Nigeria coach Randy Waldrum was left bristling as he defended his tactical and substitution choices in the Super Falcons' loss on penalties to Morocco in the Women's Africa Cup of Nations semifinals on Monday.
Nigeria were aiming for an 11th African title to extend their record, but after regulation and extra time ended 1-1, hosts Morocco, in front of a 45 562-strong crowd, won the spot kicks 5-4. Gotham FC's Ifeoma Onumonu missed the decisive kick for Nigeria.
Onumonu's miss, and Nigeria's elimination, was the catalyst for media and fans on social media to vociferously question Waldrum's decision to keep the Gotham striker on for all 120 minutes, when he had fresher and quicker legs on the bench.
Former college and NWSL coach Waldrum gave a testy response to media who challenged his substitution choices: "I'm not going to get into that.
"I'll say the subs we made were the right subs in the match and we couldn't have asked more from the players."
The Super Falcons were reduced to nine players early on, when first Halimatu Ayinde was sent off, then quickly followed by Rasheedat Ajibade, to leave the favourites playing on the backfoot for over an hour through regular and extra time.
Still, Nigeria weathered an early Morocco rush in the opening minutes, then took complete control, dominating the game and pinning the hosts to their half of the field for the rest of them half. But disaster struck early in the second half, when Ayinde, under no pressure, stepped on the ankle of a Moroccan defender.
Mauritian referee Maria Rivet stopped play to take a VAR check, and Ayinde was off. Still, the Super Falcons dominated and were rewarded when Ajibade's cross was headed onto the upright by Onumonu, and Yasmin Mrabet flicked it into her own net under pressure from the lurking Uchenna Kanu.
Rather than play conservatively, the Super Falcons continued to push up, leaving themselves open and exposed at the back, and within four minutes, they were made to pay. Chiamaka Nnadozie failed to deal with a cross and it was stabbed home from close range.
It was not long before Ajibade followed Ayinde to an early shower, for a similar dangerous tackle.
Still Nigeria continued to push forward with reckless abandon, with Onumonu still leading the line. On her best day, the 28-year-old is not the quickest of players, and on the night, her hold up play was not exactly holding up, especially as she tired.
But Waldrum left her on to plough a lonesome foray, minded by two defenders at every turn. When the American coach did decide to make changes, he inexplicably hauled off the industrious Ngozi Okobi-Okeoghene.
Questioned about his side's continued expansive play despite being down personnel, Waldrum said it was tough to make himself heard through the noise: "Getting word out to the pitch was hard to do with the noise. Obviously, we wanted them to be deeper in their starting positions."
Nigeria, shorthanded for all of the second half and through extra time, still held on and could have even won it late on when Gift Monday crashed a shot against the cross bar.
Goalkeeper Nnadozie was disconsolate after the game, and blamed poor officiating for their elimination: "The whole Moroccan team know that Nigeria is a great team, so to beat us they had to distract us.
"They did everything they did just to distract us. Since I have been playing football, this is the worst match I have ever played in my life.
"They won but this is not winning for me. The officiating was not really okay. If they were good enough, we were nine players against 11, they would have scored and won. That is to show you how great we are."
Leicester City defender Ashleigh Plumptre said the scoreline despite being two players down spoke to the character and quality of the team: "I don't think anybody can fault the players on the pitch for how we tried to fight.
"Even with nine players, for that amount of time, because it is not just the physical side, it is also the emotional and mental side, the frustration of having two players coming off. I am not going to comment on the decision, but that affects everybody on the pitch. Most of us were tired but we still put in a good effort."
Nigeria will now play for the bronze medal against Zambia, who lost 1-0 to South Africa. Banyana Banyana will face Morocco in the final on July 23.