Friday September 19th, 2014

The United States easily passed its final test before the 2014 CONCACAF Women’s Championship in October, defeating Mexico, 4-0, on Thursday in Rochester, N.Y. Three first-half goals helped the U.S. to its second win in less than a week over the same opponent.

It took just nine minutes to score the first goal, as Megan Rapinoe’s high pressure in the attacking third put Amy Rodriguez through one-on-one with goalkeeper Cecilia Santiago. She calmly struck the ball inside the far post with the outside of her right foot.

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​Rapinoe added a second, volleying home a poorly cleared cross after a quick restart. Tobin Heath capped off the first half after a long through ball from Rapinoe in the midfield. Finally, Alex Morgan came off the bench at halftime and headed a Heather O’Reilly cross for the fourth and final goal of the game in the 79th minute.

Here are three thoughts on the match and on the U.S. women moving into World Cup qualifiers:

Mexico wasn’t a great test, but it was still a better team than the U.S. will face in qualifiers; nobody else will try to pressure remotely as much.

To its credit, Mexico put high pressure on the U.S. back line and made it difficult to start the attack at times. In the second half, a couple poor giveaways, including one by goalkeeper Hope Solo, nearly resulted in Mexico pulling a goal back. However, qualifying group opponents Trinidad and Tobago, Guatemala and Haiti probably won’t try to do the same thing. Expect a much more defensive approach from those three teams.

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Head coach Jill Ellis made four changes to the starting lineup between the last two matches, including the entire forward line. Saturday’s trio was built a bit more around physicality, while Thursday’s was more technical. The right combination to beat teams that bunker defensively will likely be a mix of the two, perhaps starting with the technical players and bringing on a speed-based forward like Sydney Leroux when the opponent tires later in the match. (It should be said, that strategy could work well in October, but it probably won’t have the same effect against capable teams in Canada.)

Megan Rapinoe looks comfortable in the No. 10 role, and Lauren Holiday also embraced her deeper role in midfield on Thursday.

Both only played 45 minutes, but they were the keys to how productive the Americans were in the first half versus the second. Rapinoe usually plays on the wing, but Ellis has moved her into a more central role underneath the target striker. She answered by creating two goals and essentially creating the one she scored, too, by electing for a quick restart on a free kick and continuing her run forward.

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As Rapinoe pushed higher, 2014 NWSL final MVP Holiday played deeper as a distributor. Her vision and ability to control the tempo of the match were evident against a Mexican team that stretched itself by trying to pressure the U.S. as it built out of the back. Without Rapinoe and Holiday in the second half, the U.S.’s chances mostly came on long shots and balls served into the box rather than created opportunities. To find success next summer in Canada, the team should be built around those two in midfield with a more defensive presence behind them as the No. 6.

Qualifying should always be pretty straightforward for the U.S., but this cycle should be easier than usual.

The Americans just finished two matches against their biggest competition, Mexico, with a combined score of 12-0. Four years ago, when Mexico beat the U.S. in qualifying and forced it into a home-and-home playoff series to make the World Cup, feels like a very long time ago. That 12-goal difference across two games, the 24-place disparity in the last FIFA World Ranking (to be updated Friday) and the fact that just making the final is good enough to ensure qualification all point to a walkthrough next month.

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The other CONCACAF heavyweight, Canada, hosts next summer’s tournament, meaning it doesn’t have to go through the qualifying process. Probably the most troubling aspect of the easy schedule is that the U.S. won’t have another truly stiff test until possibly the next calendar year. The two friendlies against France in June were much closer matches, and other nations continue to close the long-standing gap with the U.S. The 2015 World Cup should be the most interesting to date with regard to measuring the overall footballing quality the U.S. women possess.

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