Another game, another goalfest.
The US women’s national team rounded out an unblemished group stage of Concacaf Olympic qualifying with a 6-0 thrashing of Costa Rica at BBVA Stadium in Houston on Monday, running their aggregate scoreline in this tournament to 18-0 and claiming first place in Group A by a country mile. (And yes, it should've only been five; life isn't fair.)
They’ll meet either Canada or Mexico in the semifinals on Friday in Carson, California.
We touched on the frustrating imbalances that are deeply baked into this region in a previous edition, after the one-sided defeat of Panama. So I won’t belabor that point here, other than to note that like the US, Costa Rica had already booked advancement to the knockout stages before this game, and that led their coach, Amelia Valverde, to rest some regulars with an eye towards those all-important semis, which determine which two teams book their tickets to Tokyo.
Here’s a few thoughts on the night.
Power of the Press v1: Christen
With the USWNT’s awesome strength in depth, it can be very, very difficult for even quite deserving players to break into the XI on a consistent basis.
I’m honestly gobsmacked that Christen Press is now 31, because she’s clearly been an international-caliber talent since she turned pro way back in the old Women’s Professional Soccer (WPS) league almost a decade ago but has just had so many established performers ahead of her in the pecking order for so long.
She sure looked like a nailed-on starter for the world champs here, lashing two jaw-dropping screamers upper-90 – one with her left foot into the return address corner, the other with her right into the postage-stamp spot – to render the outcome clear before halftime. Whether wide or central, she looked comfortable and dangerous in a range of situations.
Press has had to bide her time at this level way longer than her abilities deserve. Yet her form, quality and versatility should make her a central component of the summer’s gold-hunting expedition.
Power of the press v2: High
For nearly two decades a recurring topic around the USWNT has been the need to evolve in the modern era, from the gutsy, athletic directness of the old days towards a more complex, possession-centric fluidity, adding new tools without losing the familiar ones.
(USMNT-following readers may recognize the general outlines of this discussion, and New York Red Bulls fans should note some parallels to the debates of Chris Armas’s tenure.)
They seemed to hone a workable solution under previous coach Jill Ellis, knitting together more advanced buildouts and passing sequences while maintaining the value of their ferocious fitness and physicality by pressing high to harry and disrupt opponents for long periods. They hunt like no one else in women's soccer.
Ellis’s successor Vlatko Andonovski seems comfortable building on this, and it’s easy to see why: Even this technical, ascendant Costa Rican side were rendered helpless by the Americans’ aggression, forced back into a shell to endure wave after wave of attacks. When the USWNT press is sharp, you can count on one hand the number of opponents on earth with any hope of playing through it consistently.
Though Group B survivors Canada (probably) and Mexico (maybe) could still test the United States, the stiffest competition in the region right now is inside the USWNT squad itself, where two members of the current 20-player roster will have to be cut for the Olympics proper.
That harsh 18-person limit forces some tough choices for the coaching staff. And it’s not just about current level of play or production, but also versatility – most players have to prove that they can fill at least two roles on the pitch in order to offer cover in every spot.
This group stage has dropped a couple clues as to Andonovski’s options and thinking. Veteran Ali Krieger looks like a big winner in this regard, as the longtime fullback has recently added the center back club to her bag, and performed at a high enough level there over the past two games to make the cut.
Monday's midfield trio of Julie Johnston Ertz, Lindsey Horan and Sam Mewis are all valuable in this regard too, in addition to being clear starting-caliber talents.
On the other hand, has Jessica McDonald shown enough in this category – even with two goals and an assist in this event – to be sure of a seat on the plane to Japan? What about center mid Andi Sullivan? It’s just so hard for new faces to clamber into the core of this team.