Vancouver, BC (SportsNetwork.com) – Abby Wambach scored on the stroke of halftime on Tuesday, leading the United States to a 1-0 victory over 10-player Nigeria and the top spot in Group D at BC Place.
Coming off a scoreless draw against former head coach Pia Sundhage and Sweden on Friday, the Americans had already booked their spot in the knockout phase of the tournament, but Jill Ellis’ side still had plenty to play for as winning the group made the path to a third World Cup title much easier.
After sticking with the same starting 11 in the first two group matches, Ellis made one big change on Tuesday, inserting Alex Morgan into the lineup to play alongside Wambach.
Morgan has been battling a bone bruise in her knee for quite a while, but Ellis felt confident enough in her striker’s health, after substitute appearances in the first two matches, to give her her first-ever World Cup start.
The Americans came out aggressive early, pushing the pace and looking for an early goal to settle things down, but Nigeria offered a significant challenge.
Megan Rapinoe had the first quality chance for the U.S. after 15 minutes when she had a go from about 20 yards out with pace, but Nigeria goalkeeper Precious Dede came up with an excellent save.
Nigeria put a scare into the Americans in the 23rd minute when Asisat Oshoala got in behind the U.S. defense and went in on goal alone, but defender Julie Johnston slowed Oshoala down just enough to allow U.S. goalkeeper Hope Solo to parry it wide of her near post.
Rapinoe had another go from about 24 yards out in the 33rd minute, but again Dede was able to parry it behind for a corner kick.
The Americans finally broke the deadlock in the 45th minute through Wambach, who netted her 183rd career goal in international play.
Wambach made some waves in the press earlier in the week, saying that playing on an artificial surface makes controlling the ball cleanly harder than it would if the games were played on natural grass.
Those words seem to have some credence as Wambach, normally an excellent header of the ball, has missed her share of chances through the first two games.
But on the Americans’ sixth corner kick of the first half on Tuesday, Wambach decided it better to use her feet as she got on the end of a Rapinoe service and volleyed it past Dede with an acrobatic finish to put the U.S. ahead at the intermission.
The United States continued to press in the second half and generated another quality chance just moments into the second period when Morgan got in behind the Nigeria defense, but Dede again came off her line to make a nice stop.
Nigeria went down to 10 players in the 69th minute when Sarah Nnodim was shown a second yellow card for a rash challenge on Johnston.
Playing with an extra player for the final 20 minutes, the Americans looked to close the match out, which they achieved efficiently as the back line was well organized and Solo had little to do all night to wrap up all three points.
The result gives the U.S. seven points from their three group games, an extra day of rest before the knockout round and a third-place opponent, which will come from Group B, E or F.
In Tuesday’s other Group D match, Sweden and Australia played to a 1-1 draw at Commonwealth Stadium in Edmonton.
Lisa De Vanna opened the scoring for Australia after just five minutes when she ran onto an excellent long ball and easily slotted it past Sweden goalkeeper Hedvig Lindahl.
But Sweden pulled level in the 15th minute when Sofia Jakobsson cut inside to her left foot and uncorked a dipping strike that left Australia goalkeeper Lydia Williams with little chance for a save.
With the result, Australia will move on to the knockout round, finishing second in the group with four points and will play the winner of Group E.