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Johnston, Sauerbrunn anchor strong defense in USWNT win over Nigeria

Julie Johnston and Becky Sauerbrunn anchored an excellent U.S. defense in its 1–0 victory over Nigeria to win Group D and advance to the knockout stages.

VANCOUVER, British Columbia — It’s been 243 minutes since the United States women conceded a goal in the World Cup. Only Australian captain Lisa De Vanna has breached the U.S. back line, scoring the opener in the first match.

Central defenders Becky Sauerbrunn and Julie Johnston turned in another important performance in a 1–0 win over Nigeria in the final group game here on Tuesday. The U.S. held Nigeria to seven shots, only two of which goalkeeper Hope Solo had to save.

“There’s not a back line in the world that wouldn’t be tested in this group, with just the pace and the transitions of these teams,” head coach Jill Ellis said in her post-game press conference. “We just talked about it in the locker room, just how battle-tested we are coming out of that—how confident we should feel in our back line.”

Against Sweden in Friday’s 0–0 draw, the Americans didn’t allow a shot on target, although it needed 5-foot-2 fullback Meghan Klingenberg’s headed clearance off the goal line to keep Sweden out. Only Brazil hasn’t conceded a goal yet, but it still has one match to play in its group.

Despite Nigeria unleashing its forwards onto multiple through balls as the game progressed, Sauerbrunn and Johnston matched their speedy opponents’ pace. They also outplayed the Nigerians in the air, clearing set pieces with ease and neutralizing the most athletic attack it faced in the group stages.

The Super Falcons’ best chance came in the 24th minute, when Johnston chased down Asisat Oshoala and barely deflected her point-blank shot wide of goal.

“It was my fault,” Johnston said. “I didn’t track it well enough, so I better get back there and do something because that was my fault.”

Canada 2015 has turned into a breakout tournament for Johnston, who captained the U.S. to an Under-20 World Cup win in 2012 and earned the Bronze Ball award in the process.

Her transition to the senior level went off seamlessly after an injury to Christie Rampone before the Algarve Cup in March opened up a spot on the back line. Since then, she’s been paired with Sauerbrunn, who has played all but 20 minutes for the U.S. in 2015, only sitting out the end of the last friendly before the World Cup.

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“[Johnston] has been a tremendous player in our youth system and has been very, very solid,” Ellis said. “An opportunity presented itself with two injuries, so now she’s getting the starting nod in big games, and she’s risen to the level.”

On the opposite end, Johnston nearly scored in the eighth minute, but Nigerian goalkeeper Precious Dede got a hand on her flick at the near post. The offside flag went up when Johnston did eventually put the ball in the net on a second service, although replays showed she may have been even with the ball when it was played.

Sauerbrunn didn’t mince words in describing her partner’s new importance to the team after she didn’t even make the 20-player roster for the qualification tournament late last year.

Wambach scores, defense thrives as USA wins Women's World Cup group

“She’s a stud,” she said. “No one gets by her.”

If they do, attackers have to contend with the best shot-stopping goalkeeper in the world in Hope Solo. She made a couple fairly routine saves against Nigeria, but Solo’s interventions against Australia and Sweden were vital.

Keeping the opposition out takes on added importance when the U.S. attack has sputtered through three games. Two clean sheets have at least kept the pressure manageable for a team whose forwards have scored just once this tournament: Abby Wambach’s game-winning strike on Tuesday.

“As a back line, that’s our ultimate goal,” Johnston said. “We don’t want to have any goals against us. We’re really disappointed that we gave one up against Australia.”

Her mentality points toward a larger sentiment encompassing the back line and a belief that it could be them—not the attackers—who carry the U.S. to a third World Cup title.

“We take pride in not allowing anybody to score,” Klingenberg said. “It’s a testament to how significant we think that is.”

But can a team win a World Cup when its best players are the central defenders? Ellis responded bullishly.

“If you don’t give up any goals,” she said, “I think you have a hell of a chance.”