VANCOUVER, British Columbia – Abby Wambach delivered again.
Knowing a victory would guarantee the United States first place in Group D and a spot in the knockout round of the 2015 FIFA Women’s World Cup, Wambach scored on the stroke of halftime to lift the U.S. past Nigeria, 1-0 on Tuesday in front of a pro-U.S., near-capacity crowd of 52,193 at BC Place.
The U.S. (7 pts.) advances to play the third-place finisher from either Group B, E or F in Edmonton on Monday. Nigeria is eliminated following the loss. Australia (4 pts.) qualified for the knockout stage with a 1-1 draw against Sweden, who must now wait and see if 3 pts. will be enough to advance as one of the four third-place finishers.
Wambach’s goal sent the United States roaring into the break on the last kick of the half. She used her left foot to one-time volley Megan Rapinoe’s corner kick into the net at the back post.
“As a competitor, I just love this environment,” Wambach said. “I literally don’t know what happened after we scored that goal tonight. Literally, there was just so much excitement, adrenaline, that I can’t remember A, how I celebrated, B, where the ball came off of my body. I think it was my shin guard.”
U.S. coach Jill Ellis and her staff knew that corner kicks would be an area of weakness for Nigeria, a topic that came up in the scouting report the night prior.
“We knew that set pieces would maybe be an issue for Nigeria, so that presence, that danger has obviously paid off,” Ellis said.
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The goal was Wambach’s 14th all-time in the Women’s World Cup, tying Germany’s Birgit Prinz for second-most in history. Marta scored her 15th World Cup goal last week. Wambach has scored in all four Women’s World Cup group stages in which she has participated.
“I just know Abby. I know big moments, she’ll deliver,” Ellis said.
Alex Morgan started her first game in over two months and was twice spectacularly denied a goal by Nigeria goalkeeper Precious Dede in the second half. Three minutes after halftime, Rapinoe lofted a ball into the stride of Morgan, who chose to try to lob Nigeria goalkeeper Precious Dede. But Dede swatted the shot down to keep Nigeria within a goal. Dede also stuffed Morgan from inside the six-yard box in the 63rd minute, when Ali Krieger sent a teasing ball across the goalmouth.
Morgan hadn’t played since April 4 and hadn’t previously started a World Cup match, coming off the bench in all seven previous appearances. She missed almost two full months due to a bone bruise in her left knee, facing a race to get fit for the World Cup.
Ellis said before the World Cup that she would need to “build” Morgan’s minutes in the early stages of the World Cup. Morgan came off the bench in the late stages of the United States’ first two group-stage matches, playing 23 minutes total against Australia and Sweden.
Defender Julie Johnston looked to have put the United States ahead in the 8th minute when she tapped in Wambach’s knock-down header at the back post, but the offside flag was raised. Replays showed that Wambach was onside on the entry pass and Johnston was even with Wambach on the header.
But Johnston’s most important contribution of the half came on the other end of the field in the 24th minute, when she came from behind to block Asisat Oshoala’s shot from inside the 18-yard box, denying Oshoala a 1-v-1 opportunity with Solo.
Needing a win to have any chance of advancing, Nigeria’s task grew even harder in the 69th minute, when defender Sarah Nnodim was sent off for receiving a second yellow card.
Nigeria has qualified for all seven Women’s World Cups, but has only once gotten out of the group stage, in 1999.
The U.S. will have to wait until Wednesday to learn its opponent in the Round of 16. The Americans will play the third-place finisher from Group B, E or F. As it stands, the loser of the Colombia-England match on Wednesday in Group F could be their opponent, if France also beats Mexico on Wednesday in Group F.