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Smooth sailing thus far for US

The United States expected a challenging start to the Women's World Cup. Instead, the US has found the early part of the road to the final to be smoother than ever.

In 1999, the US fell behind in the first half against Nigeria in the second game of group play. This time, the US has not come close to trailing in taking victories over Sweden (3-1) Sunday and Nigeria (5-0) Thursday night.

The US is on the verge of a quarterfinal berth as it prepares to meet North Korea in Columbus, Ohio, tomorrow. The US will win its group with a tie, and could advance with a loss, on the strength of its plus-7 goal differential. Its next opponent likely would be Brazil or Norway at Gillette Stadium Wednesday.

Though US coaches and players expected Nigeria to be difficult, Thursday's match was no contest. The US has outscored the Nigerians, 15-2, in three successive victories in four years.

"I was told that Nigeria was not as good as they were in 1999 and 2000," US coach April Heinrichs said. "I respectfully disagree."

If Heinrichs is not being disingenuous, this result indicates the US has improved greatly. In any case, Mia Hamm seems more focused than ever and her all-around play has improved.

"I love her intensity," midfielder Julie Foudy said of Hamm. "She is always setting new standards.

"She is doing everything, and I had to tell her not to track back so much, stay up front. But when she has that fire in her eyes it inspires all of us."

Hamm scored twice in the first 12 minutes, on a penalty kick and then a 30-yard free kick that was meant as a back-post cross.

The US was not about to be surprised by the Falcons, who were not as super as they were four years ago, when they scored in the second minute against the US before falling, 7-1.

The US challenged aggressively in the early going, but neither team connected on more than two passes for several minutes. Finally, some briefly coherent play earned a throw-in for the US, and Cindy Parlow went down in the penalty area in a clash with Flo Omagbemi, who would also surrender a penalty in the 89th minute.

Argentine referee Florencia Romano awarded the penalty kick, and Hamm converted in the sixth minute.

The US continued to pressure, the Nigerians struggling to clear and failing to use the offside trap even in the most basic situations. The US threatened with high balls to Parlow and second-half substitute Abby Wambach, eventually helping to create space in the midfield for Hamm, Kristine Lilly, Aly Wagner, and substitute Tiffeny Milbrett.

Hamm, who has scored two goals in all four WWC finals, also set up Parlow for the third goal with a perfectly-placed corner kick in the 47th minute, and her layoff to Lilly contributed to the fourth goal.

But even with a regrouped defense -- Kylie Bivens and Cat Reddick making their first World Cup starts -- the US was seldom tested by a tactically-unsound Nigeria. The Nigerians broke through twice. Briana Scurry blocked Patience Avre's shot in the 15th minute. Stella Mbachu put the rebound into an unguarded net but she had advanced in an offside position. Mercy Akide's low cross through the goal area was wasted in the 61st minute.

"There was a lot of emotion at the start and it's hard to get ready to play when the game is going at that type of speed," Foudy said. "We went to lower pressure in the second half and tried to be careful, not do something stupid to put ourselves in danger."

Indeed, the Nigerians seemed to get the worst of the physical play. Wambach recovered from a hard hip check from Omagbemi, which led to Foudy's penalty kick for the final goal, and floored defender Bunmi Kayode during injury time. Kayode was treated near the center circle for several minutes, then removed by stretcher.

The opening round of the tournament has shown that the US is still the world's dominant women's team, and is likely to be seriously challenged only by Brazil and Europe's elite.

"This is all about getting out of group play," said Lilly, whose cross set up Wambach for a 4-0 lead in the 65th minute. "Because of the speed of Nigeria we didn't control the ball as much as we should.

"But if we play well, play like we have been playing, we should do well. We know the nature of [North Korea's] game and they are faster than Nigeria. But as things become more important we start to shine."

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