It takes just one for U.S. to tri­umph

Wam­bach gets a first-half goal and team­mates make it stand up. They win group, head to knock­out stage.

Los Angeles Times - - SPORTS - By Kevin Bax­ter

VAN­COU­VER, Canada — When Jill El­lis took the job as head coach of the women’s na­tional soc­cer team 13 months ago, her first de­ci­sion was also her eas­i­est.

“If Abby’s got one leg she’s go­ing to make this ros­ter,” El­lis re­mem­bers think­ing. “There’s just so much about her. Her lead­er­ship is tremen­dous. Her spirit is fan­tas­tic. “I know [in] big mo­ments, she’ll de­liver.” Few mo­ments are big­ger than a must-win game in a World Cup. And just as El­lis had pre­dicted, Abby Wam­bach de­liv­ered in those cir­cum­stances Tues­day, scor­ing the only goal in a 1-0 win over Nige­ria that gave the U.S. the Group D ti­tle and sent it on to the knock­out

stage.

Mov­ing on to the sec­ond round of a women’s World Cup is noth­ing new for the U.S., which has made the semi­fi­nals of the pre­vi­ous six tour­na­ments. But it hasn’t won its group since 2007. And this year that prize car­ried an ex­tra bonus: a matchup next week with an as yet un­de­ter­mined third­place fin­isher from another group, mak­ing for an eas­ier trip through to the fi­nal.

“I’m ec­static,” El­lis said. “We’re re­ally ex­cited to be mov­ing on out of a tough, tough group.”

And it was Wam­bach who led the way.

Paired at for­ward with Alex Mor­gan, who made her first start in the tour­na­ment, Wam­bach was ac­tive from the open­ing whis­tle — maybe too ac­tive, given that she was ruled off­side on two of her team’s first three scor­ing chances. And for that you can blame the dream she had the night be­fore.

Wam­bach said she re­mem­bered dream­ing of red things, so when she awoke she went straight to the In­ter­net to find out what that meant. Turns out dream­ing of red is about ac­ti­va­tion, phys­i­cal­ity, pas­sion and in­ten­sity — all pretty good things to bring to a World Cup soc­cer game.

“I felt a lit­tle bit dif­fer­ent,” Wam­bach ad­mit­ted. “When­ever your back is against the wall, you can ask your­self cer­tain ques­tions. And for me, I al­ways want to leave my­self with no pos­si­ble room for re­gret.

“Yeah, cer­tain games I’m bet­ter than oth­ers. To­day was a big game.”

And it was one Wam­bach put her stamp on in the wan­ing mo­ments of the first half. The se­quence started with Me­gan Rapi­noe bending a long cor­ner in from the right side and Wam­bach, who set up near the edge of the 18yard box, charged to­ward it. But the ball came in too low for her to duck and get her head on it, so it bounced off left leg in­stead.

“I think it was my shin guard,” she said.

The next thing it hit was the back of the net, giv­ing Wam­bach 14 goals in World Cup play, ty­ing her with Ger­many’s Bir­git Prinz for sec­ond all-time. It also gave Wam­bach a goal in each of the four World Cups she has played in.

With the U.S. need­ing to pro­tect a lead, the fo­cus in the sec­ond half turned to goal­keeper Hope Solo and a young back line that has al­lowed one score in this tour­na­ment. Nige­ria would not get the sec­ond; the U.S. ex­tended its World Cup score­less streak to 243 min­utes.

“If you don’t give up any goals,” El­lis said “you’re go­ing to have a chance.”

But to im­prove those chances in this tour­na­ment, the U.S. is go­ing to have to score a few goals of its own. And it had just four in three group-play games.

While El­lis con­ceded her team needs to do a bet­ter job of fin­ish­ing its scor­ing chances, she’s said she’s not con­cerned.

“We’re not go­ing to change any­thing,” she said. “It comes down to fo­cus in the box. I would be con­cerned if we weren’t get­ting op­por­tu­ni­ties.”

Its first task com­pleted, the U.S. will leave Van­cou­ver on Wed­nes­day to be­gin a jour­ney that could take it to Ed­mon­ton, Ot­tawa and Mon­treal ahead of next month’s fi­nal in Van­cou­ver.

“Now it’s a do or die. Win to move on,” Wam­bach said. “Our goal is to get back here, right?”

kevin.bax­ter@latimes.com

Jonathan Hayward Cana­dian Press/As­so­ci­ated Press

JULIE JOHN­STON (19) of the U.S. leaves terra firma as she vies with Nige­ria’s De­sire Opara­nozie for con­trol of the ball.

Jonathan Hayward Cana­dian Press/As­so­ci­ated Press

ABBY WAM­BACH, right, re­ceives a hug from Me­gan Rapi­noe af­ter get­ting a goal — her 14th in World Cup play — in the wan­ing mo­ments of the first half. Wam­bach scored off a long cor­ner kick by Rapi­noe.

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