2015 WC Group D

High stakes, high pressure: Wambach still delivers

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VANCOUVER, British Columbia – Turning back the clock paid dividends for the U.S. women’s national team on Tuesday.

Abby Wambach scored the game’s only goal to lift the United States past Nigeria, 1-0. The victory ensured the U.S. would win the group after already clinching a spot in the Round of 16 thanks to Cameroon’s victory over Switzerland earlier in the day.

[ KASSOUF: Three things learned in US’ win ]

Wambach was paired with Alex Morgan up top, a combination that produced historic numbers and led to an Olympic gold medal in 2012. On Tuesday, half of that pairing produced the goal that was needed in a pivotal game.

“The bigger the stakes I think shows the characters, the strong characters, the people who are willing to risk everything,” Wambach said.

That’s a spot-on description of Abby Wambach, by Abby Wambach. She has been the central character in this winning equation for over a decade, scoring a goal in the group stage of each of the last four World Cups. She’s tied for second in history with 14 World Cup goals. And even at 35 years old, she is still the focal point on this team of stars. She’s too clutch not to be.

“I just know Abby. I know big moments, she’ll deliver,” U.S. coach Jill Ellis said.

Wambach’s role has been scrutinized by pundits for months leading into her fourth World Cup. Her scoring against the world’s top teams has declined. She chose to sit out the National Women’s Soccer League season to train on her own ahead of the World Cup. Even her aerial game, as evidenced in the first three matches at this World Cup, isn’t what it used to be. She missed another open header on Tuesday minutes before her goal.

[ KASSOUF: Defense making the difference for US women at World Cup ]

But on Tuesday, Wambach was effective with her feet, scoring with her left foot and checking back deeper frequently in the first half to combine with her midfielders and create attacking opportunities.

“I thought she held the ball up well,” Ellis said. “We knew that we weren’t going to get in behind them, so it was important for us to play in front of their line and try to pull them a little bit, especially in the first half when they sat a little bit deeper. So I thought she held the ball up well for us.”

Morgan started her first World Cup match in eight appearances at this competition. Wambach and Morgan enjoyed a record-smashing year together in 2012, when Morgan joined Mia Hamm as the only player to register 20 goals and 20 assists in a year (Morgan had 28 goals and 21 assists that year). Wambach scored 27 goals and tallied eight assists in 2012.

“I think me and Abby play really well with each other,” Morgan said after Tuesday’s match. “I think we complement each other really well, so I was really happy to get the start with her. But we have so many threats off the bench that you pair any two forwards together and we’re going to do our best together.”

The Morgan-Wambach pairing has been the best duo over the past three years. On Tuesday, it only produced one goal, but it got the job done with an assist from another rock-solid defensive performance from Becky Sauerbrunn, Julie Johnston & Co.

[ FOLLOW: Complete Women’s World Cup coverage ]

Up a goal and a player late, Ellis turned to veterans Christie Rampone, who turns 40 this month, and Shannon Boxx, who turns 38 this month, to close out the game defensively.  Rampone slid in at left back. She said she was told to not let Nigeria’s speedy players get in behind, and to use her “experience and leadership to just end off that game.”

There’s a notion that this U.S. team will go as far as Wambach is able to take it. That’s overstating things, sure, and it would mean putting a lot of eggs in one basket of a player who can’t and won’t play 90 minutes in every match.

But there is some truth in that statement. Wambach is the team’s emotional leader. She wore the captain’s armband on Tuesday and she was buzzing from the moment she came out of the tunnel for pregame warm-up, sprinting ahead of her teammates, who jogged out to the field in front of a near-capacity crowd of 52,193 fans who were predominantly supporting the United States. Wambach had a black-out type of moment when she made that crowd erupt with her goal. (“I literally don’t know what happened after we scored that goal tonight,” she said.)

“She embodies a lot of the spirit of this team and our program,” Ellis said. “Her leadership is tremendous, her spirit is fantastic.

“When I met with her early (in the build-up to the World Cup) I said, ‘listen, I’ve not pre-determined your role. I said your role will be as big as you can deliver. That’s exactly what I said to her.”

Wambach spoke postgame about how much she thrived off pressure-packed, electric environments like the one that Vancouver produced on Tuesday. She and her teammates will face more of that now in the knockout stage (the U.S. women will learn their opponent – a third-place finisher from Group B, E or F – on Wednesday).

