It was hardly the overwhelming display the U.S. women's national team might have expected, but the Americans won again to clinch their place in the CONCACAF Olympic qualifying semifinals Saturday with a 1-0 victory over Mexico at Toyota Stadium in Frisco, Texas.
Mexico defended impressively throughout, using a five-player starting back line and committing two low blocks of defenders to frustrate the Americans. The U.S. found its breakthrough amid controversy, with a late handball call yielding a penalty to Carli Lloyd. The reigning FIFA Women's World Player of the Year had her spot kick saved by Cecilia Santiago, but she pounced on the rebound and finished into an empty net in the 80th minute to score the decisive goal–her 21st in the last 16 matches.
U.S. goalkeeper Hope Solo wasn't threatened at all until the dying minutes, but she made the key save on Monica Ocampo's attempt at an equalizer to preserve the 93rd clean sheet of her career.
With the win, the U.S. improved to 32-1-1 all-time against Mexico, though it was one that did not come easy.
Here are three thoughts on the game:
Mexican soccer is no stranger to controversial penalty calls in big, late moments (see: Rafa Marquez v. Arjen Robben, 2014 World Cup knockout stage or just about every step on the men's path to the 2015 Gold Cup final). It appears that the USA's border rival to the south caught the short end of the stick in another questionable moment Saturday.
Karla Nieto was whistled for a controversial handball with about 10 minutes remaining, with the ball appearing to ricochet off her arm in the box as she was pulling it away. There was far from anything that resembled intent, let alone the fact that Nieto was making a conscientious effort to get out of the way of the ball. The minor deflection hardly changed the trajectory of the ball, which had come off of Alex Morgan, and all signs pointed to a no-call being the right decision.
The U.S. dominated the possession battle, but like has been the issue against prior resolute defending teams, it struggled to produce in the final third. That was not the case Wednesday against Costa Rica, when the Americans were up after 12 seconds and altered the game's path, but Saturday it faced a committed, suffocating opposition that also received some stout goalkeeping by Santiago. That Lloyd was first to the rebound doesn't take away from the fact that she denied the world's best in a key moment.
While Santiago and Mexico's defense deserve the credit they will get, they were also bailed out by the woodwork on a pair of occasions. Christen Press, in another impactful performance off the bench after her highlight-reel effort Wednesday, hit the post moments after coming on, and Lindsey Horan hit the same spot, low on the left post, with a blast from long range a few minutes prior to Lloyd's winner. Morgan also missed the crossbar by inches on a couple of close-range attempts.
Regardless, this was not the result the U.S. was expecting, and it took a bit of refereeing help to get the job done.
A helpful wake-up call?
There are always lessons to take from matches, and one the U.S. should glean is that not every CONCACAF match is a guaranteed cakewalk, no matter the track record. Should the U.S. face a proven nemesis like Canada in the all-important semifinal (which, at this point, would appear to require Canada to finish second in its group), a result like this can go a long way in ensuring total focus in a do-or-die scenario as opposed to rolling in without the proper respect for the opponent.
Mexico provided a blueprint for U.S. opposition, frustrating the U.S. into some harried decision making, while the Americans displayed some heavy touches as they tried to force the issue. Despite the U.S. being a couple of inches away from a 2-0 lead sans controversy, this result should provide fodder for thought as how to break down more disciplined opponents going forward.
Semifinal tune-up will be ugly
All of the above being said, while Saturday was a close battle for the U.S., don't expect anything closely resembling that in Monday's group finale.
The same Costa Rica team that the U.S. dominated by a 5-0 scoreline defeated the Americans' next opponent, Puerto Rico, 9-0 in Saturday's opener. Now, the transitive property isn't always in play when it comes to world soccer, but a result that comes close to 14-0 honestly would not be out of the question should Jill Ellis trot out her regulars vs. Puerto Rico, which has been outscored 15-0 in two games.
With a semifinal place already in the books and first in the group all but assured, the first meeting between the two sides on the senior level provides Ellis, who went with the same XI for a second straight game, an opportunity to rest some weary legs and get some of her younger, less-tested players qualifying experience.