U.S. women withstand Canada's challenge to win CONCACAF crown
FRISCO, Texas -- Several American players made clear entering the final of the CONCACAF Women's Championship that the first four games had been necessary but not especially useful.
Four consecutive routs of overmatched opponents qualified the U.S. women for next year's World Cup with little stress, not to mention pleased crowds, but the wins didn't prove much to them. Especially not to the experienced players, those who survived a World Cup semifinal against Germany three years ago and didn't in an Olympic quarterfinal against Sweden a year later.
Those tournaments are ultra-marathons. The first four CONCACAF games were fun runs.
In the end, the U.S. women got what it wanted with a 2-0 win against Canada on Wednesday. And not just with a trophy or Julie Ertz's Golden Ball as the tournament's outstanding player.
The Americans got a reminder that what's ahead won't be easy. They got pushed, literally at times, and they pushed back. And they still got the result that, combined with wins earlier this year against Brazil, England, Germany and Japan, suggests that no matter how difficult the challenge ahead, it is no more difficult than what the rest of the globe faces in taking the world title from them.
"The whole 90 minutes, and plus, was a physical game, and we had to match it and bring more to the table," Lindsey Horan said after playing a part in setting up both goals. "It was a difficult game all-around and one I think we were able to come out of alive, which is great."
She appeared to be mostly joking about mere survival as a perk. But only mostly.
It took less than two minutes Wednesday for Rose Lavelle to find herself under pressure in her own half of the field. That particular sensation was foreign to just about any American through the first four games. It took Lavelle only a few more seconds to give her team the lead.
Unperturbed by the unfamiliar pressure, Lavelle played a confident pass to Horan on the opposite side of the center circle and into Canadian territory. Horan gathered, turned and took off up the field, shedding Canadians like a snowplow through fresh powder. Her attempt to put the ball in the box was temporarily cleared, only for the ball to settle at Lavelle's feet.
Just as calmly as she made the pass that started the whole sequence, Lavelle wrapped her left foot around the ball and sent it slicing past the keeper and inside the far post. For the fifth time in five games, the U.S. women took a lead before the game was 10 minutes old.
This lead proved more precious.
The game was physical from the outset. Canada wasn't the only aggressor -- the United States kept pace in fouls almost all the way throughout -- but the Canadians made theirs count. When Horan let a ball run through her legs and left Rebecca Quinn overcommitted in the 26th minute, the Canadian's tackle left Horan writhing on the ground and drew a yellow card. Canadian Allysha Chapman took a yellow for a hard tackle on Tobin Heath five minutes later.
Heath got her revenge with a yellow card less than three minutes later, but Canada added two more yellow cards before the game was 70 minutes old. The U.S. women were left free to do what they wanted with the ball in their first four games. Canada didn't let that happen, regardless of whether that was the plan or merely a byproduct of neighborly dislike.
"The spaces should be as limited as possible when you're defending, and they're trying the same thing when we are attacking," Canada coach Kenneth Heiner-Moller said. "So when the space is so small, the proximity between players -- our players but also theirs -- is getting pretty intense. So you'll see these tackles and stuff, which is what the game is about. I think it was a great game.
"It wasn't something we talked about we needed to bring. It's just what the game gives you."
Watching Heath grow more incandescent with each foul incurred and each call against her that she felt was unjust was a good barometer of the proceedings. It's not quite an aberration for her not to see eye to eye on the way a game is called, but the frantic energy that pulsed out of a player with often measured body language said it all. This was a mental test.
Nor was she alone. Along with Heath, Megan Rapinoe was among the most vocal in cautioning against reading too much into one-sided scorelines against overmatched opponents. Both talked about the value of being challenged in their final game. They didn't necessarily have this in mind.
"I think we wanted a better team challenge, which we definitely got," Rapinoe said. "They created a couple of good chances. They have a couple of just really quality players. So in that sense it was good. I mean, I never want that kind of game. That's not personally the kind of game I wanted. It got pretty chippy and some pretty heavy tackles.
"So it was more of a physical challenge, I guess, than any of the other games. But they're disruptive. They press really well and keep the ball on one side of the field. If you have trouble breaking that, it's going to be a tough game with your feet stepped on a lot. It's up to us to play around that and play through it."
That is precisely what made the game so valuable for the United States. The yellow cards aside, Canada didn't cross the line. It played hard, it was physical, but it played the game and challenged how the U.S. women would do when not left free to deploy their outside backs as extra forwards or launch 59 shots on goal.
The final margin came with a bit of help. Canada's attempt to clear a late Rapinoe corner found its way to Horan wide of the goal. She played the ball across, where Alex Morgan deftly swept home her 24th goal in her past 24 games -- no matter that replays left little doubt that she was offside.
But long before the goal that removed any doubt about the outcome, Morgan teamed with Heath and Rapinoe to lead the United States -- not just by position as the top line but also in holding to the identity that has allowed the team to play so well this year. Time and again, those three chased down opponents. They never allowed the Canadians to counter or build possession. They didn't let the fatigue of a physical game stop them from pressing.
At one point late in the second half, Canada paused before a throw in its own end. With miles already run and hits already absorbed, Morgan used the hesitation to sprint perhaps 30 yards to be in position to press the player who received the ball.
It's easy to talk about a style when opponents can't do anything about it. The test is when they can.
"It gives us three confidence," Rapinoe said of the forwards leading the defensive effort. "It can be a way that we can sort of get into the game if we're not getting a lot of touches. But just as a whole team philosophy, we want to put teams under pressure all over the field, and we can't be slacking up there. It kind of starts with us. We set the tone."
Wednesday was difficult. It didn't look flawless. But it was productive. No matter how the bodies felt after.
"Yeah, pretty horrible," Horan allowed, again with only the hint of a smile.
The U.S. women have a trophy to show for their work. They will also have some bruises.
The second might prove to be the more useful prize.