U.S. women's soccer not letting up as they accelerate into semifinals
Fans weren't the only things missing in cavernous B.C. Place, where the CONCACAF qualifying for the London Olympics is taking place.
Also lacking: any sense of drama.
But that's the way the U.S. women's national soccer team likes it. The Americans pounced on Mexico early Tuesday night, beating their neighbor 4-0 and bringing their aggregate score in three games of group play to 31-0.
But the lopsidedness of their effort didn't reduce the sense of urgency. On the field right after the game, Abby Wambach called her teammates together to make sure they understood: This didn't mean anything. There's one more game to win.
"Everyone was excited to put on a great performance, especially against Mexico," said goalkeeper Hope Solo, who didn't have much work to do in the game. "On the field, Abby said, 'It's not over yet, the next game is the one we prepared for and the one that matters most.' She made sure we didn't celebrate too much."
The U.S. will play Costa Rica in Friday's semifinal. The winner, along with the winter of the Canada-Mexico semifinal, qualifies for a trip to London this summer.
Despite her team's overwhelming success here, Wambach has reason to keep her foot on the accelerator. Fourteen months ago, her team traveled to Cancun for the 2011 World Cup qualifying tournament, and lost to Mexico for the first time ever. That loss forced the U.S. team into a desperate situation, with a must-win game in Italy. The U.S. was in the unusual position of being the last team to qualify for the 2011 World Cup.
"It's simple," Wambach said. "Everyone knows it and understands it. But in hindsight, when we were in Cancun, I wish someone had said something prior to that game. I don't want to leave any stone unturned."
In that way, that loss to Mexico may have been the best thing to happen to the U.S. team. It shook the cobwebs and complacency off a team that seemed to be going through the motions, and fueled them for what was a landmark World Cup drive last summer. Thought the U.S. team didn't win the championship -- falling to Japan in the final on penalty kicks -- they regained their mojo: they played dramatic soccer and recaptured their relevancy to American sports culture.
"It was a wakeup call for us," Solo said of the qualifying struggle in 2010. "In the end, it was a positive moment. Tonight wasn't necessarily about revenge. Mexico gave us a wake up call and we benefited from that."
The U.S. has been so dominant here that there have been cries for it to let up on so of its woefully overmatched opponents, like the Dominican Republic. It begs the question: is the U.S. team lacking sportsmanship?
But this isn't youth soccer, where you can sub an entire team, or kick the ball out of bounds instead of scoring. The U.S. team has had trouble finishing its chances -- the World Cup was a steady stream of would-be goals left unrealized. So coach Pia Sundhage isn't willing to apologize for allowing her team to score.
"You can't take anything for granted," she said. "You have to bring it."
The U.S. team is in a better position now than it was during qualifying for the 2011 World Cup. For one thing, they have a healthy goalie: Solo was out recovering from a severe shoulder injury in 2010 and early 2011. Though Solo confessed to having a slight quad pull Tuesday, she expects to be fine for Friday, with an extra day of rest.
And the team has a deeper bench, with more young players such as Sydney Leroux, whom Sundhage trusts to make key contributions.
The U.S. team looks opportunistic around the goal, jumping on Mexico's deflections on Tuesday. Carli Lloyd scored a hat trick -- her first ever for the national team. Heather O'Reilly also scored a goal.
Mexico's dreams of a repeat upset, died quickly.
"They are the best team in the world," said Mexico coach Leo Cuellar. "It's as simple as that."
And in this qualifying, they're not letting up or leaving anything to chance.