USA fends off Trinidad & Tobago for unconvincing win in World Cup qualifying

KANSAS CITY, Mo. —

The United States women’s national team cleared its first hurdle toward the 2015 Women’s World Cup, but not by much, as it eked out a 1-0 win over Trinidad and Tobago in their 2014 CONCACAF Women’s Championship opener here on Wednesday night. Abby Wambach’s deft 55th minute header was the difference.

The tournament, which will send three teams directly to Canada next summer and puts a fourth in a home-and-away playoff with Ecuador, gave the towering favorites immediate trouble in a vexing contest. For all their firepower and superior means, the Americans — who practice year-round with elite coaches in state-of-the-art facilities, whereas the Trinidadians get just a week before tournaments on a shoestring budget — had significant issues breaking through their opposition. Service, in the end, tended to fall short. And if it didn’t, the finishing did.

“It’s a learning process with this group,” said USA head coach Jill Ellis, who has installed a new playing system and philosophy in recent months which has yet to fully take root. “We’re asking certain things of them. But sometimes when things don’t happen right away you get tight.”

For the USA’s failings, however, Trinidad and Tobago was also entitled to a good deal of credit for its spirited performance. “If the people knew the plight that we’ve had and the struggles that we’ve had,” said head coach Randy Waldrum. “I’m extremely proud of the way the team played tonight.”

The first half was one of both dominance and frustration for the Americans. They put Trinidad and Tobago under suffocating pressure, pinging the ball around deep in the opposing half. Distribution was quick and largely crisp – they completed 165 passes to Trinidad’s 28. The Trinidadians only ventured out on the rare breakaway and never got terribly close to endangering goalkeeper Hope Solo. But for a few brief flurries, the Socca Princesses contained the USA surprisingly well. As advertised, they sat deep and defended with a sound organization and sturdy physicality.

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Megan Rapinoe ran the show for the Americans early on, twice feeding Alex Morgan in dangerous positions within the first three minutes. A defender whiffed on her low cross to Wambach, doing enough to throw her off the chance. Rapinoe’s corner kick at Christen Press was headed right at goalkeeper Kimika Forbes. All of those chances materialized in the first quarter of an hour.

It would be until late in the half before the Americans made another charge of note. Carli Lloyd ripped a shot at Forbes’ near post, which she pushed wide. On the ensuing corner, Press miss-hit her effort and Wambach tried to head it on backward, with no luck. On the brink of halftime, Rapinoe hit a very long shot, which dinked off the bottom of the cross bar before going out off of Forbes. Wambach was then denied on the goal line with the header off the corner.

Following the intermission, the USA cranked up the pressure further, hoping to crush any budding hopes of T&T pulling off some kind of historic upset. Wambach immediately knocked down a ball for Morgan, but she pummeled her shot over. Wambach then nodded a Megan Klingenberg cross just wide before seeing Forbes save her one-on-one effort, after which Rapinoe blasted the rebound many yards over the mostly-open goal.

At length, the Americans broke the surprising resistance. Morgan ran at goal and, once she was deep into the box, took the ball wide. She chipped it to Wambach at the far post. Forbes got a touch to it, but not enough to prevent it from looping to the tall American striker. The world-record holder for international goals took her time to judge the angles as the ball arced toward her and nodded the ball through the scampering defenders and into the net. The relief was palpable as otherwise stoic head coach Jill Ellis rose to her feet on the bench, looked skyward and pumped both fists.

“From our perspective, it was frustrating,” said Wambach. “Their goalie basically stood on her head, she had a fantastic game. She kept them in the game until the end. We just couldn’t break them down. We were, on the final chance, the final pass, just a little bit off.”

The Americans would conjure many more chances, but they refused to give themselves some breathing room. Wambach was denied one-on-one again by the outstanding Forbes, who was surely the player of the game. Sydney Leroux also found herself denied by Forbes. Trinidad, for their part, grew surer in their attacks and carved out some looks of their own. The score, in the end, was far tighter than it needed to be, given that the Americans outshot their opponents 28 to 6 and put 10 shots on goal to Trinidad’s one.

“We have to fix the problems, we have to fix the issues that made it so difficult for us to score goals,” said Wambach.

In the end the job was done. And that’s all that the points column in the Group A standings will reflect.