VANCOUVER, British Columbia -- No loss has filled the U.S. women's national team with more self-doubt than the 2-1 World Cup qualifying defeat to Mexico 14 months ago. Not only was it the first World Cup qualifying defeat for the U.S., but it was the first time the national team had fallen to Mexico in 26 matches.
Now, as the Americans attempt to qualify for this summer's Olympics, they have a chance to re-stamp their authority on the region, even as they play their third game in five days. After pummeling the Dominican Republic and Guatemala by a combined score of 27-0 in its first two qualifying matches, the U.S. will face its southern neighbors in the last group-stage game on Tuesday.
"The fact that we played well, scored goals, we've gained a lot of confidence by doing that," U.S. manager Pia Sundhage said. "We recharge our batteries, and we are ready."
The two wins have resulted in the U.S. already qualifying for Friday's semifinal, and that is clearly the most important match of the tournament given that it will decide which teams go to London and which ones stay home. But the Mexico match will determine if that road will be a beautiful, smooth highway, or one riddled with potholes.
Thanks to its vastly superior goal difference, the U.S. needs only a tie against Mexico to finish top of the group. And if it accomplishes that goal, a relatively straightforward match against Costa Rica awaits. But should the U.S. stumble, a tricky match against Canada will be on the docket. The Mexico loss showed just how difficult it is to face the host country in front of a raucous crowd when a qualifying berth is on the line. Given that Friday's encounter will be winner-take-all, it's a scenario that the U.S. would like to avoid. To that end, every player and coach is convinced that they've learned their lesson from 15 months ago.
"We weren't prepared," recalled defender Heather Mitts, who played the full 90 minutes in that match. "Mexico came out and they played great against us. We need to be more prepared for situations like that and we are now. I think it was blessing in disguise that that happened to us. It made us realize that if we don't come out and play our best, on any given day that we can be beaten."
For Sundhage, the takeaway from that experience was to play closer attention to the physical state of her team. She says now that in World Cup qualifying, she had the team together too long, especially after a grueling WPS season. While it's difficult to draw too many conclusions from the early results in this tournament, Sundhage is convinced the team is at its peak.
"We're more sharp, we're more attacking ... I feel very different from that [World Cup qualifying] tournament," she said.
But as vigilant as the U.S. is at present, the match is still tricky for a variety of reasons. The U.S. hasn't been the slightest bit tested in its first two encounters. American forwards have been allowed to run uncontested into the opponent's penalty area. The U.S. goal has rarely been threatened. That will no doubt change against Mexico, and could require an adjustment period when the game kicks off.
Then there is the fact that while the aforementioned loss to Mexico came as something of a shock, the matches between the two teams have become increasingly competitive in recent years. The U.S. dominated possession against Mexico in a pre-World Cup tuneup last May, but some resolute defending, not to mention some stellar goalkeeping from Ceci Santiago, forced the U.S. to huff and puff its way to a 1-0 win.
Mexico also has enough attacking talent to nick a goal on the break should the U.S. commit too many numbers forward. Teresa Noyola, the reigning MAC Hermann Award winner out of Stanford University, has emerged since the World Cup as a force in midfield. Plenty of eyes will be on the wings, as well. Not only are outside midfielders Veronica Perez and Monica Ocampo capable of doing damage, but the U.S. will be without right back Ali Krieger, who sustained tears to both the ACL and MCL in her right knee in the win over the Dominican Republic. It will be up to Mitts and left back Amy LePeilbet to shut down those two performers.
Yet the focal point of Mexico's attack remains forward Maribel Dominguez. The 33-year-old striker hasn't slowed down a bit, and is one of those attackers who can pop up anywhere on the field, the better to combine with Perez, Ocampo and attacking midfielder Dinora Garza.
"In transition, especially if they win the ball centrally in the field, they find [Dominguez] and they find the combination," Sundhage said. "It's not just the long ball anymore, it's more sophisticated."
That's why positional discipline, especially in midfield, will be the key for the Americans. Much of the talk surrounding Sundhage's switch to a 4-2-3-1 formation has centered on what it would mean for the U.S. attack, but the change also impacts the defense, as well. With Shannon Boxx charged with a stay-at-home role, and looking more energized than a year ago, the Americans should be in better position to keep Mexico's counterattacks at bay.
Of course, the best way to defend is to keep the ball and convert chances, and this match will be a good test to see how much the Americans' attacking game has evolved. In particular, attacking midfielder Lauren Cheney and striker Abby Wambach will need to be at their telepathic best in order to break down Mexico's defense, while Tobin Heath and Heather O'Reilly will need to chip in from the wings.
If that all comes to pass, the U.S. will be one step closer to Olympic glory.
• Sundhage has been taking some heat in the Canadian press for running up the score in the Americans' first two games, as well as for her sideline behavior. Television replays showed Sundhage high-fiving members of her staff after goals when the game was completely out of reach. To be fair, the players' celebrations have been rather muted, and the issue of easing off the pedal is not as cut and dried as it seems. Blowouts are often the breeding ground for bad habits, and with an Olympic berth on the line, it's difficult to blame the players for wanting to maintain an edge. As for Sundhage, a bit more decorum was in order, but she remained unapologetic, especially when she was asked at Monday's news conference if the U.S. should have eased up.
"I really want this team to bring out the attacking personalities," she said. "We have so many options, if I'm coming off the bench, and I have a coach who says, 'Hey, take it easy,' well, that will never happen. This is soccer, we want to play good soccer, we want to win and we want to score goals. I would never do that."
• Sundhage remained coy about who would replace Krieger at right back, although it's inconceivable at this stage that it would be anybody but Mitts. To do otherwise would mean a complete rejiggering of the back line. That said, Sundhage hinted that a more thorough search would take place once the team qualifies.
"We're going to find somebody else, of course," she said. "We have to move on, but it takes a little bit of time. We have to decide what kind of player we are looking for, and we do have options. We will find that player sooner than later."
• While Mitts has been thrust into a starter's role again with Krieger's injury, she did confirm that at age 33, this Olympics will be her last international tournament. It's a move that has been long expected.
"I was planning on playing just one more World Cup, and being done, but with my injuries and whatnot, I decided that I wanted to stick around, and end on a good note," she said. "For sure this is going to be my last event, and hopefully we can go out with a bang."
• Mother knows best, especially Sydney Leroux's mother, Sandi. Prior to last Sunday's game against Guatemala, Sandi called her daughter up and asked her, "What if you score five goals?" Lo and behold, Leroux did just that.
"My mom is funny like that," said the U.S. forward. "She knows when I'm going to play well, and we always talk about me being calm, and that's what I try to do, just be calm through every aspect, pregame, the game, that's what works best for me."
So what's Sandi's prediction for Tuesday? Leroux laughed and said, "I don't know. I told her, 'No more predictions.'"
• Following Costa Rica's 5-1 defeat to Canada, one that has the team on a collision course with the U.S., manager Karla Aleman was asked if it was possible to defeat the tournament favorites.
"You can't block the sun with a finger," she said. "But we will play the match and see what happens at the end."