Rodriguez gives US 1-0 victory, spot at World Cup

Three weeks later than anyone expected, the United States is on

its way to the Women’s World Cup.

Stunned in regional qualifying earlier this month, the

top-ranked Americans clinched the 16th and final spot in next

year’s tournament Saturday by beating Italy for the second time in

a week. But, like many of their games of late, it was not the

commanding performance that has become an American trademark.

Amy Rodriguez scored off a rebound in the 40th minute to give

the U.S. a 1-0 victory, and the Americans won the home-and-home

playoff against Europe’s fifth-place team on 2-0 aggregate.

”We have to stay together and put it together a little bit

better,” U.S. coach Pia Sundhage said. ”Winning the gold medal,

we’ll have to play very, very well because it’ll be very

competitive.”

The World Cup will be played June 26 to July 17 in Germany. The

draw is Monday in Frankfurt.

The Americans were in danger of missing the tournament they’ve

won twice (1991 and 1999) after a stunning upset by Mexico in the

semifinals of regional qualifying. It was just their second loss

since the 2007 World Cup, and first since the opening game of the

Beijing Olympics, which the Americans went on to win.

Forced to beat Costa Rica in the regional third-place game and

given a second chance with a playoff against the No. 11 Azzurre,

the Americans showed they are still a force.

Not quite the overwhelming one they used to be, however.

”I think the country always thinks, ‘Oh, the U.S. always goes,

they’re so good,”’ Julie Foudy, part of the pioneering squad that

won the 1991 and 1999 World Cups, said before the game. ”When we

stumble, they don’t realize the rest of the world is getting much

better.”

Carrying a 1-0 aggregate lead after last weekend’s victory in

Padova, Italy, and needing only a win or a draw to advance, the

Americans looked disorganized and nervous in the first 20 minutes.

Or maybe they simply needed to thaw out, with the gametime

temperature 33 and the wind making it feel more like 25.

”First of all, I want to apologize for the first 20 minutes. It

was crap,” U.S. coach Pia Sundhage said. ”The second half, we did

a better job. I’m very happy with the way they played.

Eventually.”

Their disorganization nearly got caught up with the Americans

when Patrizio Panico was left unmarked at the edge of the 6-yard

box. But Nicole Barnhart made the save easily.

”Their expectations were very high with the way we were going

to play but we couldn’t put it together. Then we got nervous,”

Sundhage said. ”We made some bad decisions, technical errors I’ve

never seen before from experienced players. But the beauty of all

this is, we won the game 1-0 and they picked it up again. It’s

winners that can do that. I’m very proud of the team the way they

did it.”

Once the Americans finally settled into a rhythm, they dominated

possession and peppered Italian goalkeeper Anna Maria Picarelli –

who grew up in Southern California – with at least a half-dozen

chances. Rodriguez and Megan Rapinoe both missed empty-netters, and

Rapinoe skied another shot over the goal before the two combined

for the goal. Rapinoe worked her way around two defenders before

taking a left-footed angled shot. Picarelli blocked the shot, but

the ball bounced right to Rodriguez, who poked it in from 6 yards

out.

”It was kind of a jumble in front of the net,” Rodriguez said.

”The ball was loose and I saw it escape from the goalie. I tried

to just dive in there and put it on frame, and luckily it hit the

back of the net.”

The score could have been even more lopsided, with Lauren Cheney

hitting the crossbar in the 60th minute.

The U.S. finished with a 17-5 shot advantage and 9-3 advantage

for shots on goal.

When the final whistle sounded, several players raised their

arms in triumph while the crowd of 9,508 roared.

”Obviously this was a little different road than we had

expected,” forward Abby Wambach told the crowd after the final

whistle. ”But this team has resilience. We never gave up. We never

lost belief in ourselves.”

Italy coach Pietro Ghedin had given his team a ”10 percent

chance” of beating the United States before the playoff series

began – the U.S. has won 10 of their last 12 meetings – and the

Azzurre were further hampered by the loss of striker Melania

Gabbiadini. Gabbiadini, who has 22 goals in 71 appearances for

Italy, including six during European qualifying, missed both games

with a twisted ankle.

Italy pushed forward in the closing minutes, but Barnhart was

never really tested.

”I know this team right now has a chance of winning the World

Cup,” Wambach said. ”It’s not going to be easy, it’s not going to

come without bumps in the road. But I’m proud of us. We showed a

lot of our character.