In multi-stage tournaments such as the Women’s World Cup, the operative strategy is pretty straightforward: survive and advance.
The United States women’s soccer team was able to do that by getting past what proved to be a pesky Nigerian team 1-0 Tuesday night.
More importantly, the victory gave the Americans the Group C top spot, so they will receive a more advantageous seeding in the upcoming Round of 16.
That in itself was no small feat. Nicknamed the “Group of Death” by the television commentators, it was anticipated that the group stage would be challenging for the U.S., and it was. But in the end, they did what they had to do.
The defense and goalkeeper Hope Solo have been rock-solid. That’s the primary reason the Americans are in good position, but the vaunted offense has yet to show itself effectively.
At the beginning of the Tuesday match, the team actually looked more like what fans are accustomed to seeing. A lot of pressure was brought to bear on the Nigerian end and it felt like the U.S. would break through at any minute.
But they didn’t. One outstanding combination goal was cancelled by a difficult but correct call, and the attacking energy waned as the first period wore on, as it inevitably does.
However, the timing of the one goal they did get was perfect, coming right before the break.
Megan Rapinoe’s corner kick went exactly where it needed to, the far side of the penalty box, where the always-dangerous veteran Abby Wambach waited.
The ball wasn’t high enough for one of Wambach’s patented headers though, and anything could have happened if she’d let it reach the ground, so she hit it with her leg instead of her foot – but the aim and speed looked just as sure.
This gave the Americans a much-needed lift and certainly changed the locker-room conversations of both teams, as well as their approaches to the second half.
The U.S. outshot the Nigerians on-frame 7-2, but their goalkeeper played quite well and helped keep her team in it.
The second period was pretty tense and the Americans didn’t score again, but they didn’t give anything away either.
The point was made in the post-match analysis that although the U.S. isn’t playing quite the way the team was expected to, the Americans are still good enough to win the World Cup if they can recognize what’s working and keep doing it.
That translates to an ultra-defensive, low-scoring persona which won’t especially please the thousands of rabid fans who’ve been following the team around Canada – but they won’t mind if the ultimate goal of winning the Cup is achieved.
The other bit of good news, if you choose to look at it this way, is that the U.S. team is capable of playing better than it has so far.
That gives everyone hope that the Americans can continue to improve and rise to the level of the competition they’ll face as this most grueling of tournaments moves forward.