huth) at this World Cup, Brand could be the game changer, even off the bench, in Germany’s quest for a third star.
🇭🇹 Melchie Dumornay (2002)
Club: Olympique Lyonnais (FRA)
Another debutant nation and another extraordinary story: Haiti’s path to Australia/New Zealand featured late drama, the rise of a golden generation and a special talent shouldering a country’s dream.
That golden generation emerged in the 2018 U-20 FIFA WWC, becoming the first Haitian side - men’s or women’s - to participate in a FIFA World Cup, and the senior side is reaping the rewards five years later.
Nine players from that squad were involved in securing Haiti’s trip down under. The nation qualified for the World Cup after defeating Chile 2-1 in the Inter-Confederation Play-offs. Who scored both goals? 19-year-old Melchie Dumornay.
“Not a word of a lie, Melchie Dumornay is the best player that I’ve ever coached,” is a sentiment Amandine Miquel, Stade de Reims manager, wholeheartedly believes in. After noticing the player, then aged just 14, at the 2018 U-20 World Cup, Miquel was prompt in signing her with Reims in 2021.
The now-19-year-old is a right-footed striker with an affinity for shots and an eye for goal. She is quick off the foot and loves to play off the last line of defence while consistently positioning herself between the CBs. With a wide variety of finishes in her repertoire - 1v1 finishes, first-time finishes and long-range thunderbolts - it’s no surprise Dumornay managed to score 11 goals last season.
“Not a word of a lie, Melchie Dumornay is the best player that I’ve ever coached” – Amandine Miquel, Stade de Reims manager
She is great at accelerating play when she gets on the ball. Her first-step acceleration combined with tidy body feints allows her to ghost past defenders.
Dumornay is a stage or two ahead of her peers in terms of physical development. She has a feisty ruggedness about her and is really strong in her physical duels. She has managed to couple that with technical bits that help her be threatening from a multitude of scenarios. The 154cm-tall frame, however, puts her at a disadvantage aerially.
She can ride contact and often outmuscle her opponents in 1v1 situations and has the first-step quickness of an elite player. This allows her to retain the ball when challenged and generate separation for her next action. This trait has particularly allowed her to get shots off, create chances and progress play by carries when under pressure.
She recorded the third most shots in the French league this season (63). No player recorded more shot-ending carries (25) in the French league than the youngster, while her 12 chance-creating carries were the second most in the league.
The 19-year-old requires minimal backlift to get her shots off. Her ability to generate power on strikes is impressive and she is fairly composed in 1v1 situations. Her affinity to get shots off often sees her taking them from really acute angles, playing almost with tunnel vision to generate them. This leads to suboptimal decision-making at times and it’s an area she needs to improve on.
Her link-up play is decent - she can play the odd one-two or a quick ball in behind when necessary - but it’s not what she is famed for. While her actions might not look polished, she is largely effective with them. There is an air of relentlessness with her which helps keep the backlines in check and makes her a good presser without the ball.
In 2022 Dumornay was voted as the best teenage player by Goal and her performance with Reims last season earned her a move to European giants, Olympique Lyon. She will be key for Haiti’s dream run at the biggest stage.
🇩🇰 Kathrine Kühl (2003)
Position: Attacking midfield
Club: Arsenal (ENG)
At just 16, Kathrine Møller Kühl was touted as one of the best talents in Denmark - so the current Arsenal midfielder has been the talk of the town for a good few years now. Her exploits with FC Nordsjaelland - the 20-year-old was voted “Fighter of the Year” in 2020 following a cup win with her Danish side - earned her the transfer to Arsenal at the start of 2023.
The youngster is capable of playing as an interior or an advanced midfielder and shines with her creative zest and qualities on the ball. Her volume of actions increases as we move up the pitch, peaking in those half-space areas. She naturally gravitates towards the central zones away from the touchline, trying to create havoc.
She loves to get on the ball and offers for it in deeper areas, trying to impose herself on the game. Her spatial awareness and biomechanics when receiving are excellent. She scans often and is excellent at receiving on the half turn, angling her hips to shield it while also opening up her body to either turn towards the inside or outside by taking sharp turns.
Every touch upon reception is diligently executed. She’s “Kuhl” as a cucumber under pressure!
The Dane’s eye for the precise, line-breaking pass is impeccable. She is comfortable on either foot with the execution to match. She is very shifty on the ball and consistently creates a window of space and time for her passes. Her footwork in these situations allows her to beat opponents in 1v1 situations and her excellent disguised passes allow her to break lines and create opportunities.
While not a long-range orchestrator, Kuhl has an affinity to play intricate balls and has a feel for circulating possession. She largely keeps her passes on the ground and weighs them perfectly, keeping her short to medium passing crisp and purposeful.
She can accelerate play from the middle third and consistently provide support during attacking moments in the final third. Kuhl does contribute off the ball but lacks the endurance to press relentlessly.
Brian Sørensen, Pernille Harder’s coach at 15 and current Everton manager, has been quoted as comparing Kuhl to her legendary compatriot: “I have not met anyone who is as determined as Harder. But compared to the tools that Pernille had at that age and that Kathrine has now, I think Kathrine is better technically”.
Despite being just 20, Kuhl has amassed 26 international appearances to date and looks set to be a mainstay for Denmark in years to come.
🇪🇸 Salma Paralluelo (2003)
Club: FC Barcelona (ESP)
Tall, athletic and impactful - three words to perfectly describe the youngster from Barcelona.
