U.S. takes lumps, then Hamm-ers Nigeria
PHILADELPHIA -- There were no yellow cards, no serious injuries and no major altercations.
That, in addition to the three points the U.S. earned with a 5-0 victory over Nigeria, are the most important pieces of information to note when discussing the second match of group play for the Americans in defense of their World Cup trophy from four years ago.
Playing against the hard-running, tough-tackling and always-fearless Super Falcons, the U.S. knew it would be a fight to the finish, no matter what the scoreboard read. Such was the case at Lincoln Financial Field on Thursday night, almost from the opening whistle.
The first hard foul of the match came from an American -- Shannon Boxx - in the first minute of the game. But, soon enough, several U.S. players found themselves limping after getting taken down. First, it was Cindy Parlow. Then Julie Foudy. Then Kristine Lilly. Then Mia Hamm. Then Abby Wambach.
No one was spared - veteran, neophyte or icon.
"It's frightening to play against, I can tell you that," said Hamm.
The team that's frightened now is North Korea, though, as the U.S. moves on to Columbus to take on the reigning Asian champions in a Sunday afternoon affair (ABC, 3:30 p.m. ET) that will undoubtedly look more like the opener against Sweden than the match against Nigeria.
The Americans are assured a spot in the next round with a tie or a victory, and will win Group A outright with a win. The only way the U.S., with a goal-differential of plus-7, cannot advance is with a loss to North Korea (+2) by multiple goals combined with a large-scale victory by Sweden (-1) over Nigeria.
That's for the mathematicians. Let's get to the good stuff.
Here are five observations from the match:
1. Not a bad night for ... the Hamm-Garciaparra family, was it? Nomar went deep with a three-run shot to help the Red Sox clinch the AL wildcard at Fenway Park right around the time when his fiancée, Mia, was inspiring the same sort of cheers a few hours down I-95.
Hamm's two-goal, one-assist performance followed up one of her best all-time efforts turned in on Sunday against Sweden.
"She was at a whole other level tonight," said Heinrichs.
Not only is she now playing the best soccer of her life, but she's also playing with a swagger and a conviction that helped turn her into Mia Hamm in the first place. The steely, almost cold, glare that she's always been known for having on the field is as intimidating to her opponents as ever, and it's helping to enthuse her teammates.
"There's just a fire in her eyes," said Foudy, who has played in all four World Cups with Hamm. "And it inspires all of us."
Hamm joked by saying that "a lot of people say I have my game face on all the time."
But never more than on Thursday night.
"What you see in Mia Hamm," said Heinrichs, "is a woman that wants to find ways to win, and knows that the way to win is to get everyone around her playing quicker, playing smarter, and playing together."
It's also through finding different ways to get the fire burning.
On this night, maybe it was because of the emotion she said she felt by hearing many of the 31,000-plus fans sing along to the National Anthem. Maybe it was because it's her last Cup, and she's determined to leave highlight-reel moments at every venue along the way. Or, just maybe, there's a place deep in Hamm's soul that remembers what people used to say about her when it came to the World Cup.
"How she doesn't score big goals in the big tournament," said Heinrichs in a mocking tone. "No questions anymore."
Hamm's 8 goals and 11 assists makes her the all-time leading scorer through four World Cups, and just adds to her total of 144 goals in 241 games for the National Team. In this tournament alone, she has two goals and four assists, and has been a part of every U.S. goal but two.
For a player who has accomplished most everything in this sport, perhaps she'll make a complete sweep and leave this World Cup with a Golden Ball as the tournament's top player to put in her expansive trophy case. It's hard to predict how the rest of the tournament will shake out, but if the World Cup ended right now, it'd be the easiest of choices.
2. Cornering the market: At least Sweden covered the American players on corner kicks. The fact that two goals snuck by them on such set plays was more about the athleticism and strength of Parlow and Boxx.
Nigeria, on the other hand, was lax on most every corner kick, which allowed the U.S. to score one goal and create shots on several others.
