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U.S. controls destiny, eyes first-place finish in Women's World Cup group


VANCOUVER, British Columbia — The U.S. controls its own destiny in Group D when it meets Nigeria in the final group game here on Tuesday (8 p.m. ET, FOX). After a 3-1 win over Australia and 0-0 draw with Sweden, a win against the African side means the Americans win the group, which is actually pretty important.

Let’s break it down:

What’s at stake? 

The U.S. enters the game leading the group with four points, followed by Australia (three), Sweden (two) and Nigeria (one). The top two group finishers are guaranteed to advance, while the third-place team will also advance presuming it is one of the top four third-place finishers in the competition.

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If the U.S. wins the group, it’ll go to Edmonton for its round of 16 game next Monday, most likely against the loser of Colombia-England (or England if it’s a tie). If the U.S. finishes second in the group, a much more difficult round of 16 matchup would take place between the U.S. and Brazil in far-off Moncton on Sunday.

Long story short: The U.S. has a ton of incentive to win the group.

Who will start up top for the U.S.? 

My sense is we’ll finally see Abby Wambach and Alex Morgan start together up top. That’s not guaranteed, of course, but Wambach seems like an obvious choice for coach Jill Ellis for a number of reasons: 1) She’s fresh, having come off the bench in the last game; 2) The U.S. needs better hold-up play at forward; 3) Wambach is a menace on set-pieces, which the Nigerians have had all sorts of trouble defending.

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As for Morgan, she thinks she’s capable of starting having come off the bench in the first two games after her comeback from a bone bruise in her knee.

If Morgan is capable of at least 45 minutes, it makes sense to run her out and see where she is.

Ellis said on Monday that she sees Morgan playing a bigger role for the team in upcoming games.

“Even going back as far as the send-off games, we put together a plan in terms of loading her,” Ellis said. “That’s important. We didn’t want to go from suddenly not training to playing a lot. So yes, that is the plan. I think it’s been good to get her in. My interest is certainly to get her more minutes for sure.”

What did Ellis think of Wambach’s turf comments?

On Saturday, Wambach argued that the U.S. would have more goals in this tournament if it had been played on grass. She had a point when it came to her header that bounced hard off the turf and over the crossbar against Sweden. That might have been on frame on a grass surface. But Wambach’s contention that she wasn’t going at 100% into diving headers on the turf was a head-scratcher. If that’s the case, maybe Ellis should find someone who will?

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So I asked Ellis on Monday if she 1) agreed with Wambach, and 2) had concerns about Wambach not going full-throttle? Ellis sort of answered it.

“I can’t speak for Abby,” she said. “From my perception, listen, the game is different on turf, but it’s the same for everybody. That’s kind of been the mantra for our team. I would love the surfaces to be more wet. I think the surfaces are very dry. It’s turf, and it is what it is, but I still think we can make the surfaces play faster by putting water on them.”

As for Wambach, Ellis added: “She’s played a lot of games. Only she can attest to how different it feels. But for me it’s just the focus of: We’re going to get it done. Period.”

Will the U.S. midfield start improving?

When the U.S. hasn’t been bypassing the central midfield altogether, there still hasn’t been much movement of creative thrust in the first two games of the World Cup.

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​You could argue that the central midfield of Lauren Holiday and Carli Lloyd should be tweaked—with Lloyd staying at home and Holiday playing more advanced, as in the 2012 Olympics.

Ellis, for her part, remains upbeat.

“I have faith in these players, and I think we will get better and better,” she said. “We met the other night and talked about at times we do leave them on an island. The thing about playing a 4-4-2 is you don’t want to be static, you don’t want it to be just straight lines.”

Ellis went on to say that she wants her team to give Lloyd and Holiday more outlets against high-pressure teams and give them more support in defensive transition.

Set from the start

In a conversation prior to the World Cup, Ellis confirmed that the U.S. does indeed have a set play that it likes to use on kickoffs with the express intent of scoring to start the half.

“Teams probably know that we do,” she admitted, but she likes to add wrinkles to give it a new look from time to time.