USA Women Dominant Against Mexico
ROCHESTER, N.Y. -- It is apparent the United States can beat the team expected to provide the toughest competition when World Cup qualifying begins next month.
What remains to be seen is which players will be asked to do so when those games begin.
Five days and two time zones removed from an 8-0 win against Mexico in Utah, the United States was less prolific but hardly less dominant in a 4-0 win against its southern neighbor on Thursday night. Four years ago, Mexico stunned the United States in World Cup qualifying and forced the Americans to suffer the indignity of a playoff against Italy just to gain an invitation to the big tournament in Germany. Even eight years ago, at almost the exact same spot on the calendar, the Americans plodded through a 3-1 exhibition win against Mexico in Rochester.
This time they scored more goals in a two-game span against Mexico than at any point since 1998 in the series.
If "dos a cero" is the American rallying cry against Mexico in men's soccer, the past week was "doce a cero."
The result was a foregone conclusion almost before Amy Rodriguez opened the scoring in the ninth minute, which left the evening as more or less an exercise in evaluation for U.S. coach Jill Ellis, who must reduce her current roster of 28 players to 20 before the start of qualifying. And without either Alex Morgan or Abby Wambach in the starting lineup, much to the disappointment of the small crowd that showed up on a chilly night, the game felt from the outset not so much like two teams playing against each other as two teams working on things in close proximity to each other.
"When you make this many substitutions it's hard to get a flow in a game," Ellis said after using all six of the substitutions available to her. "So I think it kind of reflected a little bit on possession."
It was a "choppy" game, as Ellis put it in reference to both the style and an artificial surface that drew critical comments from most of the Americans, but it wasn't really about the game. There wasn't much of one to speak of on this night.
A defensive miscue from Mexico and a timely touch from Megan Rapinoe set loose Rodriguez for the opening goal, deftly lofted over the keeper. Rapinoe started and finished the second goal, pulling the ball out of the hands of a stalling Mexican player to take a quick free quick and then putting it in the back of the net when the ensuing sequence brought the ball to her in the 18-yard box. Tobin Heath added a third goal just before halftime, played in on goal by Rapinoe, with a helping touch from Rodriguez, and Morgan closed the scoring with a header in the 79th minute.
The biggest threat posed by Mexico came when a rare miscue from Hope Solo gave Mexico captain Veronica Perez a look at an open goal, only to have the chance erased by a needed tackle from Becky Sauerbrunn.
That it was both such an easy win and an imperfect one speaks to how far Mexico appears from being ready to reprise its role of four years ago. Ellis spoke in the days before the game of stressing the process as much as the result with her players. She looked and sounded after the game like someone true to her word.
"The space in front of their back line was so big, we wanted to get into that space more," Ellis said. "You know, I thought Mexico was fired up; I mean, they were trying to press us. I think we didn't find each other enough, to be honest with you. When Megan gets in that pocket and turns and goes, and when Carli [Lloyd] gets in that pocket and turns and goes, it's great. We want to get into those spaces. But I think our buildup and playing through our midfield could certainly improve."
The team didn't spend the past two weeks, the longest uninterrupted stretch Ellis has had with her players since U.S. Soccer named her to replace Tom Sermanni as head coach in May, trying to figure out how to beat Mexico. It spent the time trying to continue to adjust to what Ellis wants in formation and style and competing for the spots on the roster that will open qualifying against Trinidad and Tobago in Kansas City on Oct. 15.
As would be expected, all involved spoke optimistically Thursday of where the overall effort stands. Teams always speak optimistically right before qualifying. If it's different this time, it's both because of the memory of four years ago and the depth of talent available.
"I think it feels different in that we aren't taking any of these games for granted," Wambach said. "I can see the intensity. I can see the focus in people's eyes probably more so than four years ago. And to be quite honest, the team is more difficult to make right now. I think [former coach] Pia [Sundhage] had kind of a set lineup that was in play for a couple of years. And because Jill is so new to the team, in terms of being a head coach, some players have gotten a chance maybe when they wouldn't have. The reality is this is going to be one of the toughest rosters to make.
"Gone are the days where if you are the fittest on the team, you make it. You have to be fit, you have to be position specific. You have to be good at what you do. And you have to be one of the best in the world to do it to be a starter on this team."
One of the best illustrations of that and most difficult choices didn't seem to get any easier after 90 minutes in Rochester. Getting just her fourth start for the team this year, Rodriguez finished with the goal and assist. Both were to some degree opportunistic, most obviously the assist on what appeared to be an attempt to trap the ball and play it herself, but being in the right place at the right time to be the recipient of good fortune is part of the job description for goal scorers. And no American player scored more goals during the NWSL season than Rodriguez, who returned seemingly better than ever after sitting out last year for both club and country while pregnant with her first child.
On the other side of the field to start Thursday's game, and possibly on the other side of the choice for a roster spot, Sydney Leroux played into the second half. And while she did it without the final product in goals or assists, she made the kind of dangerous runs that have produced 32 goals for the national team -- more than Rodriguez in far fewer games -- and played with the kind of energy and two-way commitment that Ellis spoke of earlier in the week as prerequisites for playing time.
Ellis wasn't ready to tip her hand when asked if there was room on a 20-person roster for both players, given the depth around and ahead of them on the depth chart.
"I think it's good choices," Ellis said. "They've both competed very, very hard. It's riches, as far as our forward line. So yeah, we've got to talk about it."
The United States got the result. Resolution will have to wait.