With no shortage of goals, U.S. women qualify for World Cup

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Alex Morgan, who scored two goals Sunday, leads the U.S. women in 2018 with 16 goals. She has scored 23 goals in her past 23 games.

FRISCO, Texas -- This all started when the U.S. women waited and waited for a second goal that never came against Sweden in the Olympics a little more than two years ago.

The Americans waited without reward for any goal against England in 2017 and again against France in the game that followed it. Australia visited that summer and still the United States searched in vain for goals.

For the same country that scored with such ease on a magical afternoon in Vancouver in 2015 to reclaim the World Cup title missing for so long, it was all painfully symbolic. To move forward, they needed goals. Yet the more the U.S. women waited for those goals, the less patience anyone had.

The United States waited less than 120 seconds for one Sunday. It scored five goals before halftime.

The Americans made their point long before the final whistle in a 6-0 win against Jamaica.

Safely qualified alongside Canada as semifinal winners in the CONCACAF Women's Championship, they know they are going to France for the World Cup. They are going to collect goals. And no team in the world does that better right now.

This was the way the U.S. women needed their qualifying campaign to come to a close. Shutting the door not on Jamaica, but the ghosts of Sweden, England, France and Australia.

"We talked about qualifying," U.S. coach Jill Ellis said of the business done on the night. "But it was also how we qualified in terms of how we played and the performance tonight."

The United States barely waited for the opening whistle Sunday night at Toyota Stadium. Seven seconds after Jamaica kicked off, U.S. midfielder Rose Lavelle jumped in front of a pass to the sideline and sent her team in the opposite direction on the first of many forays into the opponent's end.

That first surge didn't produce a goal, but it didn't take many. Inside of two minutes, Jamaica's goalkeeper stopped a Lindsey Horan shot but couldn't keep the rebound from settling at Tobin Heath's feet. Patient in free space, Heath buried her shot high into the corner for a 1-0 lead.

But if Horan's assistance in the sequence that led to the first goal was unintentional, the next three goals the U.S. women scored played out as 2015 and 2019 working in harmony.

First came the precise, arcing cross-field ball that defender Abby Dahlkemper played to Megan Rapinoe, the kind of pass Ellis often talks about as a requirement of a center back in the modern game. Rapinoe still had work to do to finish it, but one pass changed the field.

Then there was Crystal Dunn's cross from deep in the corner to set up Julie Ertz for a header, a ball that Dunn chased down while pushed high up field as the left back she has become this year. Ertz said it was Dunn's yelling for the ball that sparked her to play an aggressive pass, a comfort of familiarity.

Finally, club teammates Horan and Heath teamed up in a more direct way, the reigning NWSL MVP playing a perfect lob wedge of a pass onto Heath's foot for a 4-0 lead.

And all of that transpired within 15 minutes on the field -- three additions since the Olympics setting up three veterans who are better now than they were in either 2015 or 2016.

Those pieces didn't fit together seamlessly before. They looked seamless Sunday.

This team is pound for pound more talented than any team that I've been on with, with the national team -- across the board, all the way through the positions.
Megan Rapinoe

"I think this team is pound for pound more talented than any team that I've been on with, with the national team -- across the board, all the way through the positions," Rapinoe said. "You could tell that the younger players just had something different about them. It was just a matter of putting it all together [over two years]. Obviously we went through a lot of frustrating times where it wasn't all together. ... It would just get a little stuck on the field at times. I feel like everyone is in the same groove right now and on the same page with what we want to do."

Ellis raved about Horan's performance as a conductor Sunday. Alex Morgan scored two goals, giving her 23 in her past 23 games. Lavelle again flashed brilliance, Heath did the same. Familiar and new fit together.

It was a far cry from, say, a 3-0 loss to France on home soil. Eleven players were on the field for at least portions of both that game on March 7, 2017, and Sunday's win. It wasn't that the United States had the wrong pieces at that time. Experimenting with three defenders, it had the wrong puzzle.

"For us a lot of it was nailing down what system we wanted to play, in terms of what fitted us, the personnel and profile of the players," Ellis said. "That was part of the process of finding out where our best players on the field do the best things."

That started in the last of the shutout losses, the 1-0 setback against Australia in Seattle that gave that World Cup contender its first win against the U.S. women. It was after that defeat that Ertz earned a regular place at holding midfielder and the formation shifted to the 4-3-3 that not only tormented CONCACAF in recent days but Australia, Brazil and Japan this summer.

"From there it was just a matter of getting better and better and better at it and learning more of the nuances of the system," Ellis said. "Both side of the ball, attacking and defending."

There is a temptation to treat the United States like other women's teams with some kind of mainstream foothold -- like the U.S. women's basketball team that has won 22 consecutive games in the World Cup or its predecessor and 49 in a row in the Olympics. A 24-0 goal advantage through the first four games of this tournament certainly feeds that narrative. But that superiority isn't this team's luxury.

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Crystal Dunn, above, had the assist on Julie Ertz's goal in the 21st minute to give the U.S. women a 3-0 lead.

This U.S. team is first right now, but first among equals in women's soccer. Its margin is paper thin -- not against Jamaica or the rest of CONCACAF, save Canada, but against a world, and certainly a European continent, waking up to the women's side of a sport it already adores.

The U.S. players know as much. It is why Heath and Rapinoe echoed each other after the game when they lamented the lack of competition faced to this point. This team isn't invulnerable, starting with Wednesday's final against Canada (8 p.m. ET), which overcame a congested start to rout Panama 7-0 and clinch its own World Cup bid.

The most important thing the U.S. did Sunday was qualify to defend its World Cup title. But the way it qualified mattered. Not because it will do the same to better teams. But because it will try.

It is a team that no longer waits for goals. It goes and chases them against all comers.

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