Most Women’s World Cup teams would be perfectly happy sitting in first place in their group, virtually assured of a spot in the Round of 16, but the U.S. women enter Tuesday night’s final group game against Nigeria feeling dissatisfied and under tremendous pressure to live up to their reputation.
Team USA sits atop Group D with four points after a 3-1 win over Australia and a 0-0 tie with Sweden. Though it has not lost a match, the U.S. attack has underperformed, especially at the forward position.
Star forward Alex Morgan is battling a bone bruise in her knee and has played limited minutes as a late-game substitute.
Abby Wambach, the team’s 35-year-old all-time scoring leader, has been in and out of the starting lineup and has failed to convert on her typically trusty headers. She did not start against Sweden, the first time she didn’t start a national team match since 2003.
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Christen Press moved up from midfield to forward to pair with Sydney Leroux, but the duo seemed to lack chemistry.
It is possible coach Jill Ellis, a Palmetto Bay resident, will seek a spark by starting Wambach and Morgan against Nigeria.
The most dangerous U.S. threat has been midfielder Megan Rapinoe, who scored two goals against Australia. But she was double- and triple-teamed against Sweden, and Nigeria might try to do the same in Tuesday’s game in Vancouver, though the Nigerian defense has been suspect.
Wambach told reporters the team was feeing “angst” and more pressure than four years ago, when the U.S. lost in the final to Japan.
“We’re more popular than we were four years ago, so people only got on board in the latter part of the [2011 World Cup],” she said.
“But now that more people are involved in the beginning part of the tournament they want to analyze and hyper-analyze and break things down, which, for me, I’m all about. I love the game, I love reading what everyone has to say. I don’t think that everybody’s right in everything they say, but the reality is, we’re talking about the game. We’re growing the game, and those are really good conversations to be had.”
Wambach has come under fire after suggesting the Americans’ scoring woes were partly caused by the artificial turf. She said the U.S. would have scored three more goals on grass, including at least one by her. Wambach was one of the players who led a campaign last year to have FIFA require the World Cup stadiums to have natural grass.
“On grass, I am way more carefree,’’ she said. “I throw my body. I’m not worried about anything. There’s no second-guessing. The ball as it comes off my head against Sweden hits a dry turf and bounces higher. If it hits grass, it’s harder for a goalkeeper to react.”
FOX analyst Alexi Lalas criticized Wambach for using the turf as an excuse.
“It’s completely weak and irritating, to be quite honest,” Lalas said. “To blame the turf for her not scoring goals is ridiculous. … If the United States does not win the World Cup, I hate to break it to you Abby, but it’s not going to be because of artificial surface.”
Rapinoe remains optimistic.
“After the [Sweden] game, we don’t like to lose, and sometimes when we tie we feel like it’s a loss,’’ she said on FOX.
“Looking back, by far, I think we have the toughest group. … Coming out of there with four points, we’re in the driver’s seat and looking forward to Nigeria.”
Nigeria rallied to tie Sweden 3-3 in the opener but looked less impressive in a 2-0 loss to Australia. Nigeria is led by Asisat Oshoala, a rising star and the MVP of the Under-20 World Cup.
USA vs. Nigeria
When/where: 8 p.m.; BC Place, Vancouver.
TV: FOX, NBC Universo.
Group D standings: USA 4 points, Australia 3, Sweden, 2, Nigeria 1. (Top two teams in each group advance to Round of 16, plus four best third-place teams among six groups.)