USA must account for Nigeria’s attack to book Round of 16 ticket

VANCOUVER, British Columbia —

There was never a question that Nigeria would hold up their end of the bargain in the Group of Death for this 2015 Women’s World Cup. The Lady Falcons feature Asisat Oshoala, a burgeoning superstar who, at 20 years of age, was just named the BBC Footballer of the Year and was the top scorer and best player in last year’s FIFA U-20 World Cup.

However, the U.S. must consider themselves lucky that they get to play Nigeria at B.C. Place (live, Tuesday, FOX, FOX Sports Go, 8 p.m. ET) in their third and final group play match. By now, the Lady Falcons have gone from being the daring, speedster darlings to just another group-round opponent that needs to be dealt with. And the U.S. now have two more game tapes to analyze the speed and one-on-one skills Nigeria bring to the pitch. That is definitely in the Americans’ favor, since being caught off-guard by Nigeria is the road to ruin for any of the Lady Falcons’ opponents.

Sweden wasn’t so lucky — which is why they must win or draw to advance. Pia Sundhage’s side drew Nigeria for the first game and were unprepared for the Nigerian women’s attack, led by superstar Oshoala and striker Ngozi Okobi. After leading 2-0, Sweden succumbed to a display of individual talent and speed from this pair who used great pace and fine passing to end it with a comeback 3-3 draw.

In the second game of group play, Australia had a much better idea how to handle Nigeria, which had some serious issues on set pieces and in their organization on the backline. Australia earned the 2-0 win with a great defensive effort from centerbacks Alanna Kennedy and Laura Alleway, who proved effective in dealing with Oshoala and Okobi. 

On Sunday, FIFA suspended and fined Nigeria defender Ugo Njoku three games for an elbow blow delivered to Australia forward Samantha Kerr’s face in the second group match. The No. 33-ranked team in the world will be without Njoku Tuesday, and the incident is said to have caused the Nigerian federation to severely warn its players against any further incident.

For the U.S., which sits on top of the group with four points ahead of Australia (three), Sweden (two) and Nigeria (one), a win against Nigeria puts them in first place and secures an easier knockout round path that would start in Edmonton. The alternative isn’t pretty. With a draw and an Australian win, or with a loss, the U.S. would be sent across Canada to Moncton to face Brazil.

But a win Tuesday is well attainable for the U.S., despite their own struggles to score. The U.S. won their opener against Australia, 3-1, but was stymied by a terrific defensive effort by Sweden. The Swedes hung back and stuffed their defensive zone, and the U.S. attack led by Christen Press and Sydney Leroux were unable to penetrate. Late-game substitutions by coach Jill Ellis, who brought on Abby Wambach, Amy Rodriguez and Alex Morgan, was too little, too late and the scoreless draw has left the U.S. strikers and attacking midfielders searching for answers.

The best news for the U.S. is that their backline, quarterbacked by Becky Sauerbrunn and Julie Johnston, has been stellar. This pair, as well as Ali Krieger and Meghan Klingenberg, should be more than prepared to know what Nigeria is going to do. And while the Nigerian attacking speed will be a challenge, especially on the flanks were Oshoala and her fellow strikers are dangerous in one-on-one matchups, the U.S. is in form to contain this pressure. As U.S. goalkeeper Hope Solo says, no one is better one-on-one than Sauerbrunn. The U.S. will count on Sauerbrunn’s continued excellence Tuesday.

Where the U.S. must do better is in the middle and up top. That should mean Abby Wambach will return to the starting lineup against Nigeria. The all-time leading scorer, who was held out as a starter for the U.S. in a World Cup for the first time since 2003, will be a major asset against one of Nigeria’s great weaknesses, defending corners and set pieces. If all goes Wambach’s way, this could be a game in which the 35-year-old veteran gets on track in this World Cup, artificial turf or not.

There’s also speculation that it might be time to let Alex Morgan get her first start this World Cup. The striker missed all U.S. Send-Fff series friendlies but has been a late sub in both games here in Canada. While Morgan is not likely match-fit to go 90 minutes, the U.S. needs to take a look at playing the best tandem on their team, which had been Wambach and Morgan.

Likewise, Ellis would be wise to start Tobin Heath in the midfield, to give the U.S. better control on the ball from the outset. If the U.S. can do a better job of controlling the tempo and the midfield, that will slow down Nigeria. So far, the talented tandem of Carli Lloyd and Lauren Holiday has continued to struggle to find the right chemistry, and it has shown in their positioning and passing. They might do well to have a better ball handler amongst them, especially if Ellis would let Megan Rapinoe or Christen Press move up top with Wambach and Morgan.

No doubt the U.S. women are very eager to assert themselves offensively. Wambach, especially, has expressed concern that the U.S. has been rattled by nerves and lack of scoring. Now’s the time to do something to eradicate that kind of mindset and while Nigeria has the makings of a very exciting and potent offense, the U.S. should be able to assert control in this match.

If they can’t, well, that will be very bad indicator of the road ahead. More than the U.S. wants to beat Nigeria, they want to avoid Moncton, and Brazil.