No excuses, just relief for USWNT after vital win over Nigeria
Maybe Abby Wambach made a mistake saying that part of the reason why the U.S. is not scoring enough during this 2015 Women's World Cup is because the turf changes the bounce of the ball and it curtails her instincts to go all out.
After the U.S. secured the top spot in Group D on Tuesday night with a 1-0 win over Nigeria at B.C. Place, Wambach got a chance to revisit the issue. At least she could address the issue with some wind in her sails.
"That's the thing. We can sit all day and talk about it — you know me, I can talk a blue streak. But the reality is, it's not changing and I'm not making excuses,'' Wambach said.
"I think that's what maybe I got wrong the other day. Of course, I'm not going to get in a war with you guys. That's your job. It's awesome that we're talking about women's football. It's awesome that we're having some of these discussions. It's awesome that we're analyzing and hyper dissecting some of the things that we all say. For me, that means there's growth. Even if it's kind of hard on my PR guy, hey man, this is all good stuff. We're talking about women's football one way or the other,'' Wambach said.
The good news is that Wambach did score for the U.S. in front of a house full of American fans. Her 14th goal in World Cup competition was her first for this World Cup, and it lifted a ton of pressure off a U.S. team that seem pretty set on their narrative for this World Cup: Nothing is going to come easy.
"It's important that people understand scoring goals is not that easy, right? I'm not making any excuses. I need to finish chances that are handed to me. All of us on my team would agree, if given the chance we've got to take advantage of it. But, that being said, the turf does make the ball bounce differently and makes you think differently about the game. That's just the reality. Those are what my comments meant,'' she said.
Wambach earned the start alongside Alex Morgan — the first World Cup start of Morgan's career — and the tandem seemed to set the U.S. up for an energetic and solid response to a very fast transition team in Nigeria. It looked as if the U.S. were going to break the game open early, with the first eight minutes a demonstration of better ball control throughout the midfield and up top.
Unfortunately, the U.S. were flagged for a couple of offsides, one of them questionable on a would-be goal from Julie Johnston off a pass from Wambach. The desire to score and the personnel shifts to try and make that happen did not produce at quite the desired clip.
The U.S. had 18 chances on set pieces against a very good Nigerian team that has one serious Achilles heel: Defending set pieces. The conversion rate was not exactly a thing of beauty, but given the brutality of Group D in which the U.S. faced Australia, Sweden and Nigeria, it was not an issue the team wanted to dwell on. There was simply relief that the team avoided second place, which would have sent them to Moncton, against Brazil.
But for the U.S., maybe how many goals they score this World Cup must be a subject relegated to second place behind the real point of interest — that would be the dominating nature in which the U.S. defense is keeping this dream of a World Cup alive.
The player of the game against Nigeria wasn't Wambach, despite her score placing her into a tie with former German star Birgit Prinz for most goals in Women's World Cup history.
The player of the game was Johnston, who alongside Becky Sauerbrunn has already well established that this U.S. backline is one of the best in the business. Outside backs Meghan Klingenberg and Ali Krieger also had stellar performances and the role of the team's ability to defend is becoming the difference.
Maybe it's time to accept that as the rest of the world has made great strides upping the level of women's soccer, and given the U.S. reliance on athleticism and strength to try and muscle home goals, the attack has become second fiddle to the ability of the U.S. backline to keep the score sheet blank.
The late-game substitutions for the U.S. only bolstered that scenario. Of course, the U.S. sitting on a 1-0 lead and looking to simply win and get out of group play was reason enough to not tempt fate. The Nigerian counter is potent. However, once Nigeria were playing a man down, U.S. coach Jill Ellis opted to throw Shannon Boxx and Christie Rampone in to keep the game on lockdown.
You'd have to imagine this is exactly the reason why roster spots were given to these two veteran players. The U.S. have staked their claim and this World Cup on an offense that runs through Wambach in a women's soccer game where that is not exactly a sure bet for a slew of goals.
The U.S. have delivered 23 excellent athletes that are probably the most fit team in the tournament. A big part of the team's strategy heading into the knockout round is to pound the ball in for a goal or two, then send in subs that can target problem areas. This is not about scoring the prettiest goals in the world, or the most. It's simply about scoring just one more than the opponent and calling on the tenacious defense to save the day.
That Wambach is in the middle of this equation is a fact. It's the essential fact of this U.S. team, that was better with her up top Tuesday, especially paired with her favorite running mate, Morgan.
"Jokingly, I said when I took this job, if Abby's got one leg, she's going to make this roster,'' Ellis said after the relief of ending group play. "There's just so much about her that is this team; that she embodies a lot of this spirit of this team and this program.
"Her leadership is tremendous. Her spirit is fantastic. So when I met with her early, I told her I have not predetermined your role. Your role is going to be as big as you can deliver. That's exactly what I said to her. I just know Abby. I know big moments she'll deliver,'' Ellis said.