(Tuesday, September 18, 2007) -- The United States accomplished its initial goal by winning Group B, the so-called "Group of Death" at the Women's World Cup. With a 1-0 victory over Nigeria, the Americans finished 2-0-1 and managed to avoid defending champion Germany, the world's second-ranked nation, in the quarterfinals.
Still, for the third straight match, the U.S. was decidedly underwhelming, but prevailed on Lori Chalupny's deflected, first-minute goal. The Americans will have to markedly step up their performance if they are to accomplish their goal of repeating the world title they won in 1991 and 1999.
The U.S. faces England Saturday in the quarterfinals in Tianjin, a 7:55 a.m. (ET) match that will be televised by ESPN2 with rebroadcasts during the day (check TV listings). While the Americans, No. 1 in world governing body FIFA's rankings, managed to avoid Germany in the next round, they will have to find a way to shut down England midfielder Kelly Smith, considered by many the best player in the world and tied for this tournament lead with four goals.
Sweden (1-1-1) did the U.S. a favor by defeating North Korea (1-1-1) in the other Group B match though the Koreans still went through because of better goal differential than Sweden, which was eliminated. Had North Korea won and scored more than one goal, it would have won the group.
Today's match was played at Shanghai's Hongkou Football Stadium in deplorable conditions. Typhoon Wipha is due to hit Shanghai tomorrow and is being called potentially the worst storm to menace that city in a decade. Driving rain has drenched Shanghai for the last 24 hours and sheets of rain pelted down throughout the game. The field, which was covered until match time, remained somewhat playable, but made ball control difficult.
U.S. coach Greg Ryan made two lineup changes from the team that beat Sweden 2-0 Tuesday. He inserted Shannon Boxx back as the holding midfielder in the 4-3-3 alignment after not starting her against Sweden and also returned Heather O'Reilly into the starting side at forward, hoping to take advantage of her speed.
The U.S. had a problem with slow starts in the first two tournament games. Ryan apparently addressed this failing and today the Americans came out aggressively from the opening whistle. The aggressiveness resulted in Chalupny scoring the game's only goal after only 53 seconds.
U.S. defender Catherine Whitehill took a throw-in deep in the attacking end and sent it to the six-yard box where striker Abby Wambach flicked a header on to Chalupny. The American midfielder toe-poked it toward the far right corner of the net, but the ball deflected off the inside of a Nigerian defender's leg and redirected into the lower, left corner.
That was the high point of the U.S. For the next 89-plus minutes, the game rarely moved out of the midfield. The U.S. did create a few solid chances, but shots went either high or wide. In one case, Chalupny forced a good save from veteran Nigeria keeper Precious Dede.
Nigeria, meanwhile, never seemed to get on track and did not threaten the U.S. goal until the last five minutes when U.S. goalkeeper Hope Solo was forced to make her only difficult save.
At times today, the U.S. formation seemed to make little sense. As happened first with the North Koreans and then the Swedes, the three American midfielders faced five opponents in the middle. On the one hand, the U.S. was never able to establish any kind of rhythm, while the forwards, especially Wambach, were forced to drop deep into the midfield to help out and to try to gain possession. This left no targets on top. Wambach, 35 yards from goal, is not very effective.
As has been the case throughout the tournament, the U.S. back-line played well. The driving rain undoubtedly negated much of Nigeria's speed advantage and the Americans were able to hold their opponents in check throughout the match.
For those who subscribe to the theory that the U.S. winning the difficult Group B is the best that could be expected, the fact that the Americans were never dominant in any of their three matches has to be a worry. If the U.S. gets by England, Brazil likely awaits in the semifinals. Should the matches go to form, Germany would be the opponent in the final.
To win these three matches and reach its goal, however, the U.S. will certainly have to play better.
U.S. player ratings
Goalkeeper Hope Solo - 6 : Not busy, but didn't let the rain bother her and made a crucial save near the end..
Defender Christie Rampone - 5.5: Was not put under much pressure and was able to control what came at her.
Defender Catherine Whitehill - 5.5: Had a good day, not only defending, but on set pieces.
Defender Kate Markgraf - 6: As always, a steady performance in the defensive middle. She cleared almost everything that came into the center of the box.
Defender Stephanie Lopez - 6: The young defender may be the most improved U.S. player. She did very well especially pushing forward and then getting back on defense.
Midfielder Lori Chalupny - 6.5: Had an exceptional match. Got herself in position to score the only U.S. goal. Was solid in the offensive end and did good work defensively.
Midfielder Shannon Boxx - 5: Did well defensively, but was not effective trying to link up with the forward line.
Midfielder Carli Lloyd - 5: Has yet to put in a really solid performance. Probably was more affected by the wet going then many of her teammates.
Forward Heather O'Reilly - 5.5: At times, used her speed to advantage. Spent more time in the midfield then on the attack. .
Forward Kristine Lilly - 5.5: Had a couple of good chances she could not convert. The wet conditions seemed to drain her and she came out near the end.
Forward Abby Wambach - 5.5: Spent a great deal of time either on the wings or deep in the midfield trying to dig balls out. Had several good chances, but could not connect. Near the end, foolishly tried to kill minutes deep in the corner and resultantly was dumped to the wet turf a number of times. Someone other than the Aamericans' top player should take those hits. Definitely an off-performance.
Midfielder Leslie Osborne (64th minute for Lloyd) - 5.5: Brought in for additional defense and helped protect the lead.
Defender Tina Ellertson (77th minute for Rampone) - 5.5: Playing against the country of her mother's birth, did well to help kill off the closing minutes using her speed and fresh legs to good advantage.
Forward Lindsay Tarpley (84th minute for Lilly) - 5.5: Her energy helped the U.S. escape Nigeria's frantic attempts to tie.
SoccerTimes Player of the Match: Lori Chalupny.
Robert Wagman is SoccerTimes senior correspondent.
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