“Now it’s do or die,” Wambach said. “You’ve got to win to move on. That changes the way, not necessarily that we’ll play, but how the games will feel. Having the confidence going into those games is good.”

Confidence, desire and belief aren’t always enough against the world’s best teams, as the United States has learned in recent months with losses to France and Brazil. But those things, along with the rest of the pieces, could just be enough to win a seven-game tournament. That’s what matters right now.

Three things learned: The subtleties of the United States’ win over Nigeria

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VANCOUVER, British Columbia – Abby Wambach’s goal on Tuesday lifted the United States to a 1-0 win over Nigeria at BC Place, sending the U.S. through to the knockout stage as the first-place team in Group D.

Becky Sauerbrunn and Julie Johnston were once again the players of the match for the Americans, shutting down Nigeria’s attack and thwarting of any dangerous chances. Sauerbrunn has been the United States’ best player in the tournament, as I wrote after Friday’s scoreless draw with Sweden.

Defense has carried the U.S., which still found it hard to score more than a goal against an otherwise pretty leaky Nigeria defense (five goals conceded in two matches entering this match).

[ FOLLOW: Complete Women’s World Cup coverage ]

But defense remains a constant from the first two matches. These are three observations from the United States’ 1-0 win over Nigeria on Tuesday:

Morgan starts, has chances: Alex Morgan started her first World Cup match and started her first match since April 4 for the United States. She had two golden opportunities in the match but was denied by Nigeria goalkeeper Precious Dede twice early in the second half. Morgan should have finished the second opportunity, but ultimately, her 63 minutes on the field could pay dividends in the long run as Morgan works her way to full-match fitness. Morgan says she felt fast and fit.

“I feel really good here getting the start and getting the 65 minutes,” she said. “I think that was the perfect amount of time.”

Appreciating subtleties from Wambach, Rapinoe: In an interesting role reversal, Abby Wambach was exceptional with her feet on Tuesday but remained out of sync in the air, missing an open header on a corner kick minutes before her left-footed volley that proved to be the match-winner. Wambach’s hold-up play checking back underneath into the midfield was exceptional, and her flick-on passes thrice created opportunities for the U.S. in the first half. Megan Rapinoe also deserves credit for her ability to always find dangerous space and very artfully draw – and sell – fouls. It earns the United States set pieces, where the Americans will always be dangerous.

“I thought she held the ball up well,” U.S. coach Jill Ellis said.

Midfield shape still taking shape: Jill Ellis said the day before the match that her team can leave its midfielders “on an island” at times. Ellis’ goal coming into the match was to provide outlet options for Lauren Holiday and Carli Lloyd and to get those two central midfielders to stagger more and give the U.S. less of a flat shape and provide more depth in the middle of the park. There was progress there on Tuesday, progress which can be built upon heading into the Round of 16.

Wambach lifts US past Nigeria, into Round of 16 of Women’s World Cup

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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.

[ FOLLOW: Complete Women’s World Cup coverage ]

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.

Women’s World Cup — what we learned on Day 11

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Comparing men’s and women’s soccer is obviously an apples and oranges thing, but one of the biggest reasons I’m writing this is a guy named Roger Milla.

If you’re too young to remember a time when soccer games were nearly impossible to find on television, like ever, then congratulations. Because in 1990, at least in the United States, there was nothing. MLS was still six years away and piping in matches from Europe was the realm of satellite dishes that took up a good part of the roof at sports bars and still brought in fuzzy pictures when they worked.

The exception, kind of, was the World Cup, at least in 1990 when cable television picked up most of the matches because the United States had qualified for the first time in four decades. In the opening match, African underdog Cameroon upset Argentina 1-0 (they hacked Diego Maradona throughout and finished on nine men, but whatever), and the next day in school, my soccer friends couldn’t stop talking about Cameroon.

They ended up winning their group and beat Colombia by scoring twice in extra time. Both goals were scored by 38-year-old Roger Milla (the second a hilarious goalkeeping error by another legend, Rene Higuita). Obviously his goal-scoring made him special, but what really created his iconic status was his celebrations, dancing with the corner flag. He played with such joy, it was impossible not to root for him, especially as the massive underdog he was.

