US finishes on top of Group D, takes out Nigeria on strength of Abby Wambach goal

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In many ways, the U.S. Women’s National Team won its game against Nigeria — thus clinching a spot atop Group D — before it had even begun.

As if the substantial talent disparity weren’t enough on its own, U.S. head coach Jill Ellis inserted the Americans’ two best scorers — Alex Morgan and Abby Wambach had both been used primarily as substitutions in the other two games while they tried to get back into game shape — into the starting lineup.

The infusion of offense into the lineup paid off early, as Wambach scored the match’s only goal in the 45th minute. Morgan looked like she was near her best as well, and she had a chance to score her first goal of the tournament in the 62nd minute before Nigeria goalie Precious Dede swooped in for a save.

Morgan’s return to the starting lineup clearly transformed the United States into a different team, as is expected when putting one of the world’s top playmakers and scorers into the lineup. This game was just another example of what the U.S. team misses when not able to play Morgan, who recently came back from a left-knee injury, for the entire match. Ellis had to pull a fatigued Morgan from the match in the 66th minute in favor of Sydney Leroux.

Around that point, it became clear that the 35-year-old Wambach also struggles to play the full 90 minutes, as she was clearly a step slow in the latter parts of the match because of fatigue. The U.S. offense went mostly dead again, as has been its state for more of the World Cup than previously expected, and the game ended in a score of 1-0. Unfortunately, the Americans weren’t able to put together the sort of offensive showing that would make the team look like the favorite to win the tournament.

Team USA did, however, improve upon its offensive showing against Sweden. For one, the Americans showed a better ability to convert set pieces, as Wambach’s goal came off a corner, after the United States failed to convert 10 such opportunities against the Swedes. The Americans managed to put seven shots on goal against Nigeria — a big improvement compared with the two they managed against Sweden. Although these improved numbers can partially be discounted as resulting from playing a weaker opponent, watching the United States showed a team that had clearly taken a step in the right direction.

The team needs no such improvement on the defensive end, where it looked nothing short of championship caliber for the second game in a row, after the Americans held high-powered Sweden scoreless Friday. There was never really a point in the Nigeria game where it looked like the United States was in danger of giving up a goal. The USWNT held the Nigerians to only two shots on goal, and both were turned into fairly simple saves by U.S. goalie Hope Solo.

Once again, the back four played perfectly in unison, and whenever a Nigerian player managed to get the ball in the attacking third, she’d immediately be swarmed by at least three U.S. players. With their impressive defense, along with their improved competence on offense, the Americans were easily able to keep ahead of a Nigerian squad that saw its high point of the World Cup when it drew Sweden in both teams’ first match of the tournament.

The Nigerians made the Americans’ job even easier when, in the 69th minute, defender Sarah Nnodim received her second yellow card and was ejected from the game. From then on, the United States played against only 10 players, and it showed, as the Americans easily held possession for a majority of the rest of the game. And with the final whistle came the end of a group stage that saw more questions arise about the USWNT than anyone would have imagined. One thing is for sure though: The United States is going to the next round.

Hooman Yazdanian is the sports editor. Contact him at [email protected]. Follow him on Twitter @hoomanyazdanian.