In the long march towards the 2015 Women’s World Cup, the ongoing CONCACAF qualifying tournament was supposed to be something of a formality, a glorified set of tune-up games that would get the Americans nice and loose for the real thing.
Perhaps it still is, but the tight 1-0 win over Trinidad and Tobago in their opening game on Wednesday night will have given pause to those expecting the usual monster scores run up against CONCACAF opposition. Historically, the Americans’ dominance over their regional rivals is absolute. They are now 54-1-1 all-time against the seven other teams in this tournament, with a 313-13 cumulative scoring record. In the last CONCACAF qualifying tournament, for the 2012 Olympics, they swept through their five games by a 38-0 total score.
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The competition isn’t about to catch up. As forward Abby Wambach has pointed out on several occasions, the USA’s reserves would be one of the world’s best teams as well. She’s not wrong about that. Legislated into existence by Title IX, the American depth is the envy of every other country.
Yet it feels like perhaps something is changing, like the automatic American win in CONCACAF competition, by an insurmountable margin, won’t be a given for much longer. Maybe it’s nothing, just an ill-conceived perception or a shoddy conclusion drawn from a sample size of one. Or perhaps we are witnessing the start of a trend here. Trinidad and Tobago’s logistical issues were well documented in the run-up to this tournament. They scarcely had the means to participate, assembling just a few days beforehand. Head coach Randy Waldrum had known most of his players for just a month, and some of his team members he’d never even seen play until a week ago. Still, they competed. And they did it well.
"It felt like they were very athletic, quick, but very disciplined," said USA captain Christie Rampone. "They played a complete game. They’re very organized and disruptive and they made it very challenging for us. Obviously we only got one goal out of that. They should get that credit, going forward."
For all their dominance on Wednesday — the USA completed 332 passes to Trinidad’s 68 and outshot them by a factor of four — Wambach conceded that the outcome was in peril. "We knew that Trinidad and Tobago would be organized and more organized than they had been in the past," she said. "They had a plan out there. They had a couple chances that could have equalized. If one thing goes one way and another thing goes another way, it could have been a different game."
"Hopefully the other teams didn’t watch this film to give them any hints of how to play against us," Wambach joked. You can bet that they will.
The women’s game is growing. That much was obvious at the last Women’s World Cup in 2011, when a host of new contenders emerged and one of them, Japan, won the whole thing by beating the Americans in the final. That progress has now seemingly come to the USA’s own backyard. "I think the region is getting better," said Waldrum. "For years it’s been the US and then Canada burst onto the scene and really upped their resources in the last decades. It’s been those two and of course Mexico. But if you take a look around, you’ll be a little bit surprised. It’s growing. It’s a lot better than most people around the world would give it credit for."
Not all of these countries are like Trinidad and Tobago, of course, which found a capable coach in Waldrum who can coalesce the team’s physical talents into a coherent and executable game plan. Jamaica, a team disbanded from 2008 until earlier this year, is supposed to be a solid outfit. Costa Rica has improved quickly. But Haiti and Guatemala, the other teams in the USA’s Group A, showed in their game earlier on the day that they are at least several years away from belonging among the region’s elite.
The top is growing larger though. The Trinidadians stand a real chance of becoming the first Caribbean country to reach the World Cup. The math is on their side, with the tournament expanded to 24 teams and Canada qualified automatically, leaving three berths and a spot in a playoff with Ecuador up for grabs.
Making it there would then further accelerate the development process. "One of the keys that might get it there quicker would be if us or a Caribbean team can qualify for the World Cup," said Waldrum. "That would change the perception of women’s football and the resources for the grassroots. These girls realize there’s a legacy to leave back home. It’s not just for them to get in. They really want to be that first team to qualify."
Whether they do or not, there will be more teams from CONCACAF than ever in Canada next summer. And it’s looking for all the world like life won’t be so simple for the Americans going forward.