USWNT qualifies for the Olympics in 2024, and rejects some concern, with revenge

USWNT qualifies for the Olympics in 2024, and rejects some concern, with revenge

USA's Alex Morgan, on the right, controls the ball against Canada's Vanessa Gilles during the CONCACAF Women's Championship last football match in Monterrey, Mexico, Monday 18 July 2022. (AP Photo / Fernando Llano)

Alex Morgan scored the only goal in the CONCACAF W Championship between the USA and Canada. (AP Photo / Fernando Llano)

The American women’s national team retained its regional title and qualified for the 2024 Olympics on a Monday night that began with unrest.

The Tokyo Olympics had created it. The last two weeks in Monterrey, Mexico, at the CONCACAF W Championship, had worsened. USWNT, after conceding their own coach, remained a work in progress. “If you ask me if we are ready to go into a competitive World Cup tomorrow,” Vlatko Andonovski said last week, “we are probably not ready for that.”

But in Monday’s final, the American women offered reminders of unmistakable truths.

They are still the most talented team in North and Central America, and perhaps in the world.

They have somehow passed on title-winning DNA from generation to generation, including this one.

They are an unfinished product, but still a terrifying product.

They beat Canada 1-0 on an Alex Morgan penalty and the result line signed their dominance. Mallory Pugh could have scored too; Sophia Smith should have. Through 90 tense minutes, the shots sailed just outside the posts, and the balls stopped just meters from the goal lines. The almost-accidents spread throughout the first half, and became increasingly painful after the break.

The breakthrough came after 77 minutes. Rose Lavelle, galloping into the penalty box, was cut from behind. Morgan converted from the spot with confidence.

But it had come all night, ever since Pugh hit a half volley towards goal from a sharp angle in the very first minute. It had come as Sofia Huerta began to whistle a cross from the right, and Lindsey Horan began to steal the midfield.

It did not quite come when The United States made an almost perfect counterattack, or when Smith rounded Canada’s brave goalkeeper, Kailen Sheridan. But overnight, USWNT’s quality rose to the surface. The created more than three expected goals with chances to Canada’s 0.5.

While the preliminary rounds and Thursday’s semi-finals yielded results, but not convincing performances, Monday delivered both and more: a confirmed, festive cluster after the match; some revenge for Tokyo 2020 heartache; and a trophy lift during confetti.

Despite all the talk about the world catching up, about tactical shortcomings and incomplete developments, about incoherence, the United States remains the queen of North and Central America. It has not lost a match or even conceded a goal in a continental competition since 2010. The youth teams have U-17 and U-20 regional titles, and have done so for a while.

There is still work to do, a lot of work to do, between now and next summer’s World Cup. An evolutionary process that usually begins after the Olympics began a year too late. The next generation, an extremely skilled one, has not been combat tested or fully integrated with the old guard. Injuries, including a devastating one for rising star Catarina Macario, have complicated everything.

But Monday was a battle, and a test passed enthusiastically. It was a world championship against Olympic champions, and it gave emphatic proof of superiority.

“I was very pleased with the gradual improvements [throughout the tournament]”, Andonovski said after the match.

He also improved as a coach. While adjustments in the group game went slowly, on Monday he turned an early injury stop into a quasi-timeout, and made a telling tactical adjustment. Canadian winger Nichelle Prince had twisted and turned Huerta in and out of the United States to the right. Andonovski, who gestured feverishly during the break, asked Smith and the right-wing central midfielder to double Prince, who remained silent for an hour afterwards.

However, this title was largely about individual quality. It was about Morgan, after an eight-month USWNT break, delivering a golden ball performance. It was about Smith and Pugh being dazzling, and Andi Sullivan and Emily Fox advocating for pregnant veterans. “They’ll be here for at least three, maybe four World Cups,” Andonovski said of the youngsters, and then he smiled. “So, get used to them.”

The title, USWNT’s ninth in CONCACAF, also qualified the Americans for Paris 2024, but Andonovski forgot that until almost an hour after the final signal. His and the players’ focus has been, and is, on the World Cup in 2023, which starts a year from Wednesday. This qualifying tournament was part of the slow, at times painful build-up to 2023. And USWNT’s progress was ultimately satisfactory.

“As a coaching staff, we celebrate a lot of things, because we think this is just the beginning of what we are 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”.

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