Three weeks later than anyone expected, the United States is on its way to the Women’s World Cup.
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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.