[MORE: Wambach goal lifts United States to win match, Group D]

I still wonder what might have happened had Cameroon been called for not one, but two penalties (including one in extra time) in the quarterfinal, leading to a 4-3 loss to Gary Lineker and England. Other than Senegal in 2002, African men’s soccer has not been to such heights in the quarter-century since. To this day, I still own a Cameroon jersey or two and try to root for the African teams at the World Cup.

On Tuesday, I saw a little bit of Roger Milla in Gabrielle Onguene, even if she was just a 1-year-old in 1990. Gaelle Enganamouit wasn’t even born yet and veteran Madeleine Ngono-Mani (Cameroon’s all-time leading scorer), who scored the game-winner against Switzerland, was just six.

But that joy of playing, ability to make opponents look silly, and not really giving much of a hoot about history looked awfully familiar. Like the 1990 men’s team, Cameroon’s place in the second round is far from a fluke. They crushed Ecuador, out-shot world champion Japan 20-4 before falling 2-1, and were completely dominant Tuesday in the second half against a Switzerland team that almost everyone had tipped for the quarterfinals and a date with the United States.

That place may now belong to Cameroon. Of course, getting by a disciplined China defense Saturday won’t be easy and the Indomitable Lionesses would be a massive underdog against the United States, if it came to it in the quarterfinal.

Regardless of how they do the rest of the way, Cameroon has not only set the stage for a bright future, but they have given us entertainment that we just don’t see often anymore, in the men’s or women’s game at this level.

Somewhere Roger Milla must have been watching. And showing off his iconic grin.

– Ray Curren

What else did we learn from Groups C and D Tuesday?

Is Sweden the sleeping giant? Sweden has not had a strong World Cup, and it could end after Wednesday’s matches.  If it doesn’t, they will play Germany in the Round of 16 in a match that will see the loser almost certainly miss the Olympics.  The question is, if Sweden get a second life, will they be more dangerous than ever? They are still undefeated, easily could have beaten the United States, and also could have let go when Australia took an early lead on Tuesday.  But they didn’t.  If they survive, look for them to give Germany everything they can handle.

– Dan Lauletta

Here there Ecuador:  Japan never really pushed the gas pedal at all, but still, Ecuador has to be proud of its performance, particularly goalkeeper Shirley Berruz, who had a few good stops to keep the score 1-0. Ecuador avoided the worst goal differential in World Cup history, which looked like a shoe-in before kickoff Tuesday. Ecuador surely has seen what Colombia has done and knows they aren’t necessarily that far behind them in South America, so with four years more experience and hopefully a little help from their federation, they’ll look to return in France.

– Curren

[MORE: Complete coverage of 2015 FIFA Women’s World Cup]

Nigeria turning a cornerOn paper this World Cup will look much like Nigeria’s others.  Two losses and a draw leaves the Super Falcons 3-14-2 in World Cup play with a single trip out of the group stage (1999, when they earned two of their three wins).  Their Olympic record is 1-8-0.  But a deeper look says this go-round was different.  Talented young players like Asisat Oshoala and Francisca Ordega made Nigeria dangerous at every turn, and to some extent they eschewed the physical tactics and tried to actually outplay their opponents.  Tuesday began on the back foot, but just when it looked like they would implode, the Nigerians got hold of the match and made the United States work until the final whistle, even carrying possession at times after they were reduced to 10.  The two takeaways for me from their World Cup are that they are not far from being actual contenders, and that with some more like last December at the draw they could have easily been quarter-finalists.

– Lauletta

Is Japan in trouble? The defending champs will enter the knockout stage with a perfect 9 points and, on paper at least, in much better shape than it was at this time four years ago in Germany. But they’ve only scored four goals – one against hapless Ecuador – and were outplayed for long stretches in both the Switzerland and Cameroon matches. The Japanese media has made an issue out of the fact that Japan is the second-oldest team in Canada (wonder who the oldest is?). With Kozue Ando out for the tournament, will they be able to win every game 1-0? They might get the Netherlands in the second round, and if they get past that, Brazil. Can they survive both of those? Of course, we didn’t think so four years ago, either, did we?

– Curren

Is it Australia time? Australia should be plenty pleased at finishing second in what many thought was the most difficult group at the World Cup.  They should be further pleased by outplaying the United States for an hour, dominating Nigeria, and playing a controlled match against a Sweden team that needed it more.  Next is a dicey match against Brazil, who will be waiting for them in Moncton, but Alen Stajcic’s side has to feel at this point that it can play with anyone in the world.

