Alex Morgan leads USWNT across Canada and into the Paris Olympics

Alex Morgan leads USWNT across Canada and into the Paris Olympics

The symmetry would not have been lost on any of them: the United States and Canada, two of the world’s best women’s football teams, met on a swell night and chased for a prize only one of them could win.

A close match. A late penalty kick. A jubilant celebration.

A year ago during the Olympics in Tokyo, it was the Canadians who rejoiced, and converted a penalty in the second half and won the match on the way to the gold medal.

Monday night in Monterrey, Mexico, it was the Americans who danced at the final signal. They were the ones who had won the penalty kick and then the match, 1-0, to guarantee a place in the Paris Olympics 2024. They were the ones who now had a chance to tear that gold medal back.

The victory came via well-known hands: Lindsey Horan controlled the midfield. Rose Lavelle slips in behind the defense and win and punish. Alex Morgan goes up to bury it.

The victory was the second major goal achieved by the Americans in Mexico, in a tournament that served as a qualifier for both the World Cup in 2023 and the Olympics in 2024. The United States had sealed its place in the former by simply advancing to the semifinals. But it still had a goal to go, and a point to prove, against Canada in the Concacaf W Championship final.

Morgan had started the Olympic semi-final last summer in Kashima, Japan, but had seen the end of it from the bench after being replaced. During the games, she had been among the loudest of the veteran players on the list who had indicated – in no way – that coach Vlatko Andonovski was wrong.

In the year since that defeat, Morgan (33) had been among the veterans who had been asked to make room for younger attacking talents such as Mallory Pugh, Sophia Smith and Trinity Rodman, to give Andonovski room to tamper and redo ahead of next year. World Cup in Australia and New Zealand. But she also knew her chance would eventually come again, and on Monday, after two weeks of struggles with young players and new lineups, Morgan got the chance to do things right, to prove she still has a role to play.

“I’m not surprised, but very happy with how she handled the whole situation in how she came back,” Andonovski told reporters after the final. “I said it early on: Alex is a better player. That’s what makes her special. She does not want to stop growing, she does not want to stop evolving. “

Her ability to press all over the field frequently paid dividends. Handing the ball over Horan after Lavelle was stumbled into the penalty area, Morgan took a few deep breaths, confidently stepped forward and buried a low, hard shot in the lower right corner when Canada goalkeeper Kailen Sheridan plunged the other way.

A few minutes after the final whistle, Morgan was honored as the tournament’s outstanding player.

“It just always feels good,” she said, “to be called a champion.”

Grateful to be back – her longtime frontline teammate Megan Rapinoe did not get off the bench in the final – Morgan seemed to agree with Andonovski’s choice this time. But she was also quick to notice that breaking in new players, especially on the traditional American team, sometimes requires having seniors around to show them the way.

“Some of the younger players are able to look up to the older players in a big tournament like this,” said Morgan. “You just can not recreate it with friendly matches. That must be the real deal. And this is the real deal. “

Andonovski also praised players such as Morgan, Rapinoe and defender Becky Sauerbrunn for creating a “superb” environment that contributes to success. “We came out to the last match of the tournament, after being in a hotel for a month, with the best energy we’ve ever had,” he said. “It’s first and foremost a testimony to the senior players.”

How far ahead are the United States and Canada of their regional rivals? Neither team lost a match in Monterrey on their way to the final. None of them gave a goal. Each scored a dozen goals in the first four games.

Both teams were actually so dominant that when Costa Rica and Jamaica had locked the other two semi-final places – and took the region’s two other automatic placements in the World Cup – it seemed that they stood down before the final and rested some of their top players in the semifinals. instead of winning third place. Victory there seemed to be a safer bet, after all, and it came with a consolation prize: a shot against the US-Canada loser in a two-legged Olympic final game that offered a last-chance bid for a place in Paris in 2024.

Defeat in the final was hardly a disaster for Canada: The team is still expected to qualify for the Paris Games by beating Jamaica, who beat Costa Rica earlier Monday in third place, in the playoffs next year.

Canada also learned a few things about itself along the way. Sheridan, who kept his team in the game with several outstanding saves in the first half, was named the tournament’s top goalkeeper and now seems rooted in that role. Julia Grosso won the gold boot as the championship’s top scorer, and she and her other 21-year-old Jordyn Huitema came off the bench on Monday to provide the kind of game-changing spark that could force Canada into the same type of youth vs. .-old bill that the United States is now embracing.

“I think it’s a different level,” Canada coach Bev Priestman said after the team’s semifinal victory, “and I think playing on a team like the United States will bring out some of our strengths that the teams may not have allowed us to do. ”

Now she and her players – just like the American team – know how little more about the mix they need to get where they really want to be.

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