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 Posted by ESPN Staff
Sep 18, 2007

U.S. dominates possession against Nigeria

SHANGHAI, China -- The United States got the result it needed Tuesday to win Group B in the Women's World Cup and avoid Germany in the quarterfinals. Just as importantly, it showed flashes of the kind of attacking soccer it will need to beat Germany and other contenders down the road.

The Americans might not be where they want to be on the field, but they're getting there.

Lori Chalupny's goal from point-blank range just 55 seconds into the game proved to be the only scoring in a 1-0 win versus Nigeria that, combined with Sweden's 2-1 win versus North Korea, put the Americans three points clear of the competition in Group B. As a result, they'll face England in the quarterfinals.

With the leading edge of Typhoon Wipha dropping a steady rain throughout the game, further eroding a field that was riddled with divots, it wasn't a night that promised much in the way of beautiful soccer or spotless play. But in the midst of successfully slogging through the conditions in search of three points, ugly or otherwise, the United States played its best possession soccer of the opening round.

The scoreboard didn't show it, but after surviving in large part on quick lightning strikes in scoring twice against both North Korea and Sweden, coach Greg Ryan's team did enough work throughout Tuesday's game to merit far more than its solitary tally.

"We got the ball wide and the field opened up for us," Kristine Lilly said. "We created a lot of chances in the first half; we let too many slip by."

U.S. women's schedule
U.S. vs. England

Saturday
Tianjin Olympic Center Stadium, Tianjin, China
8 a.m. ET
Under heavy pressure in the first two games, the American back line was rarely able to do more with the ball than clear it out of the area and hope for the best from the midfielders in the air. After a few initial blind clearances against Nigeria, the defenders, stalwart in their own end throughout the tournament, began building possession through the midfield.

In the 19th minute, Cat Whitehill stalled a Nigerian foray toward goal, and after momentarily appearing poised to clear it long, linked up with Lori Chalupny in the midfield to begin a possession that ended with Heather O'Reilly taken down near the box on a tackle that should have earned the United States a free kick from a dangerous spot.

Like most of the chances on the night, it came up just short of showing up on the scoreboard but marked a distinct improvement over the first two games.

"We want to get through the midfield, we want to use the weapons that we have," Whitehill said. "Getting it wide, getting it through the midfield and playing it instead of just kicking it over the top. I think if we can keep building on possessing it, especially out of the back, then we can settle ourselves down and hopefully get more chances on goal."

And when the ball does get to the midfield, Chalupny continues to show that she knows what to do with it better than any American midfielder in a number of years. A tireless worker who pushes up like a forward and tracks back like the outside back she was for this team until the early part of this year, she is the key to connecting the team's flow.

"Lori Chalupny is a fantastic midfielder," Ryan said. "First and foremost, her work rate both directions, defending and attacking -- she went from 18 to 18 tonight. ... What she does to our midfield and our front line is she runs through the opponent's defense and gets in behind the other side of them and creates great attacking chances, scoring chances, for us.

"She really makes our midfield much more dynamic than we've been in the past."

The Americans found themselves in the unfamiliar role of the tortoise twice in their first three games, ceding the edge in overall speed against both the North Korean and Nigerian teams. The U.S., a team that prides itself on its physical conditioning and superior athleticism, had to adjust -- and the results weren't always aesthetically impressive.

But more than just surviving the toughest group of the tournament, the United States may have found the right formula to solve any defensive riddle yet to come by turning a back line that has been outstanding at thwarting opponents into one capable of punishing them.

"The level of this team now is if you can't play the ball out of the back consistently and with composure, and hold the ball, you're not going to make this team and you're not going to find playing time," Kate Markgraf said. "So ... something that we need to improve upon every single day and every single game is being able to carry the ball out of the back and being able to start the attack."

Or, as Lilly put it, "If we keep it wide and get our chances in there, and finish them, I think we'll be all right."

Player Ratings (scale of 1-10)

Hope Solo, 7 -- Had a very quiet first half but came up big when she needed to as Nigeria put pressure on in the final 10 minutes.

Abby Wambach, 6 -- As much as anything, she deserves credit for not reacting poorly to a number of vicious tackles from behind. Missed on a couple of header opportunities that she has made a living finishing, but generally forced Nigerian defenders to react to her size rather than being taken out of the mix by their speed.

Kristine Lilly, 6 -- She was frustrated after the game with her near misses on free kicks, but Lilly once again played a solid end-to-end game that lacked only a finishing touch.

Heather O'Reilly, 6 -- Seemed to be floating in space a little too much in the game's opening minutes but made her presence felt the rest of the time. She is more of an independent actor than Lindsay Tarpley alongside Wambach and Lilly up top, but she teamed up well with them several times and put her typical pressure on the defense.

Lori Chalupny, 9 -- She was clearly the player who made the biggest impact on the game, both on the scoreboard and in the run of the play. In her first World Cup, she has played relentless soccer in all three games and showed no signs of nerves.

Shannon Boxx, 7 -- Returned to the starting lineup and returned to the form that made her so valuable to this team over the past four years. A rock on defense throughout, her only regret might be the open header at the back post that she pushed wide off a first-half corner.

Carli Lloyd, 4 -- She looked more aggressive and more composed for the second game in a row, but she still needs to make a big leap forward if she's going to keep starting. Too often she looked out of sync with an otherwise cohesive possession attack.

Cat Whitehill, 8 -- Her touch on set pieces wasn't as accurate as normal, but chalk a lot of that up to the miserable footing and wet night. Another solid night in the middle of the defense, she also did her best job yet of starting the offense out of the back.

Kate Markgraf, 7 -- Nothing out of the ordinary for the veteran in the middle, but that's not a bad thing. Her mobility and ability to recover quickly allows Christie Rampone to challenge aggressively with full confidence that Markgraf has her back.

Christie Rampone, 7 -- Caught pushing the wrong way a couple of times by Nigeria 's speed in the counterattack, but another solid game for the team's most reliable defender in group play.

Stephanie Lopez, 7 -- Saved her best game of group play for the finale. She looked settled on the ball and began to show some of the offensive touch that makes her a future cornerstone.

Leslie Osborne, 6 -- Came on midway through the second half and made her presence felt on defense. She also played some nice balls forward, suggesting she could play alongside Boxx for more than a half.

Tina Ellertson, 5 -- Looked a little nervous in her first World Cup appearance, nearly whiffing on one clearance late in the game, but also showed the speed that makes her an intriguing option.

Graham Hays is a regular contributor to ESPN.com's soccer coverage. E-mail him at Graham.Hays@espn3.com.