USWNT top Group of Death behind Wambach's winner over Nigeria
VANCOUVER, British Columbia
This was a no-brainer, in a lot of ways. Change the lineup and put on some veterans and let the game come to them. It’s what the U.S. needed. It’s what Abby Wambach needed — though it turned out that Wambach didn’t need to use her head. Instead, the world’s all-time leading soccer goal-scorer let her foot do the talking.
After much consternation about the lack of U.S. goalscoring in this 2015 Women’s World Cup, it was Wambach who leapt to greet a Megan Rapinoe corner kick cross and got enough air underneath to get her boot on the ball. It took a lot longer than Wambach would have liked — and not just because her goal came in the 45th minute to give the U.S. a 1-0 victory against Nigeria on Tuesday night. That goal was Wambach's 14th in a Women's World Cup which ties her for second all-time with Birgit Prinz, one behind Brazil's Marta.
''Getting that goal right before the half was big for us,'' Wambach said. ''Not taking too many injuries is also positive, and going out first in our group was absolutely what we set out to do.''
It was soccer’s all-time leading scorer’s first goal of this Women's World Cup, a long wait that created all kinds of angst and headaches for Wambach. After the scoreless draw against Sweden in the second game of group play, the scoring dry spell was so worrisome that it prompted Wambach to question the role that the turf was playing in this tournament.
It was no secret that Wambach and dozens of other national team players from around the world were angry about FIFA’s unwillingness to force Canada’s soccer officials to use grass at the Women's World Cup venues. Some called that an excuse, especially since Wambach admitted that she was not playing as carefree or laying out as fully as she would if the games were being played on grass.
But finally, Wambach is on the board and the U.S. has secured their way into the Round of 16. They will play Monday in Edmonton against the third place team from either Group E or Group F (live, FOX Sports 1, FOX Sports Go, 8 p.m. ET).
They might be in Canada, but this was a night for the Americans. They were on the field, desperate, almost, to prove they could seize control of this 2015 Women’s World Cup, and their red, white and blue-clad fans packed the B.C. Place stands. The attendance was 52,193.
Everyone seemed to get a lift from the lineup changes made by head coach Jill Ellis, who started Alex Morgan and Wambach up top and added Tobin Heath at outside midfield. And while the trio did not open the floodgates on scoring for the frustrated U.S. side, their presence and impact were immediately noticeable.
Morgan, in particular, added a dimension to the U.S. attack that was sorely lacking. With her speed and deliberate runs, Morgan ate up prime offensive lanes for the U.S. and she put herself in good position on several occasions to challenge Nigeria’s goalkeeper. Though Morgan failed to convert on her early shots, she proved to be the perfect running mate for Wambach. As long as Wambach defines the style of this U.S. offense, Morgan is the player to pair with her.
The Nigerians were as fast and furious as promised, and star striker Asisat Oshoala got at least one chance to show why she is one of the most dangerous players in the world. However, the U.S. controlled the pace of the game and that prompted the Nigerians to damage their own chances. They were yellow carded five times and, over the course of the match, saw their chances to score diminished. Sarah Nnodim earned a second yellow card and left the Super Falcons with just 10 players on the field.
The 1-0 U.S. lead and the woman-advantage allowed Ellis to bring on defensive stalwarts Shannon Boxx and Christie Rampone for late-game minutes. For both World Cup veterans, this was their first action in this 2015 campaign — and it showed the luxury of the deep U.S. bench. Rampone's appearance also put her in the history books as the oldest woman to appear in a Women's World Cup at 39 years, 11 months and 23 days.
If there was going to be any backlash by Canadians against U.S. striker Sydney Leroux, it was drowned out by the U.S. fans in the house. In the 66th minute, the British Columbia-born Leroux was subbed in for Morgan. Leroux said the animosity — or worse — that she used to get after she left Canada to play in the U.S. has diminished.
"The number of people who have come up to me while we're walking the streets of Vancouver, and even Canadian fans will just be like, 'Congratulations, we're proud of you. We're coming to the game, we're rooting for you guys.' It's been really cool. I really don't have anything bad to say," Leroux said.
Leroux made several runs and was clearly eager to operate in the generous space provided by Nigeria, but Leroux was pulled into a few tackles and was not able to win a call from the referees.
The U.S. certainly was looking to open up the scoring more. And they had several chances and will have to look and see how to convert more often. But, this result was an absolute necessity for the U.S., which finished first in Group D and avoided a long flight to Moncton and a match against Brazil.
There is still room for improvement, but no doubt they will try and build on this as a more positive game than their effort against Sweden. The U.S. attack had been shuffled all through the spring as Morgan nursed a bruised knee. The last time she played was with her NWSL club, the Portland Thorns, but the stabbing pain proved too much and U.S. Soccer decided to shut her down and nurse her back to health slowly.
''Overall it was a good result,'' midfielder Carli Lloyd said. ''We only put it away once, but I think we're getting a little better each game, and that's what matters.''
The desire to capitalize on Morgan and Wambach’s start was apparent. The U.S. like to run a set piece off the opening kick and the payoff was nearly immediate. Wambach collected a header and knocked the ball forward to Morgan who nearly got her foot on the ball as Nigeria goalkeeper Precious Dede bobbled the save. From the start, it looked like the bet to start Morgan and Wambach together would pay off.
The U.S. could not get the quick strike they hoped for, but they came close. Eight minutes in, Wambach headed a pass into Julie Johnston, who easily slotted the ball deep into the net for a goal, but it was called off as Johnston was flagged offside.
Nigeria’s great chance in the first half was a thrilling play that was thwarted only at the last seconds before scoring what looked a like a sure goal. Oshoala had a breakaway which took her deep into the U.S. end and only Johnston in pursuit. Oshoala had a step or two lead and was closing to launch a shot on goal, but Johnston got in a slide tackle at the last second and wound up knocking the ball out of Oshoala’s possession and colliding on the ground with Hope Solo. The backline was in for an evening of very rough duty.
''We created some good chances, but we didn't take the chances,'' Nigeria manager Edwin Okon said about his team's performance. ''It is a lesson.''
Information from The Associated Press was used in this report.