The Wisconsin men and women’s cross country teams will take their national rankings to Columbus, Ohio, when they take part in the Big Ten Conference Championships Sunday.The men will be looking to capture their ninth straight Big Ten title. They finished 13th in the Blue Race at the Pre-NCAA Invitational and are currently ranked No. 6 in the country. Head coach Jerry Schumacher’s team is much younger this year than in the past, with eight freshmen on the roster. “They’re a talented group, and they’re learning a lot as we go, but there’s all these expectations, and I don’t want to say pressure put on them — we put the most pressure on ourselves,” Schumacher said. “But these expectations that have been going on for a few years now — we’re expecting to see them compete like [a top-ranked team], and they’re making mistakes every time we’re out trying to do our job.”Schumacher will run nine athletes Sunday, five of whom will be scored. Juniors Stuart Eagon and Matt Withrow will lead the way for the Badgers.“They’re definitely going to be our upfront runners,” Schumacher said. “They also have the most experience. … Those two young men, they should really provide the upfront power that we need on such a young team.”The Badgers will need the younger runners to step up as well and help Eagon and Withrow. Schumacher took some advice from another UW coach in dealing with the team’s youth.“I was talking with Coach (Bo) Ryan the other day and he was talking about his squad,” Schumacher said. “We were just kind of talking, and he said he needs some young guys to play like juniors and seniors. Well, we need some of our young distance runners to run like juniors and seniors.”Coming off its fourth-place finish at the NCAA tournament last season, the women’s team currently holds a No. 21 ranking after finishing ninth in the Pre-NCAA Invite. Head coach Jim Stintzi’s team might lack the experience of last year’s squad, which finished second at the Big Ten Championships, but he has seen continued improvement as the season has progressed.“We’re running not necessarily a young team but an inexperienced team, and that team has gotten progressively better each week,” Stintzi said. “And this weekend will really be the true test of whether we’re going to step into sort of a national-caliber team — (a) top 10, top-15 type team, or whether we’ve got some more work to do in the last couple weeks of the season.”Freshman Cassie Hintz and sophomore Hanna Grinaker have been the team’s most consistent runners throughout the season, but Stintzi said he would like to see more production from the more seasoned athletes on the team.“It’s tough to be led by freshmen and sophomores,” Stintzi said. “Last year, we had ‘A Havahla Haynes and Katrina Rundhaug, and they were sort of anchors for us. So, I think that’s one of the reasons we’re just not quite where we should be right now.”The meet for both teams will take place Sunday at Ohio State, with the men starting at 10:30 a.m. and the women following at 11 a.m.
Star player: MF Caroline Seger, at age 34, has played 193 times for her country and still is a fixture in midfield. On a team that has thrived by trying to suffocate top opponents, no one has more than 32 career goals, so the tempo still flows from Seger’s ability to control and distribute the ball and break up plays when necessary.Why them? Fans of the USWNT haven’t yet forgotten the team’s disappointing loss to Sweden in the quarterfinals of the 2016 Olympic Games. Sweden played a bunkered style under former coach Pia Sundhage — who had been in charge of the U.S. for Olympic triumphs in Beijing and London — and eventually won a penalty shootout.Now, as was the case in 2015, Sweden is in the U.S. group. That one also was no fun, finishing in a 0-0 draw. The Americans are going to want to get their revenge in the third game of pool play, but it’s possible/likely that losing the game wouldn’t put them in much worse position, relative to its knockout round draw, than winning it. That’s why Sweden ranks only eighth here, even though it’s the one team assured of facing the U.S. So, yeah, it’s France.MORE: Favorites, outsiders and underdogs in latest World Cup oddsIt doesn’t hurt to hear that from an expert, though.“I just think that team is so explosive. They’re so dangerous in the attack,” Fox Sports analyst Aly Wagner told Sporting News. “If we consider that the defense is perhaps the question mark of this U.S. side, that’s going to be a big, big test for them.”Wagner said France is “so entertaining to watch — how fast these girls are, explosive, athletic and then insanely deft touch, and soft touch and cohesiveness. It’s a beautiful thing to watch. And they’re very good defensively, so it’s going to be hard to break them down.”France won’t be the only team that might pose a threat to the U.S. plan to win it again, however. This is a ranking of the greatest threats to the USWNT:1. FranceWorld ranking: No. 4Best previous finish: Fourth, 2011Coach: Corinne DiacreStar player: D Wendie Renard, who stands 6-2, has won the UEFA Women’s Champions League four times with Lyon and was named to the all-star team at the 2015 World Cup. She has been the team captain for France since 2013.Why them? They are the most ominous challengers for the United States because they will be playing at home, and there is a very good chance they will be playing the U.S. before any of the other championship contenders get a shot. If the Americans win their group (as expected), France wins its group (as expected) and both get through round of 16 games, they would meet in a quarterfinal set for Parc Des Prince in Paris.The Lyon squad that has dominated the Champions League is dominated by French players, with six starters including midfielder Eugenie Le Sommer (74 career goals) and goalkeeper Sarah Bouhaddi. However, France has yet to excel at a major tournament. Their best finish at the Olympics is fourth, and they were eliminated in the quarterfinals of the 2017 European Championships.2. EnglandWorld ranking: No. 3Best previous finish: Third, 2015Coach: Phil NevilleStar player: F Ellen White was named England’s player of the year in 2018, the second time she earned that honor. White has 28 goals in 80 caps as part of a balanced attack that also can feature veteran Toni Mead and promising young forwards Nikita Parris and Beth Mead.Why them: Although his appointment initially was controversial, Neville’s work with