Phase one of the 2015 FIFA Women’s World Cup is complete for the United States Women’s National Team.
Powered by a goal from Abby Wambach, Team USA defeated Nigeria, 1-0, yesterday to win Group D and advance to the Round of 16. After two games of somewhat disjointed midfield play and lackluster overall performances, the U.S. put its foot on the gas pedal and ran right over the Super Eagles, despite the narrow scoreline.
From the very start of the match, Nigeria looked a bit like a crew of sailors just trying to keep the ship from going under. Starting in her first ever World Cup game, Alex Morgan methodically attacked Nigeria’s defense, running well and stretching the back four into uncomfortable positions. The rest of Team USA followed suit, and the Americans’ high defensive line and imposing offense pressed the Super Eagles into a just-staying-alive style of soccer.
The U.S. had a flurry of scoring chances and corner kicks in the first half, but near misses and frantic goaltending by Precious Dede kept the Americans from taking the lead. Nigeria fought back by trying to spring out of its half with counter attacks. In the 25thminute, U.S. center back Julie Johnston was forced to make a fantastic slide tackle to foil a breakaway in the box.
Despite the Americans’ dominance, the teams seemed poised to enter halftime knotted at 0-0. Then, in the 45th minute, Wambach struck.
Leaping through the air, Wambach connected with Megan Rapinoe’s corner and ninja kicked the ball into the back of the net to give the U.S. a 1-0 lead. Wambach sprinted along the goal line pointing at the fans and then her teammates, her relief evident in the giant smile stretched across her face. Wambach’s strike was her 14th career World Cup goal and tied her for second all time with Germany’s Birgit Prinz. Wambach needs just one more goal to tie Brazil’s Marta at the top of the list.
Team USA wasn’t able to increase its lead in the second half. But the Americans kept up the high-pressure offense and held sturdy on defense, nipping almost all of Nigeria’s attacks in the bud. As the game got chippy, the Americans remained cool while Nigerians piled up yellow cards and one red card.
The U.S. finished the match with a telling 14-7 shot advantage, and a number of positives:
1) Alex Morgan played 65 minutes of high energy, fearless soccer. It seems Morgan’s knee woes are, finally, in the past. Her instincts and passing were solid if a bit rusty, but once she gets that finishing touch back — she came tantalizingly close to scoring — opposing goalies are in a world of trouble.
2) The defense looked excellent. Sure, there were a few questionable passes throughout the game, but Johnston, Ali Kreiger, Becky Sauerbrunn, and Meghan Klingenberg are forming a heckuva back four and have two shutouts in three World Cup games. The backline’s transitional play — its ability to get forward, provide support, and join the attack — has been equally as impressive as its lockdown defending.
3) Megan Rapinoe is continuing to play video game soccer. She has an array of skill moves, she never runs out of sprint mode, she takes free kicks and corners, and she fires knuckling rocket shots from 25-yards out. Rapinoe may be one of the most fun soccer players to watch of all time.
Team USA escaped the so-called Group of Death unscathed. The Americans have to wait to find out who their opponent is, but they’ll play the third-place finisher from Group B, E, or F on June 22 at 8 p.m. ET. It’s win or go home in the knockout round — just like March Madness — so from here on out, Team USA has to be perfect.
Commence phase two.
Photos: Rich Lam/Getty Images