New England Soccer Today

Taking Care of Business

Photo credit: Debby von Winckelmann

Photo credit: Debby von Winckelmann

It certainly wasn’t the most impressive win the U.S. Women’s National Team has ever staked, but nevertheless, their 1-0 victory over Nigeria in Tuesday’s Group D finale still allowed them to clinch the group. And that’s all that really mattered.

To their credit, the U.S. tried to go for the knockout punch in the first 30 seconds, with a designed kickoff play in which Abby Wambach headed the ball to Alex Morgan for a shot. Morgan was offside and wasn’t able to get to the ball before Precious Dede the Nigerian keeper could snap it up. This moment of brilliance – though a touch imprecise – is what the U.S. has been lacking with the Christen Press/Sydney Leroux combo up top during their first two Group stage matches.

The U.S. thought they went ahead early on a volley from Julie Johnston, but she was ruled offside. After reviewing the replay no fewer than eight times it’s still tough, but I agree with the decision. It kept the Americans hungry for more though.

In the first half, Nigeria displayed some aggressive behavior – not on the ball, but on the U.S. They picked up a pair of yellows before the half. The approach appeared to be clear: if you can’t beat them, do what you can to make it as difficult as possible for them.

Megan Rapinoe was one such player who appeared targeted for abuse, but that didn’t stop her from creating a few golden chances to cross the ball from dangerous positions right into the box. They didn’t amount to much, as the U.S. couldn’t get their heads to the ball. But every time Nigeria cleared, the U.S. picked the ball up quickly to put it back into the box.

The aggressive behavior continued in the second half as Nigeria picked up two more cautions. Sara Nnodim committed a very tough tackle on Leroux to pick up her second yellow, leaving Nigeria down to 10 women in the 69 th minute.

Rapinoe was once again spectacular. Her shots were powerful, and her crosses were for the most part on point and weighted well. As long as Rapinoe gets 70 or more touches a game, the U.S. will be in every game they play.

On her 45th minute corner kick, she placed a ball right into the danger zone: the back post right on the six yard box, an area where all keepers dread seeing the ball on following a corner kick. It’s just far enough out where they run into players trying to get to it yet, if they don’t come out, the ball will come too fast to save. Wambach got the ball next to the goal, and finished strongly with her foot. It was exactly what the U.S. needed right before the half.

It’s no secret that the U.S. hasn’t exactly lit up the scoreboard during the tournament. But it’s not for lack of trying, and we saw that on Tuesday, a game in which they put half of their 14 total shots on target. On the whole, they’ve missed that finishing touch that Wambach and Morgan bring, and with both getting closer to full fitness, the U.S.’s offense should start to improve.

On the other end of the pitch, the defense was solid, to say the least. Johnston, Ali Krieger, Becky Sauerbrunn, Meghan Klingenberg made some great tackles to deny the speedy Asisat Oshoala and Ngozi Okobi. With the exception of a few curious moments – Sauerbrunn came too far forward into the attack on a couple of occasions – the U.S. coach Jill Ellis had to have liked what she saw from her backline.

After it was all said and done, the U.S. only conceded one goal during the group stage. Clearly, the team’s defense going hasn’t been an issue. While the U.S. looks strong in the rear, the biggest question is whether Wambach and Morgan play a full 90. And, with the knockout stages on tap, the question also becomes whether they an go beyond 90. They’ll have nearly a full week to recover for their next game in Edmonton on Monday, when they will play the third-place finisher from either Group B, E or F.

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