The Americans go into Tuesday night’s game against Nigeria knowing they have already qualified for the next round of the World Cup. Last year at the men’s tournament in Brazil, just getting into the knockout stage was a great accomplishment for the USA.
But for the women, anything less than progressing as group winners will be rightly regarded as a failure.
The U.S. has to beat Nigeria in the match that kicks off at 7 p.m. to guarantee the top spot. Even a tie could see them drop to second — and a likely harder path to the later rounds of the competition — depending on the result in the other contest between Australia and Sweden taking place at the same time.
FIFA introduced simultaneous kickoffs after the 1982 Men’s World Cup in Spain and the final group game between West Germany and Austria that is one of the most infamous in soccer history. In ‘The Disgrace of Gijón,’ a 1-0 victory for the Germans saw both teams advance — the Germans scored after 10 minutes, and for the rest of the match the players walked around uninterested in scoring, deliberately missing shots and refusing to tackle. The local Spanish newspaper printed the match report in its crime section.
So instead of resting starters and giving fringe squad members a taste of big-time competition, U.S. coach Jill Ellis will be taking nothing for granted and naming a strong lineup. Her hope will be that the misfiring attack finds its form (leaving aside striker Abby Wambach’s excuses after the scoreless tie with Sweden about the difficulty of scoring on artificial turf), and they waltz into a comfortable lead that lets her sub important players to keep them healthy for the tougher challenges ahead.
An interesting aspect of the Women’s World Cup that is different to the male version is that two-thirds of the participants make it to the knockout round. In the female version, 24 teams are split into six groups of four, with the top two from each group going through automatically to the knockout stage — and the four third-place teams with the most points join them.
This is important in the final round of contests in the first stage. Often in the male version, there are many “dead rubbers,” meaningless games between countries who are already knocked out. But under this format, it’s almost impossible for any nation to be eliminated, even if it lost its first two matches.
Usually three points — just winning one game out of three — is enough to secure third place and progress to the last 16. Going into the final round of group play Monday, every country was still in with a mathematical chance of advancing, a format that keeps the level of interest up for fans and neutrals alike.