PHILADELPHIA – The battles have been won and the objective was met. The United States women’s national team has qualified for next summer’s Women’s World Cup. Yet a game remains. A final at that, to decide the winner of this 2014 CONCACAF Women’s Championship (live, 5 p.m. ET, FOX Sports 1) even though the USA and Costa Rica both reached their objectives and qualified for Canada 2015 by winning their semifinals on Friday night.
“It’s still very important to us to now try and win the championship in CONCACAF, to finish top in this region,” said USA head coach Jill Ellis on the eve of the game. “There was a job to do, we did it, enjoyed it. The players were great last night, they were excited, but also knew there was one more piece to finish before we go on.”
The game may only exist as a symbolic culmination of a tournament staged for the most part to sort out who gets to go to the World Cup, but to the Americans, that doesn’t make it meaningless. “For me it’s a final, and a final we’re going to win,” said midfielder Carli Lloyd, whose four goals in the competition thus far are tied for the lead with Costa Rica’s Carolina Venegas. “We want to win decisively. This was a great win. We’re heading to Canada but we’ve got one more. We have a statement to make and we want to go out there and win.”
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While this game doesn’t hold much cachet or consequence, the Americans are wise to take it seriously. This is, after all, their last competitive game until the World Cup kicks off next June. Ellis points out that a tourney in Brazil in December and the Algarve Cup in Portugal in March will also give them chances to lift trophies and help sharpen their tools, you can’t entirely contrive competitiveness in friendly tournaments. This, in truth, is their last real game for more than seven months.
Fatigue will play an outsized part in this affair. The USA will play their fifth game in 12 days, as many as Costa Rica will have contested in just 11. The Ticas, meanwhile, saw their semifinal against Trinidad and Tobago go all the way to penalties, meaning they have an additional 30 minutes of extra time in their legs. A few hours later, the Americans beat Mexico 3-0 to punch their own ticket.
The two sides will have had just one day of rest since those games. “Both teams are going to be tired, both teams have just got that big knock of having qualified for the World Cup, so it’ll be interesting with the one-day turnaround,” said USA forward Christen Press.
The other big question is how Costa Rica will approach the game. They have been the second-best team in this tournament with an attacking and attractive brand of soccer that has earned plaudits from many, including Ellis. It just might be that for the first time all month, the USA doesn’t face a team bunkered into its own box, hoping to prevent humiliation.
“Hopefully it’s a good match,” said Lloyd. “It would be nice to have some open space.”
“It’s way more fun to play against a team that’s going to play you straight up,” added forward Abby Wambach.
Whether Costa Rica will change its game plan though, is unclear. Their coach prescribed caution for his team. “It would be foolish, it would be even suicidal, to go after the United States and attack in their third from the start,” said Garabet Avedissian. “But that doesn’t mean our strategy will be entirely defensive either.”
“We have to play an intelligent game,” he added. “But that doesn’t mean we’re not going to play an enjoyable game, an aggressive game.”
Ultimately, this is the first game of the USA’s World Cup preparation. “Every game we play is an opportunity to get better and we know we have so far to go into the World Cup,” said Press. “It starts today now.”