VANCOUVER, British Columbia -- Debate will no doubt continue to rage as to what Abby Wambach's role on the U.S. national team should be. But in the 1-0 victory over Nigeria, the U.S. forward showed she still has a big part to play in the Americans' quest for the Women's World Cup.
It was a match that secured the top spot in Group D, and with it a round of 16 matchup in Edmonton, Alberta, against one of the tournament's third-place teams. As far as the overall performance was concerned, it proved to be something of a mixed bag.
In the first half, there were certainly some aspects to like. It started with Wambach and Alex Morgan -- who was making her first start in over two months -- defending from the front and winning balls in the opposition half. The ball movement was faster and more precise. Lauren Holiday and Carli Lloyd swapped roles out of central midfield, adding a layer of unpredictability to the U.S. attack. Wambach's link play was superb.
But for all the early U.S. dominance, there were still some maddening aspects of the Americans' attack. A slew of set piece opportunities in the first half failed to yield much of anything, with many of them failing to force Nigeria goalkeeper Precious Dede into the kind of decisions that flummoxed her against Sweden. The final ball was still too often lacking and forced on many occasions.
So it was left once again to Wambach to provide the game-breaking play, as she latched onto Megan Rapinoe's corner kick just before halftime and volleyed home at the far post.
Good thing, because it turned out to be a day when the Americans' finishing touch eluded them otherwise. This was particularly true of Morgan. The chemistry between her and Wambach is evident. Her runs off the ball helped create space for others and served to stretch the Nigeria back line. But despite several terrific chances in her 66 minutes of work, Morgan couldn't find a way past Dede, who it should be said made some brave and at times acrobatic saves. The good news is that Morgan at least made it through 65 minutes. U.S. manager Jill Ellis can only hope the rust has completely shaken off.
The Americans also seemed to lose their way a bit in the second half, and then opted to close up shop despite Nigeria playing with 10 players after Sarah Nnodim's ejection for a second yellow card in the 69th minute. Ellis opted to bring on Shannon Boxx and Christie Rampone.
It seemed overly conservative, and seemed to spark Nigeria in some ways, though the desired result was achieved. Given the difficultly of the group, that holds some value. And all told, it leaves one with the feeling that the United States' best game is still in front of it. With more difficult opponents now lying in wait, it will need to be, and you can be sure that Wambach will be in the middle of things.
Player ratings: (0-10)
G Hope Solo, 6: Wasn't asked to do much but did come out aggressively on Asisat Oshoala's chance that Julie Johnston tackled away.
D Meghan Klingenberg, 7: Seemed content to stay home and defended well, though she did get away with one sloppy touch. Came out on top in her duels with Oshoala.
D Becky Sauerbrunn, 8: Her understated defending often goes unnoticed, and she was once again mistake-free. The timing on her tackles remains spot-on.
D Julie Johnston, 7: Narrowly offside on one negated goal. She got caught on the wrong side of Oshoala in the first half, but recovered well to get a tackle in. She was otherwise excellent and a threat on set pieces.
D Ali Krieger, 6: Defended capably but struggled a bit with her distribution. Did find the range a bit more in the second half with a pair of telling crosses.
M Megan Rapinoe, 5.5: Her play was kind of all over the place. It took her awhile to find the range on set pieces, but she eventually did. Inconsistent from the run of play, though she did get two good shots off.
M Lauren Holiday, 6: Looked sharper and showed more aggressiveness in the first half. Picked her spots well to swap with Lloyd and get forward. Cooled off as the match went on, but still an improvement.
M Carli Lloyd, 6: Played faster and more confidently than in her first two games. Was a defensive force in the middle as well with her heading. Wasn't as impactful in the second half, however.
M Tobin Heath, 5: Didn't make the most of her start. Kept in check on some one-on-one opportunities with defenders and struggled with the touch on her passes. That said, at least supplied an aggressive outlet on the opposite wing from Rapinoe.
F Alex Morgan, 5.5: Created her share of havoc with her defensive hustle and runs off the ball but showed some rust with her finishing.
F Abby Wambach, 8: An impressive performance, whether it was her defending from the front, her link play or her finishing. Just excellent.
F Sydney Leroux, 5.5: Won the foul that ended up in Nnodim getting sent off.
M Shannon Boxx, 5: Helped lock down the middle, though it seemed a very conservative sub.
D Christine Rampone, 5: Came in for a brief cameo at left back.