The United States women’s soccer team has yet to catch fire in the 2015 Women’s World Cup, but it heads into its final group match with Nigeria with a place in the Round of 16 almost secured. After following up a 3-1 win over Australia with a scoreless tie against Sweden, the U.S. only needs to avoid a defeat by two or more goals to the African champions in order to seal progress.
That, though, is unlikely to be the full extent of the team’s ambitions approaching Tuesday’s clash in Vancouver. The U.S. currently tops Group D, with its four points giving it a one-point edge over Australia and two over Sweden, ahead of those teams going head-to-head in the group’s other remaining match. It means the U.S. requires a victory to be sure of topping what has been widely dubbed “the group of death,” an objective that is sure to provide plenty of motivation.
Anything less than that and the Americans could find themselves with a far tougher task in the first knockout round. Finishing second would mean a meeting with Group E winners Brazil, against whom the U.S. has enjoyed both elation and heartbreak in the last two Women’s World Cups. Finishing as one of the four best third-place teams, meanwhile, would see the U.S. likely take on either the team ranked No. 1 in the world, Germany, or tournament hosts Canada.
For a U.S. side still very much playing its way into the tournament, such complicated assignments so early on would be far from ideal. Much attention continues to focus on the struggles Jill Ellis and her coaching staff are enduring attempting to find the right balance up front. Against Sweden there was a change, with Morgan Brian coming into the team in place of 35-year-old Abby Wambach and Christen Press going up front alongside Sydney Leroux. Yet as those on the field, other than the again impressive Megan Rapinoe, failed to spark, the match ended with Wambach leading the attack alongside Alex Morgan.
Both could now be in contention to start against Nigeria. Morgan came into the competition needing to build fitness after two months out with a knee injury, but she may now be in line for a bigger role following two short substitute appearances.
In the case of Wambach, the contest with Sweden was the first time she hadn’t been in the starting lineup for a U.S. World Cup game since the team’s second match of the 2003 tournament. It has been a frustrating World Cup so far for the veteran striker, having failed to convert headed chances against both Australia and Sweden. However, Wambach, one of the most vocal critics of the decision to play the tournament on artificial turf, has blamed the surface for the scoring difficulties of both her and her team.
“I’m way more carefree [on grass],” she said. “I throw my body. I’m not worried about anything. There’s no second-guessing. I definitely think that the United States has more goals if we're playing on grass.”
Nigeria had little trouble offensively in its opening game, when the pace and ability of a young crop of forwards led by Asisat Oshoala helped the best-ranked African side peg back Sweden in a 3-3 draw. But it was tougher going in the team’s next match, as Nigeria crashed to a 2-0 defeat to Australia in Winnipeg. The result means that the Super Falcons go into the match with the U.S. realistically needing a victory to have a chance of making it to the knockout phase for the third time in its history. That aim has suffered a further setback, though, with defender Ugo Njoku handed a three-match suspension for elbowing Australia’s Samantha Kerr after coming on as a substitute on Friday.
Prediction: Nigeria strongly suggested against Sweden that it has the pace and verve to hurt the U.S. defensively, even though the Americans looked far stronger at the back against Sweden. Problems remain further forward, with the balance of the midfield and attack still lacking. But the U.S. should have enough, particularly from set-pieces, to see off what is still a young Nigeria team.
Predicted score: USA over Nigeria, 3-1.