It was, yet again, harder than it probably needed to be, but the United States women’s national team claimed all three points once more in CONCACAF’s Women’s World Cup qualifying by dispatching Guatemala 5-0 on Friday night. As such, they are all but guaranteed a spot in the knockout stages, where they would need to win just one of two games to secure a berth in Canada next summer.
With the win, the Americans now lead Group A with six points from two games. Haiti, the USA’s final group-stage opponents on Monday, have three, as do Trinidad and Tobago. Guatemala are stuck on zero points.
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Tobin Heath scored twice for the USA and Carli Lloyd, Whitney Engen and Megan Rapinoe each did once in a strange game wherein the Americans labored hard for a minimal yield in the first half — when star striker Alex Morgan went down with a nasty-looking ankle injury — before trampling their opponents in the second.
“We finished chances; we had a lot of chances,” USA head coach Jill Ellis said. “We just opened the game up more and put the pedal down.”
It didn’t take long for the Americans to score the goal that proved to be the game-winner. In just the seventh minute, after a few unsuccessful forays forward, Ali Krieger was dispatched on the right and whipped in a low cross that fell to Sydney Leroux. Her back-heel, whether intentional or not, rolled to Heath who stretched and poked it past goalkeeper Alicia Navas from up close.
The rest of their first half though, was not pretty. The USA lacked sharpness and created a dearth of chances. Guatemala, playing more adventurously than Trinidad and Tobago had in their opener on Wednesday, which the Americans eked out 1-0, pressed aggressively and defended cohesively. Just as they had on Wednesday, the USA didn’t play fast enough, failing to open up spaces with their superior technique and physicality.
For the most part, they had to resort to playing route one-soccer, anathema to the sort of style Ellis has insisted on, pummeling the ball up to the streaking Morgan as no other path to the forwards could be found. Leroux in particular struggled to contribute, misreading several promising balls.
Painfully, Morgan was bumped by a defender while in full stride on the brink of halftime. She rolled the left ankle that kept her out for seven months late last year and for much of this one and was stretchered off.
Morgan said her immediate reaction was "Not again."
"It really doesn’t feel that bad," Morgan told FOX Sports 1’s Jenny Taft after the game. "I think initially I was more scared on the field, knowing it’s that same ankle that held me out for seven months, but after doctors assessed it and it didn’t swell up too much, I felt a little relieved at the aftermath of it, and, you know, I think it’ll be fine, it’ll just take a little time."
Her replacement, Christen Press, almost immediately was served up with a cross from Meghan Klingenberg and nodded it in at the far post. The goal was disallowed, however — just one example in a litany of strange calls on the night by a crew that had a desperately poor understanding of the offside rule.
In the second half, the Americans finally worked out the kinks, after three halves of frustration so far in this tournament. Leroux immediately crossed to Lloyd, who towered over her marker and doubled the score. That broke Guatemala’s resistance and from then on, the Americans shuffled through their lines with ease.
In the 57th minute, Lloyd whipped a volley to the far post off a corner. The excellent Heath, who had tormented the Guatemalans with her dribbling, read the situation cleverly and redirected the shot with a delightful flick of her heel to make it 3-0. Two minutes later, Rapinoe dropped a free kick right onto the streaking Engen’s head. Nobody marked her, and she could comfortably slam her header in all the open space to the goalkeeper’s right. 4-0.
Rapinoe, who has made a strong start to this tournament, got to register her own goal in the 66th minute. A shot by Lloyd was blocked in the box and then rolled to the pixie-coiffed attacking midfielder. Rapinoe, an instinctive player by nature, didn’t hesitate and sent a magnificent swerving kick into the net.
It wasn’t much of a game after that, as the USA hungered after more goals, having finally shaken off their lethargy, and an exhausted Guatemala merely tried to limit the damage.
“The difference was the physical conditioning of the two teams,” Guatemala head coach Benjamin Monterroso said, adding that his team gets to practice only twice a week back home. “We have to improve that aspect of our performance. We don’t have the conditioning to compete with a team like the United States.”
“Jill at halftime said, ‘We’ve got to up this,’” Lloyd recalled. “It’s got to be a faster tempo, got to move the ball, got to capitalize on our chances, got to get to the first and second balls and we would score. We did that.”
Late in the game, with the outcome long since secured, the American fan groups in the front rows hopped and chanted with delight. After a fraught beginning, the United States women’s national team’s 2015 Women’s World Cup campaign is back on track.