Salma Paralluelo first made waves for her exploits on the running track, winning multiple medals and breaking records before emerging in football with Villarreal. Two years into her Villarreal career she scored a Puskas-nominated stunner against Spanish and European giants Barcelona - a goal so good the Catalonians bought her the next summer.
Football has been just as fruitful for the Zaragoza-born attacker as athletics was. She scored a hattrick on her international debut and won the Champions League with Barcelona at 19 - so far, everything she touches seems to turn to gold.
As a former sprinter, Paralluelo has a physical edge over her peers. She is tall and covers the ground brilliantly. The right-footed winger has an elite off-the-ball appetite, consistently offering a source of threat with her movements in the final third. She constantly identifies space and exploits it with well-timed movements. She can be consistently seen moving out of cover into spaces to receive and add verticality via her positioning.
“Even though she is not guaranteed a starting role, her unique set of qualities can prove decisive in a knockout format and will make the Barcelona starlet an impact player worth watching.”
Despite her 1.74 metre frame, she is incredibly agile and nifty with her footwork. The agility shines through in 1v1 duels, where she can quickly change direction and speeds, getting the better of her opponents. The tall frame gives her a slightly bigger reach and zone of control, allowing her to get to the ball before her opponents enabling executions of actions at a higher tempo.
Her athletic nature and tidy footwork translates well into ball carrying. Her direct nature on the ball makes her a consistent box threat. Paralluelo had the second most ball carries into the penalty area per 90 (3.12) in Liga F last season, underscoring this trait.
Her physical attributes and strong legs allow her to generate a lot of power in her shots without much backlift. This makes her capable of testing the goalkeeper from range. She is very effective in the final action on the pitch, equally adept at scoring and creating. No player averaged more non-penalty shots plus chances created per 90 than the Spaniard (7.02) in the league.
Even though she is not guaranteed a starting role, her unique set of qualities can prove decisive in a knockout format and will make the Barcelona starlet an impact player worth watching.
🇫🇷 Selma Bacha (2000)
Position: Left winger, left-back
Club: Olympique Lyonnais (FRA)
Selma Bacha has been on the scene for a while now. She broke into the Lyon side at just 16 and has established herself as a versatile left-wing option in the years since. The youngster joined Lyon at the age of eight and bleeds for the club.
The 22-year-old left footed winger/fullback/wingback is a bombing presence and creative powerhouse. She is constantly marauding up the pitch in order to provide width and support in the offensive phase. She has the pace enough to burn markers and infiltrate the space.
Bacha is an excellent crosser of the ball; her technique is on point and allows her to curl the ball right into the target’s path first-time with the perfect amount of lift. She can power through and ping the ball in behind for a more direct, attacking approach. These qualities further translate to her dead-ball ability, adding to her creativity.
Her passing has showcased a similar range. Her comfort with the ball makes her an able deputy to play the inverted role, offering parity and support in the middle of the park. From these areas, the youngster is able to pick out direct line-breaking passes.
The wand of a left foot comes hand in shooting situations as well. She is able to generate a lot of power from range on her shots and wrap her foot around to curl it past the keeper.
Her small frame belies her ability in duel situations. Her pace allows her to recover from precarious situations and her tenacity without the ball makes her a menace to deal with for the opposition attacker. She tracks the opponent really well, following their actions and the state of play to position herself in the right areas. She reads the play very well and is astute positionally.
One area of improvement is her slight overzealousness at times in duel situations. This could lead to her lunging into loose ball duels a little recklessly resulting in a game ending foul. The timing on some of her challenges can improve a little as well.
An excellent crosser in a team with 1.87 metre tall Wendie Renard leading the line has the potential to deliver goals at this tournament.
🇧🇷 Kerolin (1999)
Club: North Carolina Courage (USA)
Come for the flair. Stay for the tactical nous.
Kerolin, who currently plays in the NWSL, is from the next generation of Brazilian forwards. The 23-year-old offers a versatile option, capable of playing on either flank or through the middle, displaying similar levels of efficiency from every position. A very direct attacker, she is consistently looking to move the ball forwards.
A flair-y operator on the ball, Kerolin is a voluminous ball carrier. Her 18 ball carries per 90 is the best in the league. Her carries are varied in nature depending on where she is initiating them on the pitch. She likes to angle them in when on the flanks, coming inside towards the central corridor from where she likes to get in behind.
She has a bag of tricks on the ball, capable of using flicks, quick footwork and an excellent change of pace and direction in her dribbles.
Her explosive nature on the ball enables her to brush past her markers often. She has the highest goals added value via her dribbles in the NWSL this season, according to data from American Soccer Analysis. These qualities make her a menace to deal with in transition situations - she optimizes her touches in these scenarios and is incredibly effective with her decision making.
She might be seen in a new role for Brazil, deputizing in the midfield but her responsibilities would largely be the same. Her qualities in crowded areas make her a viable linebreaker from the middle as well although the angle of reception among other things change slightly.
Her off-ball intelligence enables her to interpret multiple roles on the pitch and still continue to deliver. This allows her to make the correct supporting run and thus get into good goalscoring positions herself or find a teammate in one.
As Brazil readies itself to bid farewell to some of the most iconic names in the game, the next generation are ready to take centerstage. Kerolin’s versatility could make her key among them for years to come.
Yash Thakur is a women’s football expert and an avid Real Madrid fan who has grown a large following on Twitter with his excellent work. His writing has also featured on Managing Madrid, Opta Analyst, and Analytics FC.
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