The U.S. women's national team began World Cup qualifying in ideal fashion, routing Mexico 6-0 to open play in Group A with a resounding victory.
Alex Morgan and Megan Rapinoe scored two goals apiece, Julie Ertz and Tobin Heath added goals of their own, and the Americans rolled through what was expected to be their stiffest challenge in group play. Mexico simply had no answer for the USA's ball movement and speed, and Rapinoe's goal in the third minute put any shred of doubt to bed early. That said, it took a while for the U.S. to open the match up, as Mexico defended and defended to go into the halftime break with just the 1-0 deficit.
The dam broke in the second half, though, with the U.S. scoring five times between the 47th and 80th minutes to put the match out of reach.
With Panama beating Trinidad & Tobago 3-0 earlier in the competition opener, the U.S. is tied on points for first place and leads the group by a goal differential of three, while Mexico has reason for concern. A loss was largely expected, but a rout hurts Mexico's chances of reaching the all-important semifinal stage and leaves it with work to do in its final two matches.
Here are three thoughts on the USA's comfortable win:
Dream starts to each half go a long way
The last thing the U.S. wanted was any suspended drama, needing to overexert itself to secure all three points. With a third-minute finish from Rapinoe, it avoided that instantly. The same team that the USA swept in April by a 10-3 combined score (4-1 and 6-2) recovered and managed to hold the Americans at bay for the next 42 minutes and retained hope of nicking a result, even though Mexico was outshot 11-0 over the first period.
That hope evaporated two minutes into the second half, though, when Ertz cleaned up a loose-ball situation in front of the goal with for an insurance strike that made the hill too high to climb. Mistakes mounted, the U.S. capitalized and what was once a respectable deficit morphed into a lopsided nightmare.
Unlike the U.S. team that was bounced from the 2016 Olympics, this edition showcased fast ball movement, a concerted effort to build out of the back and through the midfield and passing through the lines instead of bypassing them entirely. Fullbacks Crystal Dunn and Kelley O'Hara were able to press up well into the Mexico half given how dominant the U.S. was on the ball, and the Rose Lavelle-Ertz-Lindsey Horan midfield bossed the match and created opportunities on either wing for Rapinoe and Heath, repeatedly. Morgan was clinical when presented with chances, and Jill Ellis's preferred XI clicked from start to finish.
What helped make things go so smoothly for the U.S. was scoring those early goals at the start of each half. Nothing is more deflating for an opponent that knows it has to defend for its life than conceding those early backbreakers, and the snowball effect was evident.
The cynic's view
For all of the USA's domination, four of its goals didn't come from any of the hard work it put in in possession. Two were off fluky failed clearances, one off a clean corner kick and another off a series of fortuitous deflections and a case of Rapinoe being left completely unmarked. Goals are goals, especially in official competition, and ultimately and admittedly, this is extremely nitpicky. The scoreline reflected the action.
But final third breakdowns, some of which were bound to happen with Mexico defending in numbers in its own box and doing a good job of stepping into shooting lanes, won't always be augmented with good fortune. Better opponents will make the U.S. rue its missed opportunities or failure to create them. If there's an area where the U.S. can improve against Panama and Trindad & Tobago, two other teams that figure to be defending for the bulk of their games, it's by being more clinical in the final third. That is but a minor blemish on what was otherwise a comprehensive showing.
Becky Sauerbrunn has been a model player for the U.S. for years and is the safety net and leader in the back. The one thing the 33-year-old hasn't done in 144 caps over the last decade? Score a goal.
As fate would have it, Sauerbrunn wound up with a golden and rare opportunity to do just that in the 80th minute, finding herself a few yards out on a left-sided angle. With the U.S. leading 5-0, it was the perfect time to pull the trigger and have a go. Instead? She deftly found Morgan, who scored her second of the night.
In many ways, it was classic Sauerbrunn, whose team-first attitude is what makes her who she is, but that didn't stop some of her past teammates from wishing she took aim at goal.
If Thursday's action was any indication for how the rest of the group will play out, though, Sauerbrunn may yet get her opportunity for that first goal.