USWNT advance to Women’s World Cup behind win over Mexico

CHESTER, Pa. —

The United States women’s national team qualified for the 2015 Women’s World Cup on Friday night by beating neighbors and rivals Mexico 3-0 in the semifinals of the CONCACAF qualifying tournament.

The Americans became the second team to secure a berth out of CONCACAF after Costa Rica did so by beating Trinidad and Tobago on penalties earlier on Friday — in addition to Canada as the automatically-placed hosts, of course. Carli Lloyd scored the first two with an early header and a converted penalty. Christen Press got the third with a splendid move to round the goalkeeper.

From the first whistle, the Americans controlled the tempo, the space and the ball — establishing a kind of soccer continuum. They had grown steadily in form and confidence in this tournament, increasing the margin of their win with each successive game. That upward trend culminated in their most composed and complete performance against Mexico.

More than ever, the width and zippy passing head coach Jill Ellis has preached were on show consistently. Mexico, frankly, barely saw the ball and threatened even less. There would be no repeat of El Tri’s stunning 2-1 upset of the USA at the same stage of this same tournament four years ago, which reduced the Americans to qualifying through playoff ignominy.

It took just six minutes for the Yanks to convert their dominance into a goal. Megan Klingenberg and Tobin Heath combined well up the left flank, carving open some room for Heath to dispatch a cross. She ably dropped it into the head of the unmarked Lloyd, who softly redirected the ball into the net.

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Given the chances on offer, the Americans took some time in doubling the score. Press and Sydney Leroux were denied by goalkeeper Pamela Tajonar from up close. Press then took a soft-as-butter first touch to control a cross, but whipped her side-footed finish into the side netting. After half an hour, Heath earned a generous penalty when she went down in Mexico’s box on minimal — if any — contact. Lloyd coolly sent Tajonar the wrong way to make it 2-0.

At the onset of the second half, the Americans tried to put the game away quickly with an early barrage. Indeed, it manifested into a golden opportunity for Leroux. A Megan Rapinoe cross skipped to her at the far post. Leroux slid onto it from just a few yards out but somehow clanged the ball off the underside of the bar. Press hit the rebound high.

Leroux made amends soon enough. In the 56th minute, she dispatched Press with an inch-perfect through ball. The tricky striker tapped the ball around Tajonar and then swept it into the open net for the third goal. But then Leroux’s yearlong slump in form reared its ugly head again as she smacked a good look off the near post before coming off for Abby Wambach in the 61st minute.

“It’s really super frustrating,” said an incredulous Leroux after the game. “Eventually they will go in… Eventually.”

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In the 75th minute, as the Americans kept barreling forward, Lloyd seemed to have earned her hat trick when she struck home a square ball from close range but her effort was ruled out by the offside flag. In the late going, Wambach was almost able to tap in, only to whiff. Tajonar scooped up the ball but then bobbled it, allowing Press to clip the ball off the post, the third time the Americans hit the woodwork.

By then, Mexico had long since given up on any aspiration greater than keeping the score respectable. They ceded yet more possession than they already had and bunkered in even further.

“They are awesome. They are outstanding. They have so many weapons; they have so many tools,” said Mexico head coach Leo Cuellar. “It’s very difficult to prepare a game against them, because they have so many options and so many good ideas. We dropped back too much.”

The defensiveness has been a common theme in this tournament, when the Americans have faced Trinidad and Tobago, Guatemala and Haiti alike. Their sophistication in breaking down all of that clutter in opposing halves and thirds has grown laudably though. It’s a skill-set that might come in handy next summer, when the World Cup will have expanded from 16 to 24 teams and promises to include a few aesthetically unambitious opponents.

On June 6, the USA will be there at the Women’s World Cup when it opens in Canada. There, they will seek to become world champions for the first time in 16 years. They have seven months and change to figure out how.