– Lauletta

Switzerland can sleep soundly:  Historically, three points and a plus-7 goal differential should be plenty for Switzerland to advance and while they walked off the pitch Tuesday in limbo, by the time Sweden were held, the Swiss were locked in. But at halftime Tuesday, they were looking at playing China with a real good shot at making the quarterfinals and a possible Olympic berth next summer. Now it looks like possibly host Canada.  They have shown the ability to play with the best in the world for short periods, but their confidence will not be high, and the massive crowd against them may be too much to overcome.

– Curren

WATCH LIVE: Women’s World Cup – Day 11

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The United States faces Nigeria on Tuesday evening in front of what is expected to be a packed house at BC Place.  A win will assure the top position in Group D.

[ RELATED: All the latest WWC news ]

That will rightly be where the focus of most American soccer fans will be for the day, but the final day of play in Group C as well as D features two very intriguing matches, both of which are likely to decide second place.

Group C – Ecuador (0-2-0) vs Japan (2-0-0)
Tuesday, 5 p.m. EDT
Winnipeg Stadium, Winnipeg
WATCH LIVE ON NBCDEPORTES.COM (also on NBC Universo)

Japan are already through and need only a draw to win the group.  That should not be a problem as Ecuador have been outscored 16-1 by two teams Japan already beat.  It would not be a surprise to see Japan struggle for motivation as it appeared Germany and Norway did on Monday but the final result figures to be routine.  And when it’s over Ecuador will be going home.

Group C – Switzerland (1-1-0) vs Cameroon (1-1-0)
Tuesday, 5 p.m. EDT
Commonwealth Stadium, Edmonton
WATCH LIVE ON NBCDEPORTES.COM

A pair of impressive debut sides will square off with either team guaranteed to go through if they win, and both guaranteed to go through if they draw.  Will the second point make it a dull affair or will both press for the three points?  No fewer than three players from these teams have hat tricks in the tournament.  Gaelle Enganamouit for Cameroon plus Fabienne Humm and Ramona Bachmann for Switzerland have all done it, all against Ecuador.  Despite both obliterating Ecuador, both sides can probably hang their hats more on keeping Japan close.  The winner—Switzerland gets through second with a draw—gets China in the Round of 16.  Both have to view that as a winnable match.

Group D – Nigeria (0-1-1) vs United States (1-0-1)
Tuesday, 8:00 p.m. EDT
BC Place, Vancouver, British Columbia
WATCH LIVE ON NBCDEPORTES.COM (also on NBC Universo)

The United States has not been great yet but here they are with a chance to win the group and secure a soft path to the semifinals.  They did not score against Sweden but in Nigeria they will find a defensively disorganized team that will be playing desperate to win.  The scoreless draw prompted Abby Wambach to suggest the team would be scoring more of the games were on grass which in turn led to the notion the team is looking for excuses.

Nigeria is not short on technical skill as they showed against Sweden but are also apt to get frustrated as they showed against Australia.  Ugo Njoku, a second half sub against Australia, will not be available as her three-game ban for elbowing Sam Kerr begins.

Group D – Australia (1-1-0) vs Sweden (0-0-2)
Tuesday, 8:00 p.m. EDT
Commonwealth Stadium, Edmonton
WATCH LIVE ON NBCDEPORTES.COM

A peach of a match that should be what this tournament should hope to replicate in a majority of its groups going forward.  If either team wins it means advancement while a loss will eliminate Sweden and a draw will put Australia through unless Nigeria beats the United States by exactly two goals, and even then the Matildas could advance.

Even though Australia lost to the United States, an argument can be made that they have looked best in this group, at least for 150 of the 180 minutes they have played.  Defensively they did a fine job neutralizing Nigeria’s speed.  Sweden has less pace than Nigeria so they will need a strong day in midfield.  And the much heralded Lotta Schelin has yet to be a factor for Sweden.

Other advancement scenarios:

— If Cameroon and Switzerland do not draw, that would mean at least two groups will have their third-place team finish on three points.  That will put all of the teams on four points through – Netherlands, United States, and Colombia.

— If Cameroon and Switzerland do draw, and Nigeria does not beat the United States at exactly two goals then the Netherlands are through.

— If Sweden win or draw, Thailand are eliminated barring the unlikely scenario that Cameroon, Switzerland, Australia, England, or France lose by enough goals to fall behind Thailand’s minus-7.