Lindsey Horan - US women's national team (USWNT) - vs. Panama

The US women’s national team continued their march towards the 2020 Olympic Games on Friday night, tossing aside Panama by an 8-0 scoreline in Houston to book their place in the semifinals of the Concacaf Olympic qualifying tournament with a game to spare.

It was a no-look kind of night for the favorites:

Here’s a few more thoughts on the night.

The minnows (still) need help

The result of this game, like the vast majority of those the USWNT have played over a quarter-century of Olympic qualifying, was never really in doubt, and with some better finishing Goliath could have pinned double digits on poor David. (Granted, the damage might have been a little less severe had Las Canaleras not lost their best player, teenage goalkeeper Yenith Bailey, to a first-half head injury.)

The US uncorked 17 shots in the first half alone. And that with just three of this event’s matchdays in the books, this isn’t even the biggest rout so far: Canada smoked St. Kitts & Nevis – like Panama, debutants in this tournament – to the tune of 11-0 over in Group B earlier in the week.

Concacaf, like women’s international soccer in general, continues to be hamstrung by the vast chasm that separates its elites from the rest. It’s not the USWNT’s fault that they’re too good for almost everyone in their neighborhood to keep up with. And it’s also not really Panama’s fault that they’ve earned the right to hop into the shark tank with the four-time world champions, but aren’t quite ready to avoid getting eaten.

“You just hope for Panama that their federation is taking note and is going to continue to invest – or start to invest, I should say – in their women’s program,” said FOX commentator Aly Wagner during Friday’s broadcast, and she’s right. The powers that be should make it their top priority to empower upstart programs like theirs, because the game needs underdogs who can bite back at the big 'uns.

Engine room of the future?

When the USWNT’s qualifying roster dropped, we wrote about the wealth of options at coach Vlatko Andonovski’s disposal, and this game was proof. The Yanks made six changes from the XI that started Tuesday’s win over Haiti and still produced an improved display, controlling possession and creating clear chances almost at will – and the three-women midfield of Rose Lavelle, Lindsey Horan and Andi Sullivan was key.

This is a well-rounded engine room with brains and brawn alike, epitomized by Horan (pictured at top), who offers a rare blend of modern technique and soccer IQ with an old-school bulldozer mentality. The Portland Thorns star reads plays well, can disrupt opposition moves expertly and bagged her first USWNT hat trick with some smart late runs into the penalty box.

Lavelle shot to prominence as one of the heroes of the 2019 Women’s World Cup and at age 24 I suspect she’s still got plenty of upside still within reach. Against Panama she covered acres of ground in addition to her innate cleverness on the ball. And her age cohort Sullivan could be her perfect foil in the years to come, with a comparable intelligence in a deeper role as a cerebral No. 6. If the USWNT want to evolve their style of play to stay a step ahead of bunkering opponents, Sullivan might prove an ideal anchor in midfield.

Courage connection

The NWSL was launched nine years ago with the explicit purpose of providing a proving ground and incubator for present and future USWNT talent. That relationship between league and national team has undergone plenty of ebbs and flows over the years, but two of Friday’s top performers provide a case study on its value.

The North Carolina Courage are the league’s back-to-back defending champs and shield (regular-season) winners for three seasons running, a fast, physical squad who’ve muscled the rest of the league into submission. It once could’ve been argued that their dominance of NWSL hasn’t been truly reflected in their levels of USWNT representation, but no longer.

Four Courage players took the pitch on Friday, highlighted by the strike duo of Jessica McDonald (sister of former MLSer Brandon) and Lynn Williams, both of whom bagged both goals and assists. Those two gave Panama nightmares with their strength, quickness and direct, decisive play, and clearly benefitted from an intuitive understanding of one another’s tendencies.

Should the Courage front line stay together atop the USWNT depth chart? They made a decent argument for that in this win.