When Jill Ellis took the job as head coach of the women's national soccer team 13 months ago, her first decision was also her easiest.
“If Abby's got one leg she's going to make this roster,” Ellis remembers thinking. “There's just so much about her. Her leadership is tremendous. Her spirit is fantastic.
“I know [in] big moments, she'll deliver.”
Few moments are bigger than a must-win game in a World Cup. And just as Ellis had predicted, Abby Wambach delivered in those circumstances Tuesday, scoring the only goal in a 1-0 win over Nigeria that gave the U.S. the Group D title and sent it on to the knockout stage.
Moving on to the second round of a women's World Cup is nothing new for the U.S., which has made the semifinals of the previous six tournaments. But it hasn't won its group since 2007. And this year that prize carried an extra bonus: a matchup next week with an as yet undetermined third-place finisher from another group, making for an easier trip through to the final.
“I'm ecstatic,” Ellis said. “We're really excited to be moving on out of a tough, tough group.”
And it was Wambach who led the way.
Paired at forward with Alex Morgan, who made her first start in the tournament, Wambach was active from the opening whistle — maybe too active, given that she was ruled offside on two of her team's first three scoring chances. And for that you can blame the dream she had the night before.
Wambach said she remembered dreaming of red things, so when she awoke she went straight to the Internet to find out what that meant. Turns out dreaming of red is about activation, physicality, passion and intensity — all pretty good things to bring to a World Cup soccer game.
“I felt a little bit different,” Wambach admitted. “Whenever your back is against the wall, you can ask yourself certain questions. And for me, I always want to leave myself with no possible room for regret.
“Yeah, certain games I'm better than others. Today was a big game.”
And it was one Wambach put her stamp on in the waning moments of the first half. The sequence started with Megan Rapinoe bending a long corner in from the right side and Wambach, who set up near the edge of the 18-yard box, charged toward it. But the ball came in too low for her to duck and get her head on it, so it bounced off left leg instead.
“I think it was my shin guard,” she said.
The next thing it hit was the back of the net, giving Wambach 14 goals in World Cup play, tying her with Germany's Birgit Prinz for second all-time. It also gave Wambach a goal in each of the four World Cups she has played in.
With the U.S. needing to protect a lead, the focus in the second half turned to goalkeeper Hope Solo and a young back line that has allowed one score in this tournament. Nigeria would not get the second; the U.S. extended its World Cup scoreless streak to 243 minutes.
“If you don't give up any goals,” Ellis said “you're going to have a chance.”
But to improve those chances in this tournament, the U.S. is going to have to score a few goals of its own. And it had just four in three group-play games.
While Ellis conceded her team needs to do a better job of finishing its scoring chances, she's said she's not concerned.
“We're not going to change anything,” she said. “It comes down to focus in the box. I would be concerned if we weren't getting opportunities.”
Its first task completed, the U.S. will leave Vancouver on Wednesday to begin a journey that could take it to Edmonton, Ottawa and Montreal ahead of next month's final in Vancouver.
“Now it's a do or die. Win to move on,” Wambach said. “Our goal is to get back here, right?”