Abby Wambach of the United States, the top scorer in soccer history, propelled Team USA into the next round of the 2015 FIFA Women's World Cup with a goal off a corner kick in the 45th minute against Nigeria Tuesday night in Vancouver.
Wambach had yet to deliver a goal off three attempted headers, usually her signature move, in the team's first two games. So, with a successful touch off her left foot, US fans breathed a sigh of relief, and the Americans advanced to the 16-team knockout round.
With the win, the US women’s team appears to be rebounding.
Though a favorite going into the tournament, the team had only won 17 of 32 games in the four years leading to this World Cup against world-class teams like Germany, France, Sweden, Japan, England, Brazil, and Canada, according to Philly.com. Their record is solid against lesser teams, but they arrived in Vancouver unproven against the best.
Second only to Germany in the world rankings, Team USA also faces an uphill battle when compared to other national teams when it comes to gender equality. Both Germany and France have women’s leagues that are supported at a comparable level to their male counterparts, according to The New York Times. The US is trying for a third time to field a domestic league, and even critics say this time may be the charm. But funding and a fan base are inconsistent stateside.
At the roster level, an injured Alex Morgan – the team’s best striker – and off-field drama brought by goalie Hope Solo made the team appear shaky coming to Canada. Wambach, at 35, is in the twilight of a prolific career and has been one of the most vocal critics of the World Cup being played on turf.
"For me, I definitely think that the US has more goals if we're playing on grass,” Wambach said to The Associated Press.
But on Tuesday, Wambach ended her goal drought, Solo logged her second straight shutout, and Morgan clocked a start and 64 minutes on the field. And with that, the outside noise is cued to fade away.
“We’re really excited to be moving on out of a tough, tough group,” US head coach Jill Ellis told The Washington Post.
Coming in first place out of the so-called “group of death,” the US women’s team, with a record of two wins and a tie in the tournament, will next play a third-place team from another group to be determined Wednesday. The team is likely to play Colombia or England this round and later next week could face either China or Cameroon.
The US women haven’t won the World Cup in 16 years, despite three appearances in final rounds since, and three consecutive Olympic golds.
Commentators have speculated this will be Wambach’s last time at the tournament, and her last shot at victory. Her coach isn’t worried.
“I just know Abby, I know big moments, I know she will deliver,” Ellis remarked to the Post after the game. “I’m really pleased with the investment tonight.”