Abby Wambach scored her first goal of the competition by flying in at the back post to volley home a Megan Rapinoe corner kick in the final minute of the first half. The USA didn’t often threaten for a second goal, but a solid defensive effort fended off Nigeria’s efforts to stay alive in the competition.
Here are three takeaways from the USA’s second victory at the Women’s World Cup:
1. Abby takes different approach.
Deprived of goals so far in the Women’s World Cup by misfiring on her headers, Wambach scored a crucial goal with a different finishing touch.
As Rapinoe’s outswinger from the right corner sailed through the penalty area, Wambach angled her run at the back post and got off the ground far enough to meet the ball squarely with her left foot. The shot hit the net for her 14th World Cup goal, tied for second with retired German Birgit Prinz, behind only Marta of Brazil with 15.
Teamed up front with Alex Morgan, who got her first start at this World Cup after coming on a late sub in the first two games, Wambach gave the the Nigerian defenders a lot to deal with. Morgan’s rustiness and some miscommunication between her and Wambach defused a few attacking situations, and several times Wambach’s heading ability knocked balls into spaces with teammates looking for the ball to land in other spots.
After scoring three goals in the group opener against Australia, the Americans have just one goal in the past two games, and it came from a corner kick. Ellis used all five of her forwards against Sweden, but summoned only Sydney Leroux off the bench on Tuesday. A very close offside decision annulled a goal by Julie Johnston.
2. Kling is nails.
Concerns about the back line have been alleviated; a few shaky moments against Australia led to an improved performance against Sweden, and the admittedly weaker Nigerians brought speed and energy but not enough guile or cohesion to stretch the back line.
All praise is due to the central pairing of Julie Johnston and Becky Sauerbrunn, who
hadn’t played much together until this year and have more than compensated for the absence of longtime captain Christie Rampone, bothered by injuries earlier in the year.
Aside from one sharp save by keeper Hope Solo, Johnston pulled off the game’s outstanding defensive play. In the 25th minute, Asisat Oshoala angled toward goal from the right side, and Johnston neatly cut her off with a strong tackle that knocked the ball out for a corner kick.
At left back, Meghan Klingenberg has been tenacious and relentless. As an outside back, she’s often isolated against a tricky winger or overlapping defender. She had hung tough against talented opponents such as Sofia Jakobsson of Sweden, and though the Nigerians ran several different players at her they seldom found the time or space to cause any threat.
Like her counterpart at right back, Ali Krieger, Klingenberg did the dirty work of defending and tracking, yet also pushed forward at opportune times. Her work rate drew several rough tackles and fouls as the frustrated Nigerians floundered time and time again.
All four starting defenders emerged from the first round without incurring a yellow card and thus will be under no threat of suspension in the next game, other than that for a red card.
The roles of central mids Carli Lloyd and Lauren Holiday may be defined, but the sharing and shifting of defensive and offensive responsibilities isn’t always smooth. At times, Nigeria broke out and encountered little resistance in the middle of the park, but the retreating back line was able to break up the plays. Nigeria’s attempts to build through the middle ran ground, yet a few times after winning the ball Lloyd and Holiday were unable to keep it.
Ellis’ decision to start Tobin Heath at left mid made sense on paper, but she brought little to the attack and the difference between her movement and touches and those of Rapinoe was evident. Rapinoe took a couple of decent shots and shared the set plays with Holiday; her corner for Wambach’s goal easily cleared a clog of players around keeper Precious Dede and dropped into a vulnerable spot. Set plays won't diminish in importance as the Americans progress through the knockout rounds.