VANCOUVER, British Columbia -- As trips to London go, this was a little like showing up at the airport four hours ahead of time for your flight in first class, only to realize you had left your passport at home. Along with your cellphone and your house keys. Even if you know you still have sufficient time to recover and make the flight, it can be a nervous, worrisome feeling.
The U.S. women had breezed through group-stage play at the CONCACAF Olympic qualifying tournament, outscoring their three opponents 31-0, taking leads as early as 37 seconds into a game and twice bringing players off the bench who scored five goals in a single half. All that was left to qualify for the Olympics was a semifinal victory Friday over Costa Rica, a team that had never defeated the United States or even scored a goal against it.
A trip to the Olympics seemed so certain that whoever was in charge of travel probably was tempted to buy non-refundable tickets to London before the start of the game.
Yet in the only game that really mattered, the Americans found themselves clinging to a 1-0 lead and fighting off a surprisingly swift and feisty Costa Rican team deep into the second half before sealing a 3-0 victory. Trying to avoid mistakes, the Americans instead played tensely and sloppily, struggling for control against the quick Costa Ricans, who had an extra day of rest. Had it not been for a couple of nice stops by goalkeeper Hope Solo and a shot bouncing off the post, the Americans easily could have been trailing 2-1 in a game they absolutely had to win.
The Olympics were suddenly in doubt, at least a little bit.
"There could be a penalty kick at any moment and [we could] give up a goal; anything could still happen," said Solo, who was cleared to play despite having a sore quad late in the day. "I had actual flashbacks of the Japan game in the World Cup when we thought we had it. We thought it was our game to win and we were proved differently. I had that in the back of my mind."
"I think everyone could feel the immense -- well, not pressure, but I guess how big a game that was," U.S. co-captain Abby Wambach said. "We scored the first goal, but I think there were moments the Costa Ricans were outplaying us. It just shows you exactly how important it was to all of us. No one wanted to make a mistake, and luckily we didn't.
"We know that sometimes under big-game circumstances, a team can get a little tight. You just have to deal with it."
Asked what coach Pia Sundhage told the team at halftime, Wambach said: "We have to calm down. Get the ball on the ground. Keep possession of the ball. We were giving the ball to them. And they were starting to get a little momentum under them, and when a team gets the momentum, they can take control of the game."
The U.S. did begin to calm itself and steadily take control in the second half. Costa Rica threatened several times in the first half, but barely managed an attack to the U.S. end of the field in the second. After Alex Morgan came off the bench to spark her teammates, the Americans finally broke through when Carli Lloyd drove home a goal after a Wambach chip in the 72nd minute to make it 2-0 and effectively seal the game. Morgan made it 3-0 in the 89th minute to finalize the scoring and the ticket to London.
And that's the important thing. The victory might not have been as easy as expected, but the U.S. women will go London to compete for their fourth gold medal since women's soccer became part of the Olympics in 1996 (the U.S. lost to Norway in the 2000 final in Sydney).
"For the first time in this tournament, we actually celebrated a little bit," Solo said. "It was a relief."
And aside from the tense moments for the U.S. and its fans, this was a good game for women's soccer. When the U.S. routs opponents by an average margin of 10 goals per victory, it doesn't look good for the game globally. But the Costa Ricans showed they belonged on the same field.
"I always say that I respect the game and the opponents, and this game is proof," Sundhage said. " I say it all the time, you can't take anything for granted. I bet Costa Rica, they look at, for instance, Germany [which did not qualify for the Olympics]. Costa Rica played 2-2 against Spain. That never happened before. Now they believe they can win, and that's important for the women's game. If you look back at many games, five or seven years ago, that never happens. Now it does."
The U.S. will play Canada in the qualifying tournament final Sunday, but that game is meaningless. What matters is what the team does in London in six months, against whatever the competition.
Jim Caple is a senior writer for ESPN.com. He can be reached here. His website is at jimcaple.net.