HOUSTON -- After a 2-0 win against Canada in the CONCACAF Women's Olympic Qualifying Championship final, the United States is the biggest, best and, yes, richest team in the region.
But we already knew that.
A high-risk gamble by Canadian national team coach John Herdman before the game presaged the inability of his team, as close as there is to a regional rival, to challenge American dominance on this day.
Lindsey Horan's deftly steered header on one goal and Mallory Pugh's precocious assist on the other, the contributions of two players not part of the world championship the Americans won in 2015, indicate the balance of power is unlikely to change in the near future, either.
The U.S. won even as it showed off the future. Canada lost as it conceded the present. So it goes in CONCACAF.
This wasn't the Olympic semifinal from four years ago, an epic that the United States won in extra time and in which Canada had reason to believe it was unjustly denied its greatest soccer moment. By contrast, fans won't tell their grandchildren about this game. In fact, it might well be that the less said to any family member about it, particularly the first half, the better.
In one sense a formality, as both teams qualified for the World Cup by virtue of semifinal wins, it lost much of what luster it might have had held before it even kicked off.
Herdman a day earlier described the final as a "derby" and a "Cup final," phrases that invoke a certain level of intensity and import when it comes to soccer. He said, too, that he expected the United States to roll out its "tried and true" players as an indication of the stakes and its respect for the opponent. And while the United States, in fact, used the same starting lineup with which it clinched Olympic qualification two days earlier, it was curious to then to see a Canadian lineup that lacked all-time leading scorer Christine Sinclair, 16-year-old wunderkind Deanne Bell and big-game mainstays Diana Matheson, Erin McLeod and Sophie Schmidt.
Herdman said after the game that Sinclair was available only in a limited role because of injury, and that only after a pain-relieving injection for her calf. Bell, Matheson and Schmidt sat because of the toll of minutes already logged (although American Carli Lloyd was the only non-defender on either team to start all five games). His plan was to try and keep the U.S. at arm's reach for an hour, then use the three available substitutions to bring in his veteran goal producers for a short sprint to the finish and potentially a first win in the series since 2001.
The result was combative but hardly compelling. There were nine Canadian fouls in the opening half, only two fewer fouls in 45 minutes than any of the first four U.S. opponents committed in 90 minutes. But after setting up shop in the Canadian half for the latter portion of the first half and early minutes of the second, the U.S. scored in the 53rd and 61st minutes to render Herdman's plan as useful as the Maginot Line.
"We were three minutes away from holding out and changing our game plan and then we just couldn't hold out until the 60th [minute]," Herdman said. "That's what's stuck in my throat at the minute. We had a plan right through to bring on our flair players at a certain point in the game. ... We hoped that was going to be the game-changing moment, the thing Canada hadn't tried before against the U.S."
Her emergence at 17 years old in many ways the headline of this tournament for the U.S., Pugh did her best to break the scoreless deadlock in the 51st minute. Played in on a pass from Morgan Brian, named the tournament's best player, Pugh appeared to feel contact from behind and looked like a veteran as she tumbled to the ground in search of a penalty kick. She didn't get the call, waved to her feet by the referee, but the U.S. kept up its pressure and kept the ball locked in the attacking end. An attempted clearance soon thereafter found only Becky Sauerbrunn, who had time and space to loft a ball toward the middle of the box that Horan steered on toward the opposite post.
The goal, Horan's second with the national team, was a just reward for a 21-year-old who through the course of this year and this tournament, her first at the senior level, has made herself a fixture in the lineup at a new position alongside Brian at the rear of the midfield.
Soon thereafter, Pugh got the ball in space on the left side of the field and cut back a pass across the 18-yard box, much as she had for an assist to open the scoring in a semifinal win against Trinidad and Tobago. And just as she did in the semifinal, Tobin Heath found the end of the pass and finished for the game's second goal.
On most U.S. qualifying rosters, Horan would be a cinch as the youngest starter. Instead, even she considers Pugh her "little sister."
"Getting to this game, you could start to see their class," U.S. coach Jill Ellis said of Horan and Pugh. "Obviously, there were some good things in these earlier games, but getting pressured and having to deal with a team that was a quarterfinalist in the World Cup, that's why I wanted to put them in this environment. Because what I've seen is that they can deal with it. They can add things to our game. They add more tools to our team. And I just think they're a big part of how we want to move the ball.
"In terms of just their poise tonight, I think Mal got cooking there as the game evolved, and you can see the things that she is special at. And if we don't have Horan in the midfield, we're not going to be as class as we were tonight."
It was telling that both goals came through a combination of new and old, Sauerbrunn to Horan and Pugh to Heath. Making her 100th appearance for the national team, Sauerbrunn was one of the cornerstones of the World Cup win a year ago, but she is in a new role now as a co-captain with Lloyd. So good throughout the tournament, Brian is in an expanded role, a "quarterback," as Sauerbrunn put it.
It is a team mixing new and old in every conceivable manner.
"They're learning a lot, they're embracing our culture," Sauerbrunn said of players like Horan and Pugh. "And so it's really fun to see it coming out on the field, as well, when you see these certain combinations -- Mallory Pugh coming in and doing some great stuff and Crystal Dunn scoring so many goals. It's just been really phenomenal having these players come in and just be brave and courageous and show what they bring to the table."
Beating Costa Rica, Mexico, Puerto Rico, Trinidad and Tobago and even this Canadian team was necessary but not enormously meaningful in a tactical sense, certainly not to the same degree as what the United States does in upcoming games against England, France and Germany next month. But these games were important in allowing the team to figure itself out in advance of those sterner tests.
"Everyone wants to see the results and the wins, of course we do," Ellis said. "But I think ultimately it's learning from games that's the most important thing for me right now."
Herdman wanted to see a result and said he felt it was there for the taking.
Never a coach who lacks for confidence, and a highly entertaining presence because of it, he didn't disappoint after the loss, and after throwing his silver medal into the crowd. In a theme he touched on repeatedly the day before the final, he again mentioned the vast financial advantage the U.S. has on other nations, as well as the depth of its talent pool. He questioned which team on the field at BBVA Compass Stadium was "pound for pound" the better team Sunday, a phrase more familiar to comparing boxers in different weight classes.
He lamented, too, that he couldn't get some of his youngest players into the game, the emerging talents who rightly feed a sense of optimism for the Canadians, even as they stare off into the distance of a post-Sinclair world.
"At some point they'll be ready for those big games against the U.S.," Herdman said of his young crew.
But Pugh and Horan were ready. And they helped scuttle Herdman's plan against a new-look, same-result American side.
Is the U.S. really as far ahead of the competition as it should be with its resources, Herman asked in so many words.
When it comes to CONCACAF, well, yes, But we knew that.