U.S. women run past Mexico in World Cup qualifying opener
CARY, N.C. -- If all goes as planned, Thursday was the first of 12 competitive games the United States women's national team will play before someone in a blazer hands them the World Cup trophy next year in France. Five to win CONCACAF now. Seven for the rest of the world later.
That's 18 hours of soccer, barring extra time. You can run a long way in 18 hours.
The U.S. women appear willing to find out how far. And how fast.
Continuing the momentum of a summer spent pillaging opposing territory, the United States beat Mexico 6-0 in its first group game in the CONCACAF Women's Championship. Starting off the World Cup qualifying tournament with a potentially tricky game against the confederation's third-best team, the only team ever to beat the U.S. women in World Cup qualifying, the Americans instead made it look easy.
Or more accurately, the U.S. women made it look all too difficult for Mexico.
Unlike four years ago, when the United States was never in danger but labored nonetheless in a 1-0 win against Trinidad and Tobago to open qualifying, it took less than three minutes for Megan Rainoe to provide a lead against Mexico on Thursday. In her first competitive game as captain, Rapinoe pulled open Mexico's defense with a run through the middle but was denied a chance when Alex Morgan's pass was blocked. No matter. With Morgan following her pass and Lindsey Horan charging from midfield, the ball soon found its way back to Rapinoe for the finish.
That seemed to set a tone, the U.S. women completing more than twice as many passes as Mexico in the first half and piling up more than 70 percent possession. It looked impressive, the final touch perhaps a little off but the presence commanding.
Yet over and over again in the first half, U.S. assistant coach Tony Gustafsson and even head coach Jill Ellis rose off the bench. Ellis pleaded with the fourth official when Mexico took its time over a goal kick. And Gustafsson implored players to speed up the tempo. His booming voice carried across the field -- or at least most of it.
"I didn't hear it so much," Tobin Heath grinned of her spot at the other end of the field from the U.S. bench. "But I had a feeling he was saying something like that."
Delivered again at halftime, it isn't a new message. Going into qualifying Ellis summed up the identity she wants for the team assembled over the past two years as "aggressive, pressing, skillful, penetrating."
So they played fast in the first half. But they could play faster -- faster moving the ball in possession, faster pressing and closing down in those rare instances they lost it.
"I think it's difficult, especially when you're playing with a team that was sitting back a little bit," Heath said of Mexico's five defenders. "So it was important for us to continue our tempo and the way that we wanted to play and not settle and take too many touches. Especially in areas that we felt like we could take more touches, it was important for us to keep that tempo going."
Less than a minute into the second half, with the United States already on its second push into Mexico's half, Nayell Rangel found herself a step behind Horan and pulled the midfielder down by the shoulder. It was a foul of fatigue, of someone already running dangerously low on the energy to withstand the pressure. And it was only going to get worse.
Rapinoe dropped the ensuing free kick into dangerous space in front of Mexico's goal. A defender's header came off the crossbar, and the ensuing scramble ended with Julie Ertz slipping the ball into the back of the net for a 2-0 lead. Just 63 seconds had elapsed.
Not even four minutes later, Ertz was back in her familiar territory in the middle third of the field, sliding in on a tackle to break up a seemingly harmless pass near the sideline. Always pressure.
The dam broke with the third goal, Morgan's header in the 57th minute off Rapinoe's corner again showcasing this team's potential on set plays -- Morgan, Horan and Ertz dangerous in the air on quality service from Rapinoe, Heath or Rose Lavelle. But the water was leaking well before Morgan and Rapinoe celebrated with moves out of the new FIFA video game. Minutes earlier Heath nearly found the back of the net after an opponent played a square ball half the width of the field in front of her own goal, the pass of someone weary physically and mentally.
Heath soon scored a thundering header. Rapinoe and Morgan each added second goals. Mexico, which lost two games to the United States earlier this year but looked aggressive in the process, never recovered. On a steamy, humid night their fatigue seemed to fill U.S. energy reserves.
"I think it kind of comes in the form of space and time on the ball and things opening up a little bit easier," Rapinoe said of that ruthlessness. "Once the goals start falling in, it's tough for teams to come back from that knowing they aren't going to get many chances at the other end."
Mexico coach Roberto Medina said through a translator that there wasn't a noticeable difference in the U.S. tempo compared to two games the team played earlier this year. He allowed only that the humidity made the conditions faster and the ball harder to control.
The United States, he suggested, is always strong. He has a point. Pace and aggression are hardly new in the American catalog. But rarely has a group shown the potential to blend it so ably with skill.
"I think both offensively and defensively our tempo is high," Heath said. "Defensively we want to regain and win the ball as high up on the field as possible. And then when we do win the ball, wherever we win it, we want to try and go forward as quickly as possible and get to the goal as quickly as possible and take advantage of any team that wants to open up and play against us."
The plan isn't foolproof. The U.S. women played to their identity against Australia this summer and controlled the flow of the game. They still needed a late Horan header just to salvage a tie. Australia is a peer, a World Cup contender in its own right, and those games go that way sometimes. The point made Thursday was that Mexico is not yet a peer, not close. And if the United States plays those games with the same energy as it did against Australia, well, you get results like 6-0.
As the clock ticked under 10 minutes and a few fans began to make their way for the exit with the Americans leading by six goals, Gustafsson rose again and yelled, "Move the ball, move it," as the U.S. lingered in possession too long for his liking. The job wasn't yet done.
"Nobody takes for granted the time that we have on the field," Morgan said. "And obviously we have such depth on the bench that it's important to continue to showcase why you deserve to be on the field for those 90 minutes or however long you're playing.
"So for us it's just continuing to play our tempo, not dropping our pace or tempo based on our opponent trying to slow down play or whatever it may be."
One down. Eleven to go. The U.S. women believe they have the stamina for this race. Does the world?