When the United States women’s national team meets Haiti on Monday night in their final group stage game of the CONCACAF qualifying tournament for the 2015 Women’s World Cup (live, FOX Sports 1, 7.30 p.m. ET), there’s more at stake than first impressions would suggest.
The USA sit on six points from 1-0 and 5-0 wins over Trinidad and Tobago and Guatemala, respectively, and little will prevent the Americans from advancing to the knockout stages. There, the two finalists and the winner of the third-place game will advance directly to the World Cup while the fourth-place finisher enters a playoff with Ecuador. For the USA to crash out, Haiti would have to beat them while T&T would have to beat Guatemala, and they would both have to make up six goals to address the goal difference.
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Haiti is probably the weakest team in the group, even though it gamely eked out 1-0 win over Guatemala in their opener while down a player. The USA could probably get through this affair unscathed by running out the reserves. But that equation isn’t quite so simple.
For starters, a win guarantees that Team USA tops Group A, which in turn means they’ll play the runner-up of Group B, ostensibly leaving them to face the weaker team for the all-important semifinal — which has a direct World Cup berth at stake.
So while this might appear to be something of a dead rubber, the Americans are taking it as seriously as any other. "This game is very important," said head coach Jill Ellis. "It is building on momentum but we want three points. We want to finish top of our group. Even though we might look at a slightly different lineup, it’s still the same focus and expectation of the players that are in [the lineup]."
The crux there is that in such a short tournament, fielding all the reserves in the final group stage game could interrupt the team’s rhythm and hamper its growing form. "You have to think that you’re playing one of the best teams in the world," said defender Ali Krieger, even though Haiti is ranked 60th worldwide by FIFA. "We have to worry about ourselves and how we play the game."
After three poor halves across their first two games, the USA finally broke out in the second half against Guatemala on Friday, scoring four goals. "Last game we remedied some of the things that were frustrating us," said attacking midfielder Megan Rapinoe. "We stuck to the game plan and really exploited the right areas."
With the formula now found, the Americans are understandably loath to undermine it by cycling a slew of new players. But there’s an inherent risk in playing the A-team. Without rest, the starters will play five games in just a dozen days, and Haiti promises to play the game as physically as the first two opponents did.
So far this tournament, savage tackles have flown around left and right, with the referees unable or unwilling to put a stop to it. There is, then, a certain incentive to avoid injury as much as pursuing goals. "We try not to think about that," said Krieger, who tore two knee ligaments in a tackle during the 2012 Olympic qualifying tournament, which wound up costing her a gold medal. "We try to play the way we want to play and not focus on what if we get injured. You could play a little timid or back off but you can’t do that."
"I don’t think you can put that in the front of your head," added Ellis. "I’ve said to the players, if we move the ball quick enough hopefully we’ll eliminate their ability to get close to us."
The team has already lost two players to injury. Defender Crystal Dunn left camp on the eve of tournament with a sprained knee ligament. Against Guatemala, star striker Alex Morgan took a knock from a defender while running in full stride and sprained her left ankle. She’ll be out for 4 to 6 weeks.
Morgan left the team Saturday morning. "It’s so sad because she’s a huge part of our team," said Krieger, speaking from experience. "Fortunately, we do have a lot of depth and everyone is able to jump on the field and start. But we were all pretty devastated to see her go out."
There are plenty of alternatives up front — it’s most likely that Abby Wambach, who was rested against Guatemala, will step back into the lineup for Haiti.
In that game, the Americans won’t worry about losing anyone else though. They can’t. There’s still too much at stake.