The Nigerians had no interest in letting this happen. So, here I am in beautiful downtown Vancouver, where the typical person on the street has no idea what's taking place practically in the middle of their city. Other than the fact that the busses are running REALLY slow, you wouldn't know there was anything exciting about to happen. That is, until you get near the stadium and see the overwhelmingly American crowd sporting face paint, american flags, team jerseys, stars and stripes, and every other piece of "We are USA" screaming clothing imaginable. American fans practically filled BC Place Stadium, leaving only a tiny section for the underrepresented Nigerian team.
The teams who showed up on the field bore little resemblance to the teams I've watched play twice already. The Nigerians were not pressuing the back line -- instead, they staged an enormous midfield defense. And the US, well, they started off looking a bit more like the US that I have been hoping to see -- they controlled the ball, they passed it around and retained possession, and they had forwards breaking through the Nigerian defense on a regular basis. It appears that the Wambach/Morgan combination up top was what we needed. Or perhaps, it was Tobin Heath on a wide wing? Whatever it was, it looked good.
The US almost got out to an early lead with a Julie Johnston shot that was ruled offsides, but not before the 52,000 fans in the stadium went wild. Oops. For the first 10-15 minutes, the US firmly controlled the game -- everything, where the ball was, how quickly it was moving, etc. But then, they seemed to take a nap for about 15 minutes and suddenly Nigeria was controlling the game, braeking through the midfield, and putting our stalwart back line to the test. There were a few too many exciting moments for my aging heart, but the US weathered the storm. Once again, the back line of Sauerbrun and Johnston in the middle with Klingenberg and Krieger on the wings was outstanding. And once again, I found myself asking, Where's Carli?" Holiday seemed to be playing more of a holding midfielder role and she was able to send the ball around quite a bit, but once again, Lloyd seemed absent.
By about minute 30 or 35, the US came out of its lull and started shutting Nigeria down and attacking a bit more. At moments, they were really a thing of beauty - we just needed more of said moments. Wambach and Morgan seemed to be more in sync than any of the other forward pairs we've tried (and by now we've tried many). And then, finally, in minute 45, just seconds before the half ended, it all came together in an all too familiar way -- there was Rapinoe taking the corner kick, connecting with Abby, who buried the ball in the goal. USA 1-0! It was just what we needed coming into half time.
The second half began with a break through run from Morgan, shut down only by a solid save from Nigeria's keeper, Dede. Nigeria became a bit more frantic. Some of the time this resulted in a threatening attack, calling our back line and Solo into action. But frequently, this resulted in some sloppy play, which ultimately led to three yellow cards, two of which went to Sarah Nnodim, which became a red card, leading to Nigeria playing one man down for the last twenty minutes.
And in that ironic twist of fate that always seems to happen in this situation, playing a man down, NIgeria attacked more effectively than ever. The US bolstered its defense with substitutions: Boxx came in for Heath and Rampone came in for Rapinoe. On one hand, they were both good strategic substitutions -- Rampone provided a break for Rapinoe and made us a bit more defensive minded. Boxx provided a better holding instinct in our midfield and freed Lloyd up on the wing. And yet, I had to worry about a US World Cup team trying to sit on a 1-0 lead to ride out the rest of the game. Nigeria wondered too -- they attacked and attacked and attacked, and we repelled and repelled and repelled.
Ultimately, the defense won the 1-0 game - validated by Julie Johnston being recognized as the player of the match. There was some beautiful play by the US; Wambach and Morgan looked good up top, but the next four games are going to tell the tale, and the US, particularly the central midfield, is going to have to step up.
Next up, Edmonton on the 22nd.