US Women Defeat Nigeria 1-0, Advance to Round of 16
True to form, the United States weren't particularly convincing but did what it took to defeat Nigeria, 1-0, and win the supposed "Group of Death" outright for a first place seed in the round of 16.
Star striker Abby Wambach bagged an emphatic winner in the 45th minute by redirecting a corner kick with her left boot, and that's all it took, as the US suffocated the Nigerian attack, marked BBC Women's Footballer of the Year Asisat Oshoala out of the game, and gave their opponents no chance once Sarah Nnodim got sent off for a second yellow and left the Super Falcons down a player.
US Head Coach Jill Ellis did yet more tinkering with the starting lineup for this one, trying out Tobin Heath in midfield instead of fellow-experiment Morgan Brian. Wambach also returned from the substitutes bench to start once again, partnered up top with the recuperating Alex Morgan, herself making her first career World Cup start.
The early passages favored the Yanks, with Rapinoe delivering excellent service from the wings and getting space to create but without any US attacker finding the end of them. Nigeria keeper Precious Dede looked unsettled from the first whistle, and Rapinoe made no bones about making her uncomfortable, repeatedly testing her from distance but to no avail.
The first real chance of the game came in the 8th minute, when a Nigerian failure to clear from a set piece led to Wambach being put through on goal, only to cut it back to defender Julie Johnston, who cooly passed it uncontested into the back of the net. However, despite replays seeming to indicate otherwise, the offsides flag was raised for the first of many tight calls on the day to negate the goal.
Oshoala, for her part, did manage to conjure up a chance or two, such as in the 12th minute when she was unexpectedly unmarked from a cross and snapped off a quick shot from a standing position from the top of the box, only for Hope Solo to save easily. Again, in the 24th, she was put through via a beautifully-weighted through ball and had a step on Johnston, the only defender between her and Solo. Johnston, the least experienced player in the US set up, looked like a cool veteran as she lunged in front of the ensuing shot from behind Oshoala and blocked it wide. While the center-backs largely dealt with the danger, more than once Oshoala managed to isolate one of them when the other was dragged out of position.
In the 33rd minute, the Americans burst forward once again, this time down the left flank, winning a corner. The corner was played short to Rapinoe, whose cross was cut out by what appeared to be the arm of a Nigerian defender inside the penalty area, but the referee deemed it incidental and waived play on.
The breakthrough came in the 45th minute, as Wambach cushioned the delivery beautifully with her weaker left foot, well beyond the reach of Dede or any other Nigeria player, for badly needed momentum going into the half. The goal was Wambach's 14th World Cup goal, just one short of the all-time leader, Marta, from Brazil.
The second half opened with a bit more confidence from the Americans, who nearly bagged a sure clincher seconds after the whistle when Alex Morgan beat her mark to a through-ball and nearly flicked it over the keeper, only for Dede to snatch it out of the air from an awkward angle.
Oshoala responded with a nice bit of close control and a square pass that would've broken open a major opportunity if not for a decisive intervention from defender Ali Krieger in the 52nd minute. The Super Falcons got one last meaningful attempt on goal in the 55th minute, attempting to bury a thunderous rocket from a long-range set piece, but the effort fizzed just over the bar as Solo seemed to be tracking it well.
From there, the game devolved a bit as the passing got looser and the fouls did too. Wambach was flattened in the 59th minute from behind in what became a yellow-card challenge. Sydney Leroux, a native of Vancouver (the game's location), came on for Morgan as a sub and was promptly hacked down in the 69th minute as she was through on goal. The tackler, Nnodim, was sent off for her second yellow, and the Yanks never looked back.
As the result looked more and more certain, Ellis took off wide midfielder Rapinoe for defensive midfielder Shannon Boxx, giving the 37-year-old a sort of curtain call and trying to see out the result in the process.
Johnston soon thereafter made yet another athletic form-tackle in a situation not unlike the one in the 12th minute, with Oshoala having beaten her by a half step to get through on goal. From the ensuing corner, Johnston blocked an 18-yard-out effort from Francisca Ordega that briefly frightened the gathered pro-American crowd, but Solo appeared to have a beat on it behind her.
In the 80th minute, Ellis sent out another curtain call in the form of Christie Rampone on for Tobin Heath, making Rampone the oldest player in Women's World Cup history at 39 years, 11 months, and 21 days. She came in at left back, letting Meghan Klingenberg move higher up the pitch, but ultimately there was little tactical impact.
By the 83rd minute, it was clear that the US was playing for the whistle, and the final salvos got slower and slower until the game ended and first place in Group D was secure. The US now faces a 3rd-placed team from either group B, E, or F, which based on results looks to be Thailand, Colombia, Spain, Costa Rica, or South Korea, all of which would represent a very manageable draw.
- Alex Morgan needs quite a bit more time before she's back to peak form. She looks better than I would've imagined given the long injury lay-off, but she's still a step slow, and so much of her game is about timing, that I'd imagine we're yet to see the best of her.
- Julie Johnston and Becky Sauerbrunn are a fabulous pairing in central defense. They complement each other excellently, with the calm, conservative, veteran presence of Sauerbrunn evening out the youthful aggression of Johnston. As compatible as they seem, however, they've only played a handful of games together and there are still moments where they seem to be singing from different hymnals. My guess is they continue to get better and better together, but this pairing is more likely to look solid at the 2016 Olympics than it is in the elimination rounds later this month.
- Boxx and Rampone getting a trot-out was really, really nice. It was the only real no-consequence time this entire cup, and helps give back to two team leaders whose primary value nowadays is what they bring to the lockeroom, not the pitch. Both of these women command real respect on the US team, and help a less-experienced squad find its sea legs. It shows a small bit of Jill Ellis's ability to manage the personalities of the team, which is no small task.
- This team still doesn't look impressive in games where it is the clear favorite, but also looks like it can hang with the powerhouses. Some of that is tactical conservativism, some of that is the midfield still learning how to play its best. There was more movement in the midfield in this game than the dreadful Sweden outing, but Ellis seems to be testing out more combinations to get the right starting XI out there. She doesn't have any more time to get it right, however, since the elimination rounds are starting.
- One of those combinations she has to get right is up top, where the US has 5 excellent strikers but only 2 positions to play them. Morgan is the best player on the team when healthy, Wambach is a team leader who offers a style none of the rest can, but I still suspect that Leroux and Press are the deadliest pairing we can throw out there in current circumstances. Nigeria, a weaker opponent, didn't necessarily get our strongest side. We'll see what happens in the round of 16.
- I'll take this opportunity to issue a self-serving reminder that my four players to watch (selected only from those who had yet to make a World Cup appearance) were Christen Press, Julie Johnston, Meghan Klingenberg, and Morgan Brian. All of them have either met or exceeded expectations. That's why I think that our 2016 Olympic squad and 2019 World Cup team have a shot at being so good.