the team since January 2018 has been successful. The team has played 19 matches, earning 11 victories and four draws, including the title at the 2019 SheBelieves Cup.Since their stunning 3-0 loss to the Netherlands in the semifinals of Euro 2017, the Lionesses have performed well in their major competitive matches. At the SheBelieves Cup in 2018, they reached the final and lost to the U.S., 1-0. They then won the event this year by dominating Japan in the title game. Their tough Group D draw puts them into pool play with Japan. Whichever of those teams emerges as the winner could impact a potential semifinal game for the U.S.3. GermanyWorld ranking: No. 2Best previous finish: Champion, 2003 and 2007Coach: Martina Voss-TecklenburgStar player: MF Dzsenifer Marozsan was runner-up for the Best FIFA Women’s Player award last year, when she helped drive Lyon to the second of three consecutive Champions League titles. Marozsan plays as an attacking midfielder or forward and owns 32 goals in 90 caps. She has been a part of teams that won the Olympic gold medal in 2016 and Euro 2013. She scored Germany’s first goal in a 2-1 Olympic final victory against Sweden.Why them: The only reason Germany doesn’t rank higher on this list is the fact its draw likely will place the team in the opposite bracket from the U.S. Their semifinal game in 2015 was a fantastic, taut game in which the Americas did not break through until they were awarded a penalty kick in the 69th minute; the U.S. eventually won, 2-0.One obstacle for Germany is the newness of its coach. Not long after the disappointment of Euro 2017 and another dud at the 2018 SheBelieves Cup, the federation chose to change coaches and had an interim handle the World Cup qualifying tournament. Voss-Tecklenburg is a former Germany national team player who had been coaching Switzerland.MORE: World Cup 2019: The evolution of Carli Lloyd4. JapanWorld ranking: 7Best previous finish: Champion, 2011Coach: Asako TakakuraStar player: Defender/midfielder Saki Kumagai never has been credited with a goal in 103 appearances for Japan — and yet she scored the biggest goal in the nation’s history. How can that be? Well, she took the decisive penalty kick in the shootout that decided the 2011 FIFA Women’s World Cup. Kumagai beat U.S. goalkeeper Hope Solo, and Japan won the world title for the first time. Kumagai has won four Champions League titles with Lyon and converted the decisive penalty in a 2016 title-game shootout.Why them: With the exception of a defense featuring three players who own more than 100 caps, Japan is fielding a relatively young and inexperienced squad and building toward the Olympic Games that will be contested in Tokyo next summer. But Japan has gotten some excellent results in recent matches, including a 2-2 draw with the U.S. in February at the SheBelieves Cup and another in a friendly against Germany.The Japan squad may be reloading, but this still is a program that made three major finals this decade, and four players were 2011 World Cup winners.5. The NetherlandsWorld ranking: 8Best previous finish: Round of 16, 2015Coach: Sarina WiegmanStar player: F Vivianne Miedema scored 20 goals in 17 league games for Arsenal in England’s Women’s Super League this past season, and nine in eight games as the team advanced to the FA WSL Cup final. She has scored 58 goals in 75 appearances for the Netherlands, including four at Euro 2017, when the Dutch scored their first major international championship.Why them? That’s a fair question, given this country has reached the World Cup only once before in its history. It’s a bit of a leap to expect this team to triumph over such competition in only its second trip to the World Cup.But the victory at the Euros was impressive enough to make it seem possible. They outscored their opponents by a composite 13-3, including 9-2 in the knockout rounds, and they qualified easily for this World Cup against a group that included Denmark, Switzerland and Norway.6. AustraliaWorld ranking: 6Best previous finish: Quarterfinals, 2007, 2011, 2015Coach: Ante MilicicStar player: F Sam Kerr is still only 26 but has scored more goals than anyone in the history of the NWSL — she has second-placed Christine Sinclair by 15 goals — and has accumulated 31 goals for the Matildas, with whom she first appeared at age 15.Why them? Twelve of the 23 players on the Australia roster compete in the NWSL, so they know the American team well and no longer are intimidated to face them. The Matildas defeated the U.S. for the first time at the 2017 Tournament of Nations (and went on to win the tournament over Japan and Brazil).The problem for Australia, much like Germany, is adjusting to a new coach at this stage. Against the wishes of Kerr and multiple other players, the Football Federation Australia fired previous coach Alen Stajcic in January and replaced him with Milicic.MORE: Remembering the 1999 World Cup team that changed the history of the sport7. CanadaWorld ranking: 5Best previous finish: Fourth in 2003Coach: Kenneth Heiner-MollerStar player: F Christine Sinclair is 35, which may not be the ideal age for the pivotal player on a team with championship ambitions, but she’s still performing at such a high level it makes no sense to move on from her. Sinclair has 181 goals in 281 appearances for Canada, including a dozen over the past two seasons.Why them? The U.S. has dominated Canada through their shared history, with 49 victories in 59 games — which is the reason Canada isn’t higher on this list. These two have played some phenomenal games in major competitions, including their epic showdown in the semifinals of the 2012 Olympics. But the U.S. won every time.Regardless, this is a polished team with excellent talent, including nine who play in the NWSL. It’s also a young team with much promise: Four players, including 18-year-old Texas Longhorns midfielder Julia Grosso, still are playing NCAA soccer.8. SwedenWorld ranking: 9Best previous finish: Second, 2003Coach: Peter Gerhardsson It might not require a soccer expert to identify the opponent that poses the greatest threat to the United States national team in its quest to become the first U.S. team to earn consecutive FIFA Women’s World Cup titles.The tournament is in France. The French team is really good. If both the U.S. and France perform well and finish first in their respective group-stage competitions, they could meet in a quarterfinal game.