The participation of the U.S. in next year’s Women’s World Cup was never really in doubt. That kind of certainty is owed to the world’s top-ranked national team, one that has never missed the tournament and has won it a record three times.
But just to make it official, the Americans won their qualifying tournament on Wednesday, beating Canada 2-0 in the final of the CONCACAF Women’s Championship on a cold, rainy night at Toyota Stadium.
And while that game ended the tournament it only started the U.S. on a trip that coach Jill Ellis hopes will end with her clutching the World Cup trophy again next summer.
“It feels like a starting point in terms of where we want to be,” she said.
Runner-up Canada also qualified for a seventh straight World Cup and Jamaica will be joining them for the first time after beating Panama on penalty kicks in a third-place game that ended in a 2-2 draw.
The length of that first game forced the U.S. to alter its warmup routine but that had little impact, with Rose Lavelle bending a left-footed shot from the top of the box just inside the right post in the second minute to give the U.S. the only goal it would need.
The quick start was a familiar one for the Americans, who haven’t trailed since the first half of a win over Brazil in early August. That was seven games ago and the Americans haven’t allowed a goal since.
They added an insurance goal in the 89th minute anyway, with Alex Morgan redirecting in a feed from Lindsay Horan for her 24th goal in as many games.
And although its run through the CONCACAF tournament included laughably one-sided wins over four teams, none of which are in the top 20 in the world rankings, the U.S. also played 11 games against teams ranked in the top eight during an unbeaten streak that grew to 26 games Wednesday.
If the World Cup started tomorrow, the reigning champions would be heavy favorites. But it doesn’t start tomorrow, it starts in June. So the challenge for Ellis is keeping her team this sharp for another eight months.
“Every game we’ve played this year, it’s about preparing us for next summer,” Ellis said. “We can get better. In every facet.
“To get this done we certainly have to continue to make strides.”
The U.S. dominates because it is technically superior, doesn’t make mistakes and buys into Ellis’ game plan, executing it to perfection. On Wednesday it held No. 5 Canada, a team that had scored 22 times in its last three games, to just one shot on goal.
“There’s so much more that can be done. There’s so much more improvement,” Horan said. “We’ve gotten to this point but we always want more.”
In the early game Panama twice erased deficits only to fall in penalty kicks. Goalkeeper Nicole McClure, subbed on in the final minutes of extra time, came up huge for Jamaica during the tiebreaker, making two diving saves. Defender Dominique Bond-Flasza, who played at Orange County’s Aliso Niguel High, then stepped up and ended it, sending Panama keeper Yenith Bailey sprawling to the left before burying her kick in the right corner.
Jody Brown, 16, a student at Montverde Academy in Florida, scored one goal and assisted another by Khadija Shaw. Panama got scores from Natalia Mills and Lineth Cedeno.
Despite the loss, which left the Panamanians sprawled on the wet turf in tears, the Central Americans’ route to the World Cup isn’t closed. If they beat Argentina in a two-leg playoff next month they, too, will play in France next summer.
Jamaica already knows it’s going, with Bond-Flasza’s goal touching off a wild celebration in the penalty area. Two hours later, after the U.S. win, the mood on its sideline was more subdued.
“We’re never satisfied,” forward Tobin Heath said. “As soon as you get satisfied or think that you’ve achieved something, you’re wrong because this team evolves at a fast level and you’ve got to keep up with it.
“That’s the most beautiful thing about this team. You can’t be satisfied for a second with where you’re at.”
Ellis is counting on that.