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USWNT gets a tougher test than expected, beats Nigeria at Audi Field

U.S. forward Sophia Smith fires a shot on goal during the Americans' 2-1 win over Nigeria at Audi Field on Tuesday. (Jonathan Newton/The Washington Post)

The first D.C. appearance by the U.S. women’s national soccer team in more than five years Tuesday was not supposed to be this stressful. The world champions had thumped the same opponent by four goals three days earlier, hadn’t lost at home since 2017 and hadn’t even conceded a goal since April.

As many U.S. matches are, this figured to be more spectacle than trial.

But as a picture-perfect sunset glowed over Audi Field, the top-ranked United States found itself in a second-half deadlock with No. 46 Nigeria. Then age-defying Megan Rapinoe entered, Rose Lavelle contorted, and all was well again for the Americans, who earned a 2-1 victory before an announced crowd of 18,869.

“At certain times, we didn’t know which way it’s going to go,” U.S. Coach Vlatko Andonovski said. “But I’m very proud of the team and how they handled it because I do know there will be a moment like this when it matters. The fact they figured out a way to win is very good, but we did learn a big lesson.”

After failing to capitalize on numerous first-half chances and conceding the tying goal shortly after intermission, the Americans retook the lead in the 66th minute.

A moment after taking the field, the 37-year-old Rapinoe delicately chipped a cross from the end line. The ball was behind Lavelle, who needed to step back and bend her upper body to head it.

“I had to do a little bit of a twisty,” Lavelle said.

The ball pinged off the right post and trickled across the line, relieving pressure that had been building since the Super Falcons tied the friendly in the 50th minute.

USWNT thought it had a star in Mallory Pugh. She's finally proving it right.

Lavelle celebrated her 22nd career goal by leaping into Rapinoe’s arms.

“I still don’t know how Rose managed to get her head on the ball,” Andonovski said. “Absolutely incredible.”

The Americans extended their home unbeaten streak to 71 matches (64-0-7). They’ve won 13 straight overall by a 52-2 margin and are unbeaten in 21 in a row. Their shutout streak, however, ended at nine games.

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Nigeria — which, like the United States, will compete in the 2023 World Cup in Australia and New Zealand — was in retreat most of the first half. It did have moments of prosperity but could not sustain pressure.

The Americans created waves of early chances but were inefficient in the penalty area.

“The only thing we were missing in the first half,” Andonovski said, “was the execution.”

With some help, the breakthrough came in the 24th minute. The sequence was almost identical to a threat a moment earlier, when Mallory Pugh crossed to Lindsey Horan for a serious threat from close range.

Capping another patient exercise, Pugh targeted Horan with a low cross. This time, in an effort to prevent Horan’s reception, defender Blessing Demehin stabbed at the ball at the edge of the six-yard box, only to send it skidding between goalkeeper Chiamaka Nnadozie’s legs for an own goal.

Immediately after the break, the Super Falcons were causing trouble. The Americans failed to reverse course, and the visitors scored a deserved equalizer.

“We’d fought hard and the [U.S.] goal was an own goal, so we felt like it was a 0-0 game,” Nigerian Coach Randy Waldrum said. “We were right in it and felt we could get it back.”

Glory Ogbonna delivered a long diagonal ball. U.S. right back Sofia Huerta missed a header, allowing substitute Uchenna Kanu to make an angled run and expertly drive an eight-yard shot past goalkeeper Casey Murphy and into the upper far corner.

This was not the way Andonovski had planned it. The game needed a jolt, and Rapinoe and Lavelle brought it.

“If I am only going to play 30 minutes, I want to be impactful,” Rapinoe joked. On a serious note, she said, “I love being in and around the box and being in those kinds of creative playmaking moments.”

Lavelle noted the benefits of playing in a close match.

“It sounds maybe bizarre, but any opportunity that we go through adversity is honestly great for this group,” Lavelle said. “You don’t want to get scored on, but to have those games and have to grind it out when maybe things are getting a little messy, it’s back and forth, I think it’s good to experience that.”

Here’s what else to know about the friendly:

Wembley awaits

The U.S. schedule will intensify next month with an Oct. 7 friendly against European champion England at sold-out Wembley Stadium, followed by a probable visit to eighth-ranked Spain a few days later. Negotiations involving that second match have not been finalized.

The Americans will also play two home friendlies in November. The opponent and venues are expected to be announced soon.

CBA ceremony

After the match, the U.S. Soccer Federation and the national team’s players association officially signed the collective bargaining agreement, which was reached in May and ended years of labor acrimony. Ceremony guests included former women’s team players, Capitol Hill lawmakers and representatives from the NFL and MLB players associations.

Local representation

Four Washington Spirit players were on the squad, but only striker Ashley Hatch played, entering for Alex Morgan in the 80th minute. Goalkeeper Aubrey Kingsbury, midfielder Ashley Sanchez and midfielder Andi Sullivan sat out.

Two other Spirit players withdrew from training camp — defender Kelley O’Hara with a hip ailment and forward Trinity Rodman for family reasons — and another regular, defender Emily Sonnett, was unavailable because of a season-ending foot injury.

Left back Emily Fox, from Ashburn, Va., and NWSL’s Racing Louisville, played 80 minutes.

Nigeria’s U.S. ties

Waldrum, the Super Falcons’ American coach, also leads the University of Pittsburgh women’s program. His assistants include Lauren Gregg, a former University of Virginia coach and U.S. assistant.

The roster includes several Nigerian Americans, including sisters Toni and Nicole Payne. Toni Payne, 27, played for Duke and U.S. youth national teams. Nicole, 21, played for West Virginia.

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