The US women’s national team got job one done on Friday night in Carson, California, booking their place at the 2020 Olympic Games by comprehensively defeating Mexico in their Concacaf Olympic qualifying semifinal clash at Dignity Health Sports Park, preying on the underdogs' slow buildups and unlocking their back line time and again.
But there’s one more task to go in this month’s mission.
Here’s three thoughts from the USWNT’s 4-0 victory, and we'll start with this perspective, from a former acolyte of US coach Vlatko Andonovski at club level, which should gravely concern anyone desiring to knock this team off their perch:
The final we expected
As usual in this event, the USWNT will meet one of their oldest and fiercest foes in Sunday’s tournament final: Canada, the winner of Friday’s other semifinal match, a narrow 1-0 defeat of Costa Rica decided by Jordyn Huitema’s quirky finish.
Both finalists have been utterly dominant in this event; neither has so much as conceded a goal yet. Both have now clinched their spots in Tokyo. But neither will want to give an inch in the latest installment of a truly excellent rivalry.
You might consider CanWNT-USWNT something of a big sister-little sister faceoff – a heated slugfest every time they meet, with the elder sibling always finding a way to win. Many of the players involved are teammates and adversaries at club level in NWSL, and they’ve played out some epic encounters over the years, most notably a 4-3 thriller at Old Trafford in the semifinals of the 2012 Olympics.
Let’s hope Sunday lives up to that tradition.
The USWNT are spoiled for choice in nearly every position on the field, but perhaps nowhere more than central midfield. On this night it was Julie Johnston Ertz, Rose Lavelle and Sam Mewis, a well-rounded and dominant trio who produced three of the four goals and dictated the tempo all around the pitch all night.
Ertz is a wrecking ball, a true “Honey Badger” who imposes her will with intensity and savvy reading of the game, breaking up opponents’ attacks and sending her teammates in the other direction. Mewis brings a similar blend of technique and rugged physicality in a more advanced box-to-box role, and Lavelle is the saucy playmaker who makes things go in the attacking third.
When on form, they’re too much for almost any adversary to keep pace with – and Andonovski can always turn to his stacked bench to sustain the carnage, as he did with the introduction of Lindsey Horan on Friday. It will take a special game plan from Canada’s Danish coach Kenneth Heiner-Moller to prevent the USWNT engine room from running over his team on Sunday.
More Mexican melancholy
In November 2010, Mexico pulled off one of the biggest upsets in Concacaf women’s soccer history, knocking off the USWNT 2-1 in Cancun in the semifinals of the region’s qualifying tournament for the 2011 Women’s World Cup. It was a stunning result that forced the United States to book their WWC spot via a nerve-jangling intercontinental playoff win over Italy.
At the time many of us thought it was the dawn of a new era, a sign that El Tri Feminil were finally asserting themselves in the women’s game like they have for so long on the men’s side. But it turned out to be a false dawn, a black-swan result that the US spent the ensuing decade punishing their southern neighbors for again and again.
Current USWNT stars like Carli Lloyd and Megan Rapinoe were involved in that 2010 stunner, and this week Rapinoe called the shared memory of that setback “just a little nugget to increase everyone’s intensity and seriousness” in a conversation with Sports Illustrated.
Mexico hung tough after leaking two early goals and might wonder if things would be different if their influential defensive midfielder Rebeca Bernal weren’t suspended for this one. But their Olympic dreams are over and their federation should be quite concerned to see that they’re no closer to standing toe to toe with the US than they were a decade ago.