The United States women's national team completed perhaps the most low-key run to World Cup qualification in its illustrious history after Thursday's 5-0 thrashing of Jamaica at the CONCACAF W Championship.
Given the U.S. women's historic dominance in CONCACAF -- where it has won 13 straight World Cup qualifiers by a combined score of 58-0 -- that's saying something. But the current format, in which the top two teams from the two groups automatically qualify for the 2023 World Cup while the two third-place teams will head to a playoff, means there will be no elimination game drama, at least for the U.S.
And after Haiti beat hosts Mexico 3-0 later on Thursday, the U.S. will head into its group stage finale against an eliminated El Tri Femenil having already punched its ticket to Australia and New Zealand.
That isn't to say that their work is done by any means. The CONCACAF W Championship doubles as the 2024 Olympic qualifying tournament, and the U.S. will have to win the competition in order to automatically clinch the trip to Paris, while the second and third-place teams will head to a playoff.
But at least in terms of the World Cup, the U.S. team is on its way, and Thursday's performance was utterly dominant. Sophia Smith put the U.S. up by two goals with the match less than eight minutes old, and a fatigued Jamaica said didn't put up much of a fight thereafter. Rose Lavelle, Kristie Mewis and Trinity Rodman all scored in the second half, and the defense, with Lindsey Horan playing in front of center backs -- and former collegiate teammates at Stanford -- Naomi Girma and Alana Cook were rarely troubled by Jamaica's frontline led by Manchester City forward Bunny Shaw. U.S. keeper Alyssa Naeher was forced to make just two saves.
"There was nothing that scared us at any point in time and I thought we did a very good job to protect the space behind us, to protect and discourage balls to [Bunny] Shaw and screen her very well," said U.S. manager Vlatko Andonovski. "So every little thing that they had in the previous game going we were able to protect and do a good job."
For Jamaica manager Lorne Donaldson, the sight of Smith tearing up the opposition was a familiar one. Along with U.S. forward Mallory Pugh, Smith played for Donaldson while with youth club Real Colorado. She certainly didn't take it easy on her former mentor. Her first goal in particular was jaw-dropping, as he cut in from the right wing and then curled the ball into the net with the outside of her right foot.
"I always want him to do well," Smith told CBS Paramount after the match. "But when it's against us, yeah, it's pretty fun. It's a fun relationship to have, and to see him on the sideline, I obviously wish him the best. But we had to take care of business."
For Donaldson, the ties that bind him to both players are still strong.
"They're like families. We're still family," he said at his postgame news conference. "You give [Smith] half a chance, she's gonna take it; excellent footballer, so I don't expect less from her."
Donaldson was less kind to his own team, which struggled to string many passes together and was forced to defend for long stretches. Jamaica now faces Haiti in its group stage finale.
"We were very s----y, so we didn't play well," he said. "We're not gonna play the world champions, play that bad and expect anything good coming out of the game. We weren't good."
U.S. performances are always graded on an unforgiving scale given the team's talent and history. And after the team's 3-0 tournament opening victory over Haiti, there were still plenty of questions about the U.S.'s ability to deal with athletic, mobile sides. But this was an occasion where Andonovski found very little to quibble with. The U.S. was aggressive from the outside, and the tandem of Smith and Sofia Huerta (who assisted Smith's second goal) on the right side was relentless in attacking Jamaica.
The hard-luck attacker of the night was forward Ashley Hatch who had one goal called back for a dubious offside and twice hit the woodwork. Even then, she did plenty of unselfish running to open up space for others. And given how the U.S. was on the front foot most of the luck, Andonovski couldn't bring himself to be too critical.
"We win the game 5-0, score another two or three offside. We create another 12 goalscoring opportunities," he said. "I think it'll be crazy for me to say that some of the attacking players didn't do well. They all contributed in different ways. They were all dangerous in different ways. And now, the only thing that I would want to say for all of them is I just would like to see them be just a little more clinical with the final touch or finishing and lastly, stay onside."
Even with World Cup qualification now assured, the Sunday's group stage finale is expected to be anything but low key. It was Mexico that last beat the U.S. in a World Cup qualifier back in 2010, when a 2-1 loss forced the U.S. into winning the third place game and eventually a playoff with Italy that it won 2-0 on aggregate.
"We start focusing on Mexico right now," said Smith. "Obviously, [Mexico is] a great team. It's a rivalry and I think we need to come out with the same energy if not more, and just do what we have to do."