Maybe it's fitting that this match began as a referendum on whether the US attack should go all in on the plan to boot the ball to Abby Wambach's head for victory, since that's the major tactical question facing the team (along with: where did our midfielders go?). Wambach returned to the starting lineup a few days after the US was shut out by Sweden, and the other US players served the ball to her dome over and over in the first 30 minutes, both on set pieces and in the run of play.
Results were mixed. She missed open headers on goal twice and generally looked blunt against a Nigeria team that was very poor in the air, but one of her headed crosses assisted a Julie Johnston goal that was called back on a narrow offside decision. And it was Wambach who scored the lone US goal, off of a Megan Rapinoe corner. But it was a (very nice looking) flying volley, not a header. So the verdict on Abby Head Tennis as the US attacking strategy is still out.
Rapinoe, besides assisting the goal, looked like the only consistently dangerous US player on the field. She delivered her usual array of threatening set pieces, and her creativity was the source of most of the American offense. Twice she sent in hard, bending long-distance shots that had to be saved out for corners.
The other US attackers were surprisingly inept. Alex Morgan looked even more rusty than Wambach in shanking most of her few good chances wide. Her one good chance running onto a through ball for a short range shot was well saved. Sydney Leroux came in as a sub and gave us one glimpse of her usual pace and dynamism when she beat defender Sarah Nnodim to a distant ball to earn the yellow card. It was Nnodim's second and put the US up a player for the last 20 minutes of the match.
Unfortunately Ellis took that opportunity to make a few of her usual baffling subs, removing Rapinoe and then Tobin Heath to replace them with 37-year-old defensive mid Shannon Boxx and 39-year-old defender Christie Rampone. The combination of Rapinoe leaving, defensive minded additions, and a tired-looking Leroux meant that the US didn't threaten the goal again.
Nor did their opponents. Credit the US defense for turning Nigeria into a disappointment. Theoretically fighting for their tournament lives, the Super Falcons didn't accomplish much of note. In particular, Julie Johnston had a player of the tournament performance marshaling the defense and putting out fires. Nigeria's one dangerous play was a threaded through ball to superstar Asisat Oshoala, who got behind Johnston to go one on one with Hope Solo. But the American defender somehow caught up and got a toetip of a tackle in the box to push the ball away. It would at this point be fair to put the young Johnston in the conversation as one of the best central defenders in the game.
The combination of an uninspired US performance and little threat of Nigeria meant this wasn't a game for the scrapbook. But it accomplished a job. The win means the US takes first place in the group and booked a Sunday appointment with a third place team that will almost certainly be far weaker than any team they faced in their Group of Death. And it keeps hope alive that somehow the team will resolve its many tactical questions in time for the matchups that will decide whether this World Cup is the one to put the US back on top again or another disappointment.