SHANGHAI, China -- The United States will head to Shanghai's Pudong Airport on Wednesday to catch a flight out of town. What Tuesday's game against Nigeria (8 a.m. ET, ESPN) will determine is whether it's on a quick round-trip ticket to Beijing or Wuhan, or a long one-way ticket back home across the Pacific.
After surviving a draw against North Korea and beating Sweden, there is undeniably an air of inevitability about the United States advancing to the quarterfinals. Having already played the two other top-five teams in the so-called Group of Death, the Americans are even with North Korea at the top of the table, face an easier final game than North Korea or Sweden and would likely need to lose by multiple goals in a monumental upset to miss out on the next round. As a result, discussion surrounding the team has centered as much on the plusses (likely avoiding Germany) and minuses that would accompany a potential first-place finish in Group B as on the game against Nigeria.
But first and foremost, coach Greg Ryan stressed Sunday that the players and coaches are more attuned to the fact that they don't have the luxury of taking Tuesday's game for granted. Four years ago, with first place all but assured, April Heinrichs drew criticism from some for resting Mia Hamm, Julie Foudy and others in the final game of group play and disrupting the team's rhythm. Ryan faces no such quandaries.
"The only thing that matters is our result against Nigeria," Ryan said. "That's the one thing we can control; that's the one thing we have to focus on as a team. ... This team has done well, and its had a lot of success, because we've never gotten ahead of ourselves."
Because all four teams in Group B earned a point in ties on the first day of play in Chengdu, all four are still mathematically alive in the race for the quarterfinals. North Korea and the United States control their own fates, at least in terms of simply advancing, on the group's final day of pool play, but Sweden and Nigeria are more than spoilers.
Nigeria, outscored 15-2 while losing all three games in the all-time series against the United States, is the weakest of the four teams in Group B. Still, the perennial African champions acquitted themselves well in rallying in the second half to earn a point against Sweden and hanging with North Korea in a 2-0 loss in which both goals came off set pieces.
"They've got a lot of skill, great athleticism, speed," Ryan said of Nigeria. "In addition to being a very good soccer team, they'd make a great track team. They can run."
Tuesday's game is expected to be played in heavy rain, with wind gusts of more than 50 miles per hour, as Typhoon Wipha, a Category 4 storm, bears down on Taiwan and the eastern coast of mainland China. Despite residents in some areas of Shanghai being evacuated to safer ground on Tuesday, the game will go on as scheduled, according to Nicolas Maingot, FIFA's Head of Media at the Women's World Cup.
"FIFA, the Local Organizing Committee and the relevant Chinese authorities are monitoring the situation thoroughly and very carefully," Maingot wrote in an e-mail. "Safety has clear priority here."
Maingot also said no decision had been made on the game between Norway and Ghana, scheduled for Wednesday at Hongkou Stadium. Forecasts in Shanghai predicted the worst of the storm would hit the city late Tuesday night and early Wednesday morning.
Even as the United States looks to successfully finish one stage of the big picture, it will work on getting off to a better start at the micro level against Nigeria. The team was frequently under fire early in the first two games, whether from a barrage of shots from just outside the 18-yard box as North Korea repeatedly forced its way through the midfield or from numerous corners earned by Sweden lobbing dangerous long balls into the American end.
"The pregame was all about getting off to a good start," Ryan said of his instructions before the Sweden match. "But sometimes teams just don't allow you that. Sweden just started hitting long balls over the top of our defense until they could force a couple of corners and pressure us, and sometimes you just have to weather those storms. It wasn't that we had a slow start; it was the tactic that they used to put the ball in behind us. And it worked pretty well. Fortunately, [goalkeeper] Hope [Solo] and the players did a great job defending those set pieces, and we settled down and started to play.
"I hope we come out strong the next game, but whether we do or whether we don't, as long as we don't concede a goal, I think we'll be just fine."
Both of North Korea's goals against Nigeria came off corner kicks. And although the United States has yet to score off its own set pieces in this tournament, the players know finishing chances in an area that has long been one of the team's greatest strengths will be important in helping them control the flow of this game and round into form for any future rounds.
"We know that's a great way to exploit them," midfielder Leslie Osborne said. "They're not as disciplined or as organized as maybe they should be, and we're great at [set pieces] against big, physical teams, so we know we can get them on set plays."
It remains to be seen whether Osborne, who was of the most effective players on the field against Sweden, will get her second start of the World Cup. That decision is just one of several, including the perpetual battle between Lindsay Tarpley and Heather O'Reilly for a starting spot alongside Abby Wambach and Kristine Lilly, Ryan won't reveal until lineups are released about an hour before the game against Nigeria.
One topic on which Ryan was willing to make a definitive statement, sounding almost feisty in doing so, was the criticism the United States has received for supposedly playing uninspired soccer. In a tournament in which only Brazil survived its first two games unscathed, he likes where his team stands after its first week of competition.
"If you want to compare us with some other countries, right now, we're still the strongest team in the world, regardless of what you see," Ryan said. "You see Germany beat Argentina by 11 goals, you might think Germany is a good team. But you've got to look beyond the situation. We played two great teams -- the No. 3 and No. 5 teams in the world -- and arguably could have had a better result in the first game and certainly had a good result in the second game."
In Tuesday's other Group B match, North Korea plays Sweden in Tianjin in a game played at the same time as the United States and Nigeria. Should two or more teams finish with the same number of points, goal differential and goals scored would be the first two tiebreakers in determining the final standings. The team that finishes first will move on to face the second-place team from Group A, with the second-placed team facing the winner from Group A.
Graham Hays is a regular contributor to ESPN.com's soccer coverage. E-mail him at Graham.Hays@espn3.com.
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|U.S. vs. Nigeria
Shanghai Hongkou Football Stadium, Shanghai, China
8 a.m. ET, ESPN