U.S. Women's Soccer Puts Best Foot Forward, Takes Big First Step

Derik Hamilton/USA TODAY Sports

Abby Wambach's four goals Sunday gave her 18 in World Cup qualifiers, breaking Michelle Akers' team record.

CHESTER, Pa. -- The championship won, now the work begins.

As a stage was hastily assembled on the field at PPL Park in the moments after the referee's whistle brought Sunday's game between the United States and Costa Rica to a rather merciful end, the United States national team milled about en masse on the field. There were smiles, hugs and handshakes, but no arms raised or jubilation evident.

Costa Rican players, by contrast, stood and danced in front of a respectably large and loud rooting section.

The scoreboard told one story, but the scene told another.

The United States routed Costa Rica 6-0 to win the CONCACAF Women's Championship. It was another record-breaking night for Abby Wambach, who scored four goals to become the all-time leader in World Cup qualifying goals for the United States and the first American player to score four or more goals in a game on at least three occasions. It was another statement performance from Carli Lloyd, honored as the tournament's most valuable player after she scored a goal and assisted on two others in the final to bring her tournament total to five goals and four assists.

It was, according to U.S. coach Jill Ellis, the team's most complete performance in five tournament games.

But if you want words that sum up what all of that really means, the best ones might have been offered earlier in the tournament by Lloyd, who summed up her own aspirations during what seems now the peak of her career.

"I'm not afraid to put it out there that I want to become one of the best players in the world," Lloyd said. "It's funny, if you don't have an aim, I kind of wonder, 'Why are you playing?' I want to be the best. Whatever I do in life, I want to be at the top. I don't want to be 'Yeah, I was a member of the team.'

"No, I'm going for the top."

That is this team's aspiration and its expectation. That's not what was at stake over the past two weeks.

Costa Rican president Luis Guillermo Solis placed a congratulatory call to his country's national team when it advanced to the final by way of a penalty shootout and thereby clinched a place in the World Cup field.

American players had to settle for a handshake from U.S. Soccer president Sunil Gulati after winning the whole thing.

The U.S. unleashed its full might to a degree not seen in the first half of any game in the tournament, including what had seemed a relatively quick start in a semifinal against Mexico. The first goal in that game came in the sixth minute. The Americans this night made that seem plodding by comparison. Morgan Brian's terrific service in the fourth minute put the ball where Wambach needed it for the first of her goals. Lloyd made it 2-0 in the 18th minute with a header off a Wambach header, then returned the favor by setting up Wambach for, you guessed it, a header in the 35th minute. The same combination struck again in the same manner six minutes later for a 4-0 halftime lead.

AP Photo/Rich Schultz

Abby Wambach is the first American player to score four or more goals in a game on at least three occasions.

Asked what a defense can do against Wambach in the air, Costa Rica coach Garabet Avedissian said "pray" in Spanish. She is big, yes, but there are other big players, he noted, but none who command the air like she does.

"It's her timing, it's everything -- her reading the flight of the ball, her movement," teammate Lauren Holiday said. "Four goals tonight in the final and three with her head? She's the best in the world at that."

Throughout the tournament, Ellis seemed to lay the groundwork for a world in which Wambach doesn't feature in every starting lineup -- as she has in every game in every major tournament for which she's been healthy since the middle of the 2004 Olympics. After Wambach sat out the Mexico game, Ellis talked not about rest but about wanting a particular look for a particular opponent. It isn't about a desire to get Wambach out of the lineup as much as to make sure she is at her best, is as good as she was Sunday night, when she is on the field.

"She's made a really strong commitment to making sure physically she's ready for this," Ellis said. "And I think we can use her in multiple ways, and tonight we wanted her in the starting lineup and she delivered. The focus is crazy -- crazy good. She's just really locked on and working every facet of her game.

"We did some extra heading with her because she felt her timing was slightly off. I think she got it right tonight."

If the first half was itself a formality of sorts, the second half was a formality within that formality. Wambach added a fourth goal, this time with her foot, and Sydney Leroux closed the scoring with a goal off the bench.

It was a commanding performance against the second-best team throughout the tournament, a team that might have played conservatively but not to nearly the same degree as previous American opponents. But it was also a game against a team that is a far cry from Brazil, France, Germany, Japan or any other serious global power -- including Canada, which didn't have to go through the regional qualifying process as host of next summer's World Cup.

"I would tread lightly in terms of looking at these games and finding flaws or things that we need to work on because a lot of these games aren't going to be what we experience in the World Cup," Wambach said.

The same could be said of making too much of the good parts of the past five games.

The United States will work on playing the way Ellis wants them to play. There will be more talk, lots of it, about the No. 6 role and the No. 10 role and on down the numerical list. But at some point, the U.S. is what we see. And it will go as far as Wambach and Lloyd and the rest of a group that is unlikely to look much different takes it.

That at least looks better than it did four years ago at this time, as the United States awaited a playoff against Italy.

"I remember what it felt like four years ago to not be getting a championship medal from this tournament," Wambach said. "Truthfully, that third-place medal still hangs in my closet so that I can see it, so that it's a constant reminder of not letting chances slip by. We have an opportunity to win a World Cup, we really do."

Which is why, for them, winning a CONCACAF championship was worth a polite smile rather than a robust party. Trinidad and Tobago emerged as the Hollywood-style underdog during the tournament, the beneficiary of a fundraising effort that went viral on social media when players arrived in Texas to train with barely enough money for cabs to the hotel or food. They lost by just a single goal against the United States in the opening game, albeit a game not nearly as close as the score indicated, and sought the first World Cup bid for any Caribbean nation. It appeared a storybook end was in the works when Trinidad and Tobago took a 2-1 lead in the 78th minute of Friday's third-place game against Mexico, but the favorite rallied to pull level in regulation and pulled away for a 4-2 win in extra time.

Trinidad and Tobago must now win a two-legged playoff against Ecuador in November and December to qualify.

But as good a story as the Trinidadians crafted, the real success story of the tournament was Costa Rica, whose effort went somewhat less noticed by virtue of playing its group games on different days than the United States. While still a team with only one true professional and no real likelihood of a greater professional environment at home in the near future, the Costa Ricans reaped the benefit of a development plan that dated back to at least the 2008 Under-17 World Cup. They showed that a Central American team can build something and see a reward for the effort.

"Every country has potential. Every country has good players," Avedissian said through a translator the day before the final. "But without that basic work it's not possible to compete, it's not possible to achieve these goals at this level. In Costa Rica, we don't live from the women's game. These women are not professional players, and so you have to have that fundamental work at the base of the pyramid."

That was why the players danced in defeat Sunday night. The only result that mattered to them came two days earlier.

The only result that matters for the United States isn't available for another eight months.

From here, the U.S. breaks before reconvening in December for a four-team tournament in Brazil in which it will face the host, China and Argentina, the first two among the teams that will also be in the World Cup. After that, the United States will hold a training camp in California in January and compete in the annual Algarve Cup in Portugal, a field that will include most of the major contenders for next summer's big prize in Canada.

Asked the day before the final what was next for her, Ellis ran through a checklist that included figuring out which players would make the trip to Brazil and beginning to gather information on possible opponents next summer, with all but a handful of participants now qualified. She also offered the grin of someone who has lived too many weeks in a row out of hotel rooms and made it clear the first order of business was getting home to Miami.

"I'll probably give myself a day off," Ellis said. "And then I'll be looking at film and figuring out what goes next."

Figuring out the next step, the one that comes after the first step taken this night.

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