VANCOUVER, British Columbia -- For the first three games of Olympic qualifying, the U.S. women's national team was otherworldly. With an Olympic berth on the line in a semifinal against Costa Rica, the Americans' play was average, but that was still good enough for them to prevail 3-0 and book their ticket to London.
Tobin Heath opened the scoring early in the first half Friday, and Carli Lloyd put the game away with a thunderous blast midway through the second. Alex Morgan capped the scoring in the 89th minute, converting from her own rebound. The U.S. also owed a debt of gratitude to goalkeeper Hope Solo, who came up with a critical save midway through the first half to preserve the victory.
"Costa Rica came out and played hard," said U.S. head coach Pia Sundhage. "But they also played well and smart. Eventually, we had three goals, and despite the first goal coming quickly, we struggled a little bit. It became an emotional game, more so than a tactical game I think. But I have to give say I give credit to the players. The players coming off the bench again changed [the game] a little bit, and we are going to London."
The U.S. had outscored its opponents 31-0 in its first three games, and in the 16th minute, it looked like the same script was about to unfold. Situated at the far post, Shannon Boxx nodded Lauren Cheney's corner kick back across goal, and Costa Rica goalkeeper Erika Miranda could only get a touch on the ball, allowing Heath to nod the ball home.
But already there had been warning signs. The U.S. passing had been ragged from the start, especially out of the back. And rather than crumbling, Costa Rica proceeded to raise its game and go on the offensive. A rudimentary free kick over the top caught the U.S. defense napping in the 25th minute, springing Raquel Rodriguez on the clear breakaway, but Solo charged aggressively off her line to save the Costa Rican attempt from point-blank range.
Costa Rica came even closer two minutes later when Carol Sanchez's long-range blast from 40 yards struck the crossbar and was eventually cleared to safety.
"It was almost as if after we scored that first goal, no one wanted to get stuck into a tackle," said U.S. forward Abby Wambach. "We were kind of playing a little bit soft."
For the rest of the half, the U.S. never established an attacking rhythm, as the team was incapable of stringing together more than a few passes. Credit is due the Costa Rica defense, which was much more aggressive in closing down the U.S. wingers and was stronger in the air than it had been during the last group-stage game, a 5-1 mauling at the hands of Canada.
"I think we were just off," said captain Christine Rampone. "I don't think we matched their mentality that they came with. They came at us really hard defensively, and put us under pressure. And I don't think we were moving the ball as quick as we were the last two games."
The Americans' play improved after halftime with the U.S. taking better care of the ball, but the clinching goal remained elusive. Wambach went close in the 53rd minute when her volley of Kelley O'Hara's cross went just wide. Lloyd twice went close from free kicks outside the box.
Sundhage brought on Morgan for Heath, and the move allowed the U.S. to finally break through in the 72nd minute. A nice exchange of passes between Cheney and Morgan resulted in Wambach getting a clear look at goal. Her looping, deflected shot was cleared off the line by Daniela Cruz, but Lloyd was there to collect the loose ball and fire it home past a despairing Miranda.
"We wanted to play like Americans play," Wambach said. "Get stuck into a tackle, make something happen. Luckily, Carli made something happen."
Morgan then added an insurance tally in the 89th minute, scoring after a long solo run. The goal capped off a fine evening for the substitute, one that came courtesy of a motivational nudge from Sundhage.
"I talked to Morgan, and I asked her how she felt when Sydney Leroux came into [the last] game and she didn't," Sundhage said. "[Morgan] has played in the World Cup and done very well. This is a very competitive team, and she looked at me, and I wanted an honest answer. She said, 'I don't think you want that answer.' I said, 'Great.' That tells you a little bit about how badly she wants to play."
It's a scoreline that ended up flattering the U.S., but no matter. This was a match in which the result was all that counted. The Americans now have six months to fine-tune their game, and based on this result, Sundhage should have no shortage of things on which to work.
But for now, the Americans can celebrate.
Player ratings: (1-10; 10 = best)
G Hope Solo, 8 -- Came up huge when it mattered most, stuffing Rodriguez's breakaway attempt. Was also confident in the air when dealing with opposition crosses.
D Amy LePeilbet, 4 -- Cut out some dangerous through passes, but was very shaky on the ball.
D Christie Rampone, 5.5 -- Not anywhere near her usual standard, especially in terms of her distribution. Tightened things up considerably in the second half.
D Rachel Buehler, 3.5 -- The weakest link. Too often her clearances and passes went straight to the opposition. Was also caught napping in the run-up to Rodriguez's breakaway in the 25th minute. Perked up in the second half when the U.S had more possession.
D Kelley O'Hara, 6 -- Was thrown into the deep end in an unfamiliar position and held up decently. Did what she could to help the attack.
M Carli Lloyd, 6 -- Was caught in possession too often in the first half, and didn't move the ball fast enough. Her play improved after halftime, and she got a deserved goal that iced the contest.
M Shannon Boxx, 4 -- Deserves praise for keeping the play alive on Heath's goal, but struggled mightily with even basic passes. Her game improved a bit in the second half.
M Tobin Heath, 5 -- Was well-positioned to head home the U.S. goal, but was far too predictable in the first half when she got the ball out wide, preferring to cut inside almost every time. Had more success when she mixed things up.
M Lauren Cheney, 6.5 -- The best starter in the field for the U.S., although she was by no means perfect. She was active in seeking out the ball and was aggressive while on it.
M Heather O'Reilly, 5 -- Seemed off her game, in that her crosses rarely found their intended target. Put in her usual shift on defense.
F Abby Wambach, 5.5 -- Seemed out of sorts, but she was also starved of service for much of the night. That changed with Morgan's introduction, and Wambach was much more effective thereafter.
F Alex Morgan, 7 -- Helped get the U.S. over the finish line, bringing a jolt of energy to the U.S. attack, as her pace stretched the Costa Rica defense. Her presence also resulted in Wambach getting the ball in better positions. Her late goal seemed a fair reward for an impactful 27 minutes.
M Amy Rodriguez, 6 -- Was tidy in possession and kept the U.S. attack going.
M Megan Rapinoe, 6 -- It's difficult to determine why Rapinoe has fallen out of favor, but once again, she looked fairly sharp as a substitute.
Jeff Carlisle covers MLS and the U.S. national teams for ESPN.com. He is also the author of "Soccer's Most Wanted II: The Top 10 Book of More Glorious Goals, Superb Saves and Fantastic Free-Kicks." He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.