Parlow's goal off Hamm's corner kick in the 47th minute was inexcusable. Here she is the tallest player on the field at 5-foot-11 and one of the most-feared headers in the world, and Nigeria simply leaves her wide open at the six-yard box. Leave Parlow open on a corner, and she's going to score with the right service. End of story. Not marking her is like pitching to Barry Bonds in the ninth, or not boxing out Shaq on a jumper.
Heinrichs said that her side's corner kick success stems from a time a year-and-a-half ago when she felt that the "percentage of service was bad," which negated the strong aerial presence of players like Parlow, Brandi Chastain and Joy Fawcett when they were in the box. That's hardly the case at the moment, as Hamm's services have been textbook.
Even when the U.S. wasn't swerving in balls in front of the goal, they were dangerous.
In the 36th minute, Lilly joined Hamm near the corner flag and created a two-on-one off a short kick. When Hamm played the ball to her left, Lilly was able to step into the box and blister a shot at Nigeria's goalkeeper, Precious Dede, that nearly went through her for a goal. Luckily for the Super Falcons, the rebound was cleared.
3. Wily Kylie: While the insertion of Kylie Bivens into the starting unit was a surprise, it made perfect sense. Against a physical side like the Nigerians, you want your toughest players out there.
"I wanted to have battlers out on the field," said Heinrichs.
And there are not many who battle like Bivens. The Atlanta Beat stalwart actually tied for the WUSA lead in yellow cards in 2003, which should tell you something, and she proved her mettle on Thursday.
Defensively, she was a pest to left midfielder Stella Mbachu throughout the evening, often sending her to the turf during a tackle or 50-50 challenge in the air.
On offense, the former Santa Clara Bronco was wise to look to her club teammate Cindy Parlow several times during the game. Bivens nearly had an assist in the 11th minute when she served a great ball in the box to Parlow, who headed it right at the keeper.
"She played very composed and hard when we needed her to play hard," said the 39-year-old head coach.
The move to start Bivens was also important considering the health of the backline.
With Brandi Chastain out until at least the quarterfinals and Danielle Slaton experiencing pain in her right knee, Heinrichs knew that Bivens might have to be called upon. Considering that she came into this match with nine caps -- only two in 2003 -- it was wise to expose her to the grandest of stages before the knockout stage of this competition.
4. Cindy Parlow was ... dominant. In 57 minutes, the strong and powerful striker was a menace to the Nigerian defense. Whether she was sacrificing her body to the cause to create a free kick (Hamm's penalty kick in the 6th minute), coming back to receive the ball and kick-start the attack, or tracking back as the first line of defense, the 25-year-old Memphis native seemed to be everywhere.
As a front-running partner with Hamm in the team's 4-4-2 formation, Parlow had more freedom than she did in the three-striker alignment against Sweden. Combine that with the marking strategy used by the Nigerians, and you had a recipe for disaster for the defense.
"They were mostly zoning us," said Parlow, explaining why she had so much space.
That, and they were being physical, which hardly ever works against a player as tall and strong like Parlow.
"It was what I expected," she said, after showing off the bruise on the right side of her face. "I don't mind the physical contact or when it gets rough out there. I don't shy away."
5. One question ... Why leave Hamm in a 3-0 or 4-0 game against the hardest-fouling team in the world?
It might have been a wise move to sub the 31-year-old striker after the third goal, or at least 10 minutes later when Tiffeny Milbrett entered the match for Parlow. Leaving her out there in such a physical match almost backfired when Florence Omagbemi received a yellow card for knocking the back of Hamm's head with her own in the 76th minute, which sent Hamm to the ground in pain. Fortunately, she was not down too long, saving Heinrichs from facing any serious questioning from the media.
When she was asked if Hamm pleaded with her to stay in the match, the U.S. coach said that subbing her wasn't in the plans.
Those who follow the world game and know how out-of-hand blowout matches can get were thinking the same thing:
Gotta protect your superstars.
Marc Connolly covers soccer for ESPN.com. He can be reached at: firstname.lastname@example.org.