U.S. women's national team a class above CONCACAF
CARY, N.C. -- This time it was the game that preceded a World Cup qualifier between the United States and Trinidad and Tobago that demonstrated almost nothing is guaranteed in 90 minutes.
And it was the nightcap in the Women's CONCACAF Championship that showed when it comes to women's soccer in this part of the world, beating the U.S. women remains on the unattainable side of almost.
On the same night that Mexico was eliminated from the World Cup without even making it to Texas for the next round of qualifying, let alone the big tournament in France next summer, the United States breezed to its third win in as many games with a 7-0 romp against Trinidad and Tobago.
In the U.S. quest to find a more efficient finishing touch, and avoid anything like the fate that befell Mexico as its hopes collapsed in a barrage of misses against Panama -- or that befell the Americans against Sweden in the most recent Olympics -- the U.S. women hit on something of a blunt force solution: put as many potential goal scorers on the field at one time as possible.
And whether by precision or the constant pounding of 59 shots, the logic goes, eventually the dam will break.
Certainly it will against those parts of CONCACAF not called Canada.
It's the formula that ensured Crystal Dunn and Rose Lavelle their places on the field. And they, in turn, helped shake loose the goals Wednesday like a well-placed smack on a ketchup bottle, allowing the U.S. women to ease into Sunday's semifinal and claim a place in the World Cup with a win.
"Nobody is looking at someone else to do the job," Tobin Heath said after setting up the first two goals and finishing the scoring with a goal of her own. "Everybody knows that they can step up and do it for the team. So I think it's great to have those options and to have that eagerness. I feel like everybody is eager to contribute in a positive way and nobody is shying away, which is a really good sign."
Yet positive energy looked as if it might have been dwindling as the first half wore on. Indeed, after Alex Morgan put the United States ahead inside of 10 minutes on an assist from Heath, it looked for a long time that the Americans might test just how impervious they truly are -- at the very least repeat a turgid 1-0 win against the same opponent in qualifying four years ago.
Despite dominating play from the opening whistle, the field effectively cut in half as Trinidad and Tobago put every available body behind the ball, the U.S. women produced more frustration than celebration.
Chance after chance piled up without a goal. Heath said there remained a steady confidence that all the chances -- a Heath shot off the crossbar, back-to-back saves against Lindsey Horan, a Julie Ertz goal nullified by offsides and even a Becky Sauerbrunn near miss -- would eventually produce a second goal. But at some point, even if the result wasn't ever in danger, the sheer frustration of the ball's stubborn refusal to reach the back of the net could have soured the momentum the United States wanted to take with it to the semifinals.
Squandered opportunities in the opening half certainly haunted Mexico on Wednesday, its shots off the frame and a missed penalty opening the door for upstart Panama to win and inch closer to the World Cup. That was when Heath slid a ball across to Lavelle, well beyond the top of the 18-yard box. Lavelle said all she heard in that moment was Kelley O'Hara nearby yelling at her to take the shot. So she did, using two soft touches to set herself for a ball that whistled past the keeper.
The heavens had already opened by that point on a rainy night. The Trinidad and Tobago goal followed.
Barely a minute later, Megan Rapinoe danced into the left side of the area and crossed a ball that Lavelle leapt at once Morgan helped put it in her path. This time the finish was easier, but the price steeper, Lavelle cleaned out by a defender as she poked the ball home.
Dunn wrapped up the half with her own wallop from the top of the box and the U.S. led 4-0.
Although Lavelle left the game at halftime, replaced by Carli Lloyd, she said she felt fine physically, and U.S. coach Jill Ellis said the change was effectively a planned substitution.
The goals nearly doubled Lavelle's career total in her 16th appearance for the United States, an impressive debut against England back in the 2017 SheBelieves Cup followed by a succession of injuries that slowed her absorption into the team.
"I think I still don't really feel quite to my full self," Lavelle said. "But I think my touch is there and all that's there, it's more mentally I don't feel quite there yet. It's good to have games like these to kind of boost my confidence and take more steps toward getting there."
She's fighting that battle on two fronts, trying to trust her body after a lengthy struggle with a hamstring injury and also trying to fit in on the top-ranked team in the world.
"This is a super competitive environment, so every practice and training is super intense," Lavelle said. "And then also coming back from an injury and being out for so long, I feel like I kind of lost myself a little coming back. And I've kind of been still working on trying to get there.
"I think I'm getting there, but not quite where I want to be yet."
Necessary as these games are to reach the World Cup, they can feel like a waste of time. Scoring 18 goals against Mexico, Panama and Trinidad and Tobago doesn't feel as if it's doing much to help the U.S. women prepare for Australia, England, France, Germany and the rest next summer. But if the reps help Lavelle settle in or build chemistry between Dunn and Rapinoe down the left side, then perhaps there is value.
"She's a very unpredictable player," Heath said of Lavelle. "So I think for us, when we're trying to break down teams, especially when teams are sitting back, she can make that clever pass or take-on on the dribble. She is more of a creative player, can see things that other players don't see. For us to have a player like that is important to be able to break down teams."
The U.S. lineup is full of creative players with an eye for goal these days.
With the game meandering to a conclusion, Ellis found even one more way to accumulate finishers when Mallory Pugh replaced O'Hara on the field, but Heath took over O'Hara's right back role with Pugh at forward. It would seem a waste of Heath's skills to do so with any regularity, but it must also be singularly frightening for an opponent to see Heath and Pugh overlapping on one side and Dunn and Rapinoe doing the same on the other side.
Give that many talented players 59 shots and the result will come.
That alone won't help the U.S. win a World Cup against a different caliber of opponent, when a defender like Dunn isn't free to spend the entire game in the opponent's final third, and Lavelle might show her youth against defenders with equal pace and more experience.
But it is still plenty for CONCACAF.