USA women's soccer team
The U.S. women's national team sealed its progress to the World Cup knockout stages against Nigeria. Reuters

A 1-0 victory over Nigeria saw the United States women’s soccer team’s accomplish its first objective at the 2015 World Cup: to top what had been widely dubbed “the group of death.” While far from spectacular in racking up seven points from its three games, the U.S. can now expect a far smoother ride to the tournament’s latter stages than had it fell from first place.

Top spot means a Round-of-16 meeting with one of the third-place qualifiers next Monday in Edmonton. As things stand, ahead of Wednesday’s final group games, its opponent looks set to come from Group F and likely be determined by the result in England’s contest with Colombia.

In the unlikely event that France fails to beat Mexico, the U.S. could also take on the highly rated French. Should the U.S. progress, the quarterfinal picture is more straightforward, with the winner of China against Cameroon lying in wait.

But realistically for Jill Ellis’ squad, after emerging through a group that has allowed them to immediately get battle hardened, there should be little fear until at least the semifinals. And that will be a welcome relief with much work still to be done to mold the team into one that can deliver the USA its first World Cup triumph since 1999.

The exception to that is in defense. After showing some vulnerability in an opening 3-1 win over Australia, the back four of the U.S. has held up superbly well in registering shutouts against both Sweden and Nigeria. Julie Johnston has been a revelation, making an outstanding goal-saving contribution against Nigeria, while Becky Sauerbrunn has been a composed figure alongside her at the center of defense. And when the back line is breached, as it was against Australia, goalkeeper Hope Solo provides a formidable last line of defense.

Further forward, though, issues remain. Getting the balance right in the center of midfield was always going to be something of a dilemma, with Lauren Holiday and Carli Lloyd both naturally wanting to go forward. In the first two matches it was Holiday who dropped back to play the holder, but the fluidity was sorely lacking. Improvement was evident against Nigeria, when Holiday and Lloyd shared the responsibilities, although doubts remain about how that crucial area of the team will fare both on and off the ball against the top opposition they will encounter later in the World Cup.

The standout performer from a creative sense so far has undoubtedly been Megan Rapinoe. Elsewhere, though, Ellis is still searching for the right combinations. The other wide midfielder and the combination in attack has been changed in each game so far. Against Nigeria, winger Tobin Heath failed to stake a powerful case to remain in the lineup, while Christen Press and Sydney Leroux have also made only patchy impacts.

But the match with Nigeria did seemingly point the way forward up front. It was the first game since early March in which Abby Wambach and Alex Morgan started together in attack. Morgan had missed almost two months with a knee injury and made only short cameo appearances as a substitute in the team’s opening two World Cup matches. There were unsurprisingly clear signs of rustiness in the 25-year-old’s play when failing to take any of the chances that fell her way against Nigeria. Yet she also offered a far greater presence up front than her predecessors in the role, both in linking up play and making intelligent runs in behind the opposition defense. Much of the Yanks’ chances of lifting the trophy could depend on Morgan’s ability to get fully up to speed by the final stages.

It is clear much will continue to depend, too, on Wambach. Former U.S. and now Sweden coach Pia Sundhage has stated that Wambach would no longer be starting games if she remained in charge, but it is clear that the team still relies heavily on the 35-year-old. That is something of a concern given the doubts over how long Wambach can last in games playing at full throttle, while, despite her fine finish on Tuesday, she has lacked her decisive touch in front of goal for much of this World Cup.

Still, it would be foolish to write off the leading scorer in the history of international soccer. And, having done what was necessary to get through what was an unenviable group, it would be dangerous, too, to write off the USA’s chances of finding its rhythm and going all the way to lift the trophy in Vancouver on July 5.