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U.S., Nigeria to vie in a physical test

We won’t shy away, American forward says

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PHILADELPHIA — Nigeria's Super Falcons are no match for the American women in overall soccer skills. So they often bring something more to the game: brute force.

It's not necessarily malicious, nor is it always effective. But when the United States plays Nigeria in a first-round World Cup game Thursday night, there's no question it will be a physical match.

"Nigeria has been a very physical team in the past, but we don't shy away from that kind of game," said forward Cindy Parlow, who scored in the United States' 3-1 victory over Sweden on Sunday. "You don't go into a game afraid of getting hurt because then it's going to happen."

The only two Nigeria-United States games were one-sided American victories. But in the 1999 World Cup, a 7-1 win, and in a 3-1 victory at the 2000 Olympics, U.S. players were roughed up.

"I had cleat marks up and down my legs," defender Kate Sobrero recalled. "Mia (Hamm) had one right across her stomach.

"They are very aggressive, but they don't think they are fouling. They go and cleat you in the face and won't think it's a foul. They go into tackles you would never dream of going into."

While Nigeria coach Sam Okpodu says there isn't any malevolence involved in those tactics, he admits his players are "competitive."

"I don't think you can succeed against teams like the U.S. if you are not aggressive," said the former North Carolina State star. "We must play a competitive style, but there is no intention of hurting anyone."

U.S. coach April Heinrichs agrees. She contends the Nigerians simply believe they must contest every ball, and that they sometimes get carried away in how they do so.

"They're not the most physical team, per se," Heinrichs said, noting that Norway, Canada and China are more physical. "Nigeria has the quickest closing speed and sheer speed. They are on the verge of reckless at times, but I don't find what they are doing to be purposeful.

"If we back away, we run the risk of playing in fear during the game. Certainly, we have some courageous players that won't back off. That's part of being a good team.

"If we want to win a World Cup, we have to adjust our game," she said.

That means many quick, short passes. A victory at Lincoln Financial Field will just about clinch a spot in the quarterfinals for the United States.