While “winning is the only option” is a sports adage as old as time, that’s not actually the case for the U.S. Women’s National Team when it takes on Nigeria in the final match of the group stages at the 2015 World Cup on Tuesday. A draw would be enough to allow the USWNT to advance to the next round. Even a one-goal loss would likely do the job.
But it is that unwillingness to accept anything short of a win that separates the champions from the talented teams that merely advance to the knockout stages. The United States entered the tournament as a favorite to win it all, but its play so far has not inspired much confidence. Playing No. 5 Sweden to a draw is nice. Defeating No. 10 Australia by two goals despite a lackluster start is solid, maybe even impressive. But if Team USA wants to win the World Cup, it will need to do a lot more, and it will need to start doing so Tuesday.
The match against No. 33 Nigeria is one against lesser competition that the Americans should expect to win with some ease, as long as the they don’t get too complacent and lose focus. If the United States doesn’t lose focus, it will give the team a chance to regain its mojo.
For the most part, this will mean improved play on the offensive end of the pitch. It is an unexpected development that through two games, a team featuring such playmakers and goalscorers as Megan Rapinoe, Abby Wambach, Carli Lloyd and Sydney Leroux has managed to put up only three goals. The game against Nigeria will provide the United States with an opportunity to break out of this relative slump.
While the Americans have held the majority of possession in each of their first two games, they need to make better use of it against Nigeria to get back on track. This will mean making better use of set pieces, which the United States had so many of against Sweden. It will also mean seeing some more creative flair from the American players in order to create better opportunities for players such as Wambach.
A failure to do so against Nigeria wouldn’t necessarily result in a loss, as the U.S. team is still much more talented than the Nigerian squad. This talent disparity means the Americans can use this game to try out some new things that they can carry into the next round, potentially including a more attack-heavy approach to the game. This game will also be a big one for Cal alumna Alex Morgan, as the United States could look to take advantage of this game in two ways.
For one, U.S. head coach Jill Ellis could choose to rest Morgan in order to ensure she’s healthy for the tougher opponents that are to come in the next round. Or Ellis could give Morgan much more playing time than she has seen up until now. Playing against a slightly weaker opponent could help her regain her rhythm more easily. This match would likely provide her with her best shot in the tournament so far to score a goal.
Getting Morgan back on her game and playing is crucial for the USWNT: She is the team’s best offensive player and perhaps the one who can best help the offense get rolling again.
On defense, the Americans should be more confident about their game, as they were able to hold a high-powered Swedish squad scoreless Friday on the strength of Meghan Klingenberg’s heroics and spectacular all-around play from the defense — especially from Julie Johnston.
Given Team USA’s confidence about its defense, the Nigeria game is a big one for the Americans to remain focused, get their offense back on track and prove they deserve to keep their status as World Cup favorites.
Hooman Yazdanian is the sports editor. Contact him at [email protected].