Rea: U.S. women not in top form, but still atop Group D standings _lowres

Associated Press photo by John Woods/The Canadian Press -- Sweden's Lina Nilsson, left, hauls down the United States' Sydney Leroux during second-half of Frida's FIFA Women's World Cup match in Winnipeg, Manitoba, Canada. The Americans were nearly hauled down by a lackluster performance but held on for a 0-0 tie to remain in first in Group D.

The Americans are atop their group, and a win against Nigeria, the lowest-ranked team in the section, will see them progress to the next round as winners with a potentially easier path to the later stages.

But in Friday night’s 0-0 tie with Sweden, they again started slowly with another stilted first-half display, huffing and puffing without creating any real clear-cut chances. They improved after the break but still struggled to break down an effective, well-organized Swedish defense.

Indeed, but for a wonderful goal-line headed clearance 13 minutes from the end by Meghan Klingenberg — at 5-foot-2 the smallest player on the field — the USA could have lost and been knocked off their perch at the top of the group.

Though the U.S. is not yet clicking as a team, the Americans have enough to beat the Africans on Tuesday and qualify for the last 16. There’s no need to panic just yet.

In men’s soccer, a win by five clear goals is a huge margin and extremely rare at this level. At last year’s World Cup, the only match with that kind of gap was Germany’s once-in-a-lifetime 7-1 semifinal humbling of Brazil. But in Canada, two countries racked up 10 goals in the space of six days.

As the USA and Sweden drew a blank Friday, Switzerland hit double figures in a 10-1 win over Ecuador in a game featuring three hat-tricks: Fabienne Humm with the fastest in tournament history; Ramona Bachmann also scored three times; and Ecuador’s Angie Ponce — she hit the South American’s consolation but was also credited with two own goals! Germany beat Ivory Coast 10-0 last Sunday.

The New Orleans Zephyrs were not the only team to have a game interrupted by summer thunderstorms this week; Thursday’s match between Canada and New Zealand was halted for half-an-hour because of severe weather.

It’s always important for the home nation to do well at any international soccer tournament, but it’s not much of a stretch to say that the rumbling thunder provided more excitement than the countries on the pitch. The four contests in Group A have given us a total of just three goals — and two of those were scored in injury time.

Elsewhere, the tussle between Norway and Germany perfectly summed up women’s soccer for me.

A criticism that continues to dog the women’s game is that the goalkeepers are not up to the standard of the outfield players. Whether or not that is for purely physiological reasons, there is probably some truth to it.

But the sport has bounded forward in the past decade both on and off the field. Female players have improved immeasurably in ability, technique and fitness, while there are full-time professional clubs in Europe like Chelsea and Manchester City that train and play in the same stadiums as the males.

Both sides of the coin were on display in the Group B game that finished 1-1. The Germans, who have won two out of the past three World Cups, took an early lead after the Scandinavian keeper made a rudimentary mistake and spilled a tame shot. But the Norwegian equalizer, from a free-kick on the edge of the penalty box, was an exquisite strike blending power and finesse.

There could have been three male goalkeepers between the posts, and they still would not have stopped Maren Mjelde’s precision curler into the top corner.