The US women’s national team retained their regional title and qualified for the 2024 Olympics on a Monday night that began with uneasiness.
The Tokyo Olympics brought it about. The past two weeks in Monterrey, Mexico at the CONCACAF W Championship had made things worse. The USWNT remained in the works after their own coach’s admission. “If you ask me if we’re ready to go into a competitive World Cup tomorrow,” Vlatko Andonovski said last week, “then we’re probably not ready for it yet.”
But in Monday’s final, the US women offered reminders of unmistakable truths.
They are still the most talented team in North and Central America and maybe even the world.
They somehow passed down the title-winning DNA from generation to generation, including this one.
They are an unfinished product, but still a terrifying one.
They defeated Canada 1-0 from an Alex Morgan penalty and the result underscored their dominance. Mallory Pugh could have scored too; Sophia Smith should have done it. During the exciting 90 minutes, shots sailed just wide of the post and the balls stopped just meters from the goal lines. The near misses continued throughout the first half and became more and more excruciating after halftime.
The breakthrough finally came after 77 minutes. It was Rose Lavelle who galloped into the penalty area cut off from behind. Morgan converted from the point with confidence.
But it had come all night since Pugh slammed a half-volley on goal from a tight angle in the first minute. It came since Sofia Huerta started hissing crosses from the right and Lindsey Horan started dominating midfield.
It didn’t come quite as the The US was concocting a near-perfect counterattack, or as Smith rounded Canada’s brave goalkeeper Kailen Sheridan. But as the night wore on, the quality of the USWNT rose to the surface. she created more than three chances worth of expected goals for Canada’s .5.
While Thursday’s preliminary rounds and semi-finals produced results but unconvincing performances, Monday delivered both and more: a confirmed post-game celebratory round; some revenge for the heartbreak of Tokyo 2020; and a trophy lift under confetti.
Despite all the talk of the world catching up, of tactical flaws and incomplete developments, of incoherence, the USA remains the queen of North and Central America. They have not lost a game or conceded a goal in continental competition since 2010. Its youth teams hold the regional U-17 and U-20 titles and have done so for some time.
There is still a lot to do before the World Cup next summer. An evolutionary process that typically begins after the Olympic Games began a year too late. The next generation, a highly gifted one, is not yet battle tested or fully integrated into the old guard. Injuries, including a devastating one for rising star Catarina Macario, have complicated everything.
But Monday was a struggle and a test passed enthusiastically. It was World Cup winner versus Olympic champion, and it offered emphatic proof of superiority.
“I was very pleased with the gradual improvements [throughout the tournament]’ Andonovski said after the game.
He has also improved as a coach. While in-game adjustments were slow in the group stage, he turned an early injury stoppage into a near-time-out on Monday and made a revealing tactical tweak. Canadian winger Nichelle Prince had Huerta twisting and turning in and out in the US right. Andonovski, gesturing frantically during the break, urged Smith and the right central midfielder to double down on Prince, who remained silent for an hour afterwards.
However, this title was mostly about individual quality. It was about Morgan putting on a golden ball performance after an eight-month USWNT hiatus. It was about Smith and Pugh being gorgeous and Andi Sullivan and Emily Fox filling in for pregnant veterans. “They will be here for at least three, maybe four world championships,” Andonovski said of the youngsters, before smiling. “Well, get used to her.”
The title, the USWNT’s ninth in CONCACAF, also qualified the Americans for Paris 2024, but Andonovski forgot about that until almost an hour after the final whistle. His and the focus of the players was and is on the 2023 World Cup, which starts on Wednesday in a year. This qualifier was part of the slow, sometimes painful, build-up to 2023. And USWNT’s progress was satisfying in the end.
“As a coaching staff we’re celebrating a lot of things because we believe this is just the beginning of what we’re going to see in the next 9-12 months,” said Andonovski.
Immediately after admitting last week that his team would not be ready for a World Cup “tomorrow”, he continued: “But will we be ready in a year? Absolutely.”