Group D finishes up tonight, with the United States facing Nigeria in Vancouver while Australia plays Sweden in Edmonton. All four teams are still alive, and all four teams can be eliminated. It's going to be a tense night where every goal could have profound consequences in the knockout stage. Everyone wants to advance, obviously, but there's merely advancing and then there's avoiding playing heavyweights and/or the hosts immediately in the Round of 16.
On paper at least, this may well be the least demanding opponent the USWNT will face in this tournament. However, that's not to say that the Nigerians are a weak team. Winger Asisat Oshoala terrorized Sweden, and she's got help in the form of Desire Oparanozie and the Washington Spirit's Francisca Ordega.
Key player: Abby Wambach
Wambach's career has been truly great, but the last few months haven't lived up to her previously high standards. Whether it's her decision to forego the NWSL season, or controversial pronouncements about her teammates, or a lack of goals against World Cup-quality opposition in recent times, or her blaming artificial turf for her scoring woes, we've been talking about the team's captain for the wrong reasons for a while now. These aren't the actions of a captain, and it's not the scoring form of an untouchable part of one of the best teams in the world.
And yet here we are. Jill Ellis has not taught her team any other way to play, and so we see things like the game against Sweden: Ellis put out a more technical team, one set up to play short, and they were just as direct as ever. We've established here that Ellis isn't maximizing the team, but if there's been no attempt to stop the overuse of long balls then Wambach pretty much has to be on the field as an aerial target. The work to avoid this situation had to be started months ago; trying to correct it today would just make winning the Cup that much more difficult.
Today should be a big day for Wambach. Nigeria is bad on set pieces and isn't great defensively in general. If the USWNT is going to be a long ball team regardless of personnel, they should be the best long ball team they can be. That means Wambach needs to put aside her discussion of turf - whether that's actually her looking for excuses or simply trying to prevent future World Cups from being on turf by bringing it up again - and finish her chances. To give her team its best chance to win - not to mention to preserve her legacy as a heroic player in US soccer history - her play needs to improve starting today.
Key question: Can the US respond to the first game with clear consequences?
The first two games had "consequences," of course, but the future was blurry. Now, things are clear: Win today, and the path to the final is much easier. Brazil awaits the second-best team in Group D, while finishing third - assuming the US's record in doing so lands them in among the top 4 third place teams - means potentially playing Germany or a Canadian team that seems to want revenge on the Americans more than they want to win the tournament.
The pressure has been on for a while, but today it turns up a notch. Nigeria knows that a win is the only thing that keeps them in this tournament, so they're going to leave everything on the field. Australia and Sweden, meanwhile, are playing to avoid that potential game against the Germans. A loss will eliminate the Swedes even if Nigeria also loses, and both teams will want to avoid Germany.
The US can be eliminated today. It's not likely - it requires at least a two-goal loss, plus results that boost the point total of the 3rd place team in groups C, E, and F - but the possibility exists. The World Cup began days ago, but it really starts for the Americans today. Slip-ups now come with irrevocable consequences. Will this team respond with its best soccer a la 2011? Or will the additional issues, the tactical flaws, and the lack of progress in four years outweigh the extraordinary raw talent on the USWNT roster? Now's when we start to find out.
Match date/time: Tuesday 6/16, 8:00pm Eastern (5:00pm local)
Venue: BC Place Stadium (Vancouver)
TV: Fox (English), NBC Universo (Spanish)
Online: Fox Soccer 2Go (English, requires subscription), NBC Universo Now (Spanish), NBC Deportes En Vivo Extra (Spanish)
Check back in two hours for our gamethread.