- The U.S. women played their way to a second straight rout in World Cup qualifying, maintaining their dominance over another overmatched opponent.
The U.S. women's national team ran its unbeaten streak to 23 games and took care of business against an overmatched Panama side, routing its way to a 5-0 win in their World Cup qualifier, which all but secures a first-place finish in the group and a more advantageous matchup in the all-important semifinal round.
Carli Lloyd notched a hat trick, Samantha Mewis opened the scoring early and Christen Press scored on a breakaway as a much-changed side overwhelmed a teenager-laden Panama. It would have been considerably worse if not for 17-year-old goalkeeper Yenith Bailey, who made a series of sensational saves to keep her side from conceding much more.
Bailey was also involved in a semi-controversial moment in the 73rd minute that resulted in the U.S. having a Mal Pugh goal taken off the board. Bailey went down after a collision with Lloyd, but the whistle never blew to signal the foul. After Pugh scored, and while Bailey was getting treatment, the officials gathered to wipe the goal away–despite not being able to consult VAR. Considering the score at the time, it was of little consequence, but if it occurred during a bigger moment on a grander stage, it would have sparked a more inflamed reaction. Ultimately, it was the right call–and a stark example of why VAR should be instituted at the World Cup next summer.
Regardless, the U.S. women have cruised through two matches and will close out the group stage against Trinidad & Tobago on Wednesday, Oct. 10–a year to the day of the U.S. men's team's failure to qualify for the 2018 World Cup against the same opponent. There won't be a repeat on the women's side.
Here are three thoughts on the USA's latest qualifying romp:
Changes galore for the U.S.
Jill Ellis was rightfully confident that she could go into her bench and find a winning combination against Panama, making nine changes to the team that beat Mexico on Thursday. Only Julie Ertz and Abby Dahlkemper were retained in the starting lineup, and while the overall quality wasn't the same as it was a few nights ago, the job was more than done comprehensively.
With the experienced likes of Lloyd and Press roaming up top, Panama had little in the way of answers that didn't involve a great save or a U.S. miscue. Despite the one-sided score, the gameplay wasn't nearly as crisp or impressive–largely because that kind of effort wasn't required to begin with. For Lloyd, the hat trick was the eighth of her international career, and while she's clearly scored more important and impressive ones (2015 World Cup final, anybody?), this one brought her level with Mia Hamm for the most all-time in program history.
The downside of playing such an overmatched opponent meant no real test for the remade back line or backup goalkeeper Ashlyn Harris, but such is life against Concacaf competition. It's unlikely to change against T&T on Wednesday, too.
U.S. physically dominant
Against Mexico, the U.S. excelled on set pieces, and that was the case again on Sunday. Mewis nearly scored her goal directly off a free kick, but Bailey reacted well to a deflection to tip it over the bar. That only delayed the gratification for the North Carolina Courage star, who was playing at her home field. She was the first to Press's fifth-minute corner kick, setting the tone for the rout that was to come.
In the 23rd minute, Lloyd enjoyed the same fate, using her physical prowess to win the header and score, minutes after she was denied on two golden opportunities from within close. Two minutes into the second half, Lloyd's aerial game was an asset again, with substitute Rose Lavelle's looping free kick to the far post met by the leaping, two-time FIFA World Player of the Year.
A match like this won't serve as a solid tune-up for the potential roadblocks to a fourth World Cup title next summer, but it served its purpose as a step to getting there.
U.S. leaving nothing to chance
There has been a ruthlessness about the U.S. in the two matches they've played. The Mexico match was well in hand early in the second half, yet the U.S. pushed for more and was rewarded with a 6-0 triumph.
Against Panama, it was clear that the opponent, despite its previous 3-0 win over Trinidad & Tobago, had little chance against a more experienced, physically and technically superior side. In a friendly, perhaps it's poor form to pour it on and stomp the foot on the throat to the fullest extent possible. In qualifying? All's fair game, especially for a team that has been vocal about taking nothing for granted en route to securing its place in next summer's showcase. The U.S. is on a mission, and there's zero desire to decelerate until that mission is accomplished.