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

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VANCOUVER, British Columbia — The U.S. won Group D of the Women’s World Cup with a 1-0 victory against Nigeria on Tuesday as Abby Wambach scored her first goal of the tournament for the Americans.

With the win, the U.S. set up a round-of-16 game in Edmonton on Monday. The most likely opponent will be the loser of Colombia-England (or England if it’s a tie). By winning the group, the U.S. avoided finishing second and having to meet Brazil on Sunday in Moncton. What's more, either China or Cameroon will be waiting in the quarterfinals should the U.S. win its first knockout game.

Here are three quick thoughts on the match:

Starting Wambach and Alex Morgan was the right call

It made sense that U.S. coach Jill Ellis would go with her two biggest guns up top for the first time in Canada, and the move paid off. Wambach figured to be a huge advantage on set-pieces (which Nigeria has trouble defending), and sure enough, Wambach connected (with her feet, not her head) on Megan Rapinoe’s corner kick to put the U.S. on top. (It was about time the U.S. started putting corners into the box after inexplicably going with short corners before that.)

As for Morgan, after going two months without starting due to a bone bruise in her knee, she needed the confidence and reps that came with Tuesday’s 65 minutes. And though Morgan wasn’t able to convert on a couple of terrific chances, her movement and runs were an upgrade over previous U.S. forwards in this tournament. Morgan has time to get into form for the knockout rounds, and Tuesday was a big step.

The U.S. central defense continues to thrive

You can’t win a World Cup without a solid center back pairing, and Becky Sauerbrunn and Julie Johnston have been beasts for the U.S. so far in this tournament. Sauerbrunn is the quieter player, but that’s partly because her positioning has been flawless, and she’s solid on the ball as well.

As for Johnston, she’s the revelation of 2015 for U.S. Soccer. Her high-speed recovery to poke the ball away from a streaking Asisat Oshoala in the first half might have been the play of the game.

What’s more, Johnston is a constant threat on set pieces and has the instincts to know when to stay up and lurk; her first-half goal appeared to be waved off incorrectly for offside. (It wasn’t the only missed call by referee Kateryna Monzul, who failed to whistle a Nigerian handball in the box in the first half.)

The U.S. midfield is still a work in progress

Lauren Holiday and Carli Lloyd were better against Nigeria than in their first two games, and part of that was due to more interchanging that allowed Holiday to get higher up the field occasionally. They funneled a lot of balls out wide and didn’t produce much through the middle, which will need to get better as the knockout rounds progress.

For the first time Ellis decided to start two natural wingers—Rapinoe and Tobin Heath—and while Rapinoe had several positive moments (including the assist to Wambach) Heath was somewhat disappointing on the night after she had made a good case to start.

Now the real tournament starts.