VANCOUVER, British Columbia -- Alex Morgan starting a World Cup game, something the star forward had never before done, was big news for the United States ahead of Tuesday's World Cup Group D finale against Nigeria. But Abby Wambach doing what she has done so many times before proved the difference in a 1-0 win that secured first place in the group for the United States for the first time since the 2007 tournament.
There will be more from Vancouver, but here are three observations from the win.
1. Nothing against Moncton, but Edmonton never looked so good
We won't know for certain which team the United States will play in the first knockout round (in Edmonton, Alberta, on June 22) until the final two groups conclude Wednesday and it is determined which four third-place teams advance to the knockout phase. Among the scenarios is a game against the third-place team from Group F, which right now is, gulp, France but will almost certainly be either Colombia or England. But the uncertainty of what is ahead is less important right now than the certainty of what was avoided.
You know which teams the Americans won't play? Brazil or Germany, two possibilities had Tuesday's game gone poorly and left the United States in second or third place in the group. The team also gets to train in Vancouver on Wednesday and then make the short flight to Edmonton instead of a cross-country trek across four time zones to Moncton, New Brunswick, that would have offered one fewer day of rest before the next game. Rarely has the difference between first place and second place been more pronounced -- even when the Americans finished second in their group four years ago and opened the next round against Brazil, that was at least a quarterfinal with direct access to the semifinals.
And we do know that should the United States win its encounter against a third-place team TBD in Edmonton, it will move on to Ottawa, Ontario, to face the winner of a knockout-round game between China (No. 16 in FIFA's rankings) and Cameroon (No. 53). That's as good a route as the Americans could have hoped for.
2. The Alex and Abby show returned
The two loudest roars from the crowd of 52,193 when starting lineups were announced greeted Morgan and Wambach, That isn't exactly surprising. Those two arguably received the loudest ovations from a sold-out stadium in Winnipeg, Manitoba, before the game against Sweden -- and neither started in that game. These are the faces of the team.
And there is a reason for that.
While it's worth taking with a grain of salt against a Nigerian team that looked its best in the opening game of the tournament, when foes had the least comprehensive scouting reports on it ,and whose coach made clear the day before the match he had not and would not watch any film of the Americans ahead of the game, the United States looked the best it has offensively with Morgan and Wambach on the field together. That still led to only one goal and was at times still inefficient, but there was space and movement and connection that had been missing against Australia and Sweden. Morgan looked a bit rusty in her 65 minutes in her first start since April 4 and Wambach didn't always get service in the box against a shaky goalkeeper, but their presence alone seemed to steady the ship.
And, of course, when all that American possession still couldn't beat the offside trap or produce a goal, there was Wambach to score her 14th all-time World Cup goal, tying former German star Birgit Prinz for second behind Brazil's Marta. And by finishing with her feet, she didn't leave the turf any role to play in this one.
The United States closed up shop late, choosing to bring on defensive subs Shannon Boxx and Christie Rampone to protect a one-goal lead against a Nigerian side down to 10 players, a slightly disconcerting, if perhaps ultimately practical, concession against a weaker opponent. But for at least an hour, we saw maybe not a great attack but something that for the first time this tournament looked like the component parts of one.
3. Megan Rapinoe keeps showing up when it matters
When asked about Rapinoe on Monday, United States coach Jill Ellis joked, and not for the first time, that the midfielder is perhaps not the most passionate practice player on the American roster. Seated next to her coach, defender Ali Krieger grinned and nodded her head in agreement. But the coach went on to note, again not for the first time, that Rapinoe is blessed with the ability to perform on the biggest stage and in the biggest moments.
Guess who had a hand in all four goals the United States scored in group play?
Playing in front of essentially her people, the University of Portland product and Seattle Reign FC star now a Pacific Northwest icon, Rapinoe looked, frankly, out of sorts for stretches of the first half. Switched to right midfield to accommodate the insertion of Tobin Heath in the lineup, she delivered service that lacked her familiar precision. She over-clubbed an early cross, was lucky to earn a corner kick on a shot from distance that shouldn't have tested the Nigerian keeper, and was slow to react when Morgan chased down a ball in the corner and played the ball into space at the top of the 18-yard box.
But if all those practice minutes are superfluous, so, too, are all those extra minutes in games -- the ones in which she isn't doing something special to open up a defense.
Rapinoe not only delivered the cross that Wambach finished, with some help from a well-set screen by Heath, but did a lot of the work to earn the corner in the first place with a deft touch pass to right back Ali Krieger racing into the box. With Krieger marauding forward, the Nigerian defense had little choice but to concede the corner that Rapinoe then planted on Wambach's foot (she also set up Morgan's best chance of the day with a perfectly weighted pass from midfield in the second half).
The magician struck again.