Preview: USA faces Nigeria in Final Group of Death Match

By MC Bousquette
USWNT Beat Writer

On Tuesday night, the USA has its final shot to win the Group of Death.

The struggling US side needs this chance to regain confidence and rebut the murmurs that they aren’t capable of winning this World Cup. The group stage opener against Australia was a weak outing for the US, with defensive solidity the only demonstrable improvement in the following draw against Sweden.

Tomorrow night rounds out group play for the US, and can be described only as a make-or-break moment.

The Competition

Taking down Nigeria will not be a walk in the park for the US. They surprised Sweden by returning from a 2-0 first half deficit, ultimately concluding the match in a 3-3 tie. Nigeria’s offense is a force, with Ngozi Okobi leading the way; she scored one of the three goals against Sweden, and was a key playmaker in the other two. Desire Oparanozie and Francisca Ordega round out the powerfully fast Nigerian attack, capable of dangerous individual and coordinated efforts on goal.

In contrast to the relentless offense, the Nigerian defense leaves much to be desired. Specifically, Nigerian keeper Precious Dede is apt to making mistakes, from misjudged dives to poor clearances. This gaping hole in the Nigerian lineup could be their downfall against the United States. In addition to Dede’s weaknesses, the defense suffered a self-described embarrassment as defender Ugo Njoku was fined and suspended for three matches in response to Njoku’s malicious and nearly jaw-breaking attack on Australia’s Samantha Kerr. It’s unclear what impact this will have on the defense’s morale, but watch for either extreme caution or overcompensating aggression against the US.

Projected Starting Lineup:

predicted us v nigeriaForwards: Abby Wambach and Christen Press. While Wambach has struggled in the first two matches of the tournament, Ellis will likely give her another shot up top to aggressively batter the relatively weak Nigerian defense. Ellis will turn to Press for first half creativity before she’s moved down to wing as Alex Morgan replaces her in the second half. Alternately, Ellis may start Morgan from the get-go, seeking to garner an early lead, breaking the US tradition of a second-half surge.

Regardless of Ellis’ choices, the US’ lack of offensive success is now openly acknowledged, even dropping in the Fox Sports’ Women’s World Cup power rankings. They must prove themselves against Nigeria.

Midfield: Megan Rapinoe, Carli Lloyd, Lauren Holiday, and Morgan Brian.

The midfield is defensively weak in the center. The U.S. will have to aggressively push forward to compensate. Rapinoe will have more opportunities against a weaker Nigerian defense, so expect to see more of what she brought to the opener against Australia. Lloyd and Holiday will remain in the center, and will hopefully have a better showing than they have thus far in the competition. Lloyd has been out of her groove, with far fewer on-target feeder balls and opportunities on goal than she had in earlier 2015 play.

Ellis has shown no signs of rearranging her formation from the 4-4-2 she so favors, or of switching out either Lloyd or Holiday for a different holding midfield option. Brian appears a viable option, moving up and down the wing efficiently against Sweden, though Lloyd and Holiday were unable to dish the ball out wide enough to fully utilize Brian. Given Ellis’ history, the only possible switch-up at midfield would be the insertion of Tobin Heath at wing in the second half.

Defense: Meghan Klingenberg, Julie Johnston, Becky Sauerbrunn, and Ali Krieger. The back line is the present pride of the US side; they saved the US from Sweden on Friday, looking much improved since their shaky start against Australia. Klingenberg and Sauerbrunn made absolutely key stops defensively, with Johnston and Krieger doing the same — while also performing upfield, creating opportunities and taking shots on goal. Their solidity is extremely important to holding the US together as it struggles offensively.

Goalkeeper: Hope Solo is still a lock to start. Despite continuing media attention, and even a letter from Senator Richard Blumenthal to US Soccer Federation President Sunil Gulati, Solo appears completely unfazed on and off the pitch. Look for another strong performance from the focused US stalwart.

The Bottom Line:

A victory over Nigeria would provide the US with a first-place group finish, allowing for an easier path through the knockout rounds. The USWNT offense is struggling tremendously, and need to seize this final group play opportunity to find the solution to their evident struggles.

Long story short, the US cannot afford a draw, much less a loss, to Nigeria.

The United States faces Nigeria on Tuesday, June 16th at 8pm (Fox, NBC Universo).