By The Washington Post · Steven Goff · SPORTS, SOCCER
Seven months after winning the World Cup, they predictably booked a place in the Olympics on Friday with a 4-0 victory over Mexico. They'll arrive in Japan this summer as favorites for a fifth gold medal in seven attempts.
By the 14th minute, the outcome was all but settled, thanks to goals by Rose Lavelle and Sam Mewis.
Mewis and substitute Christen Press scored in the second half before an announced crowd of 11,292.
The qualifying tournament was, as expected, little hindrance: three easy group-stage victories and a semifinal triumph to clinch one of two berths from the Concacaf region.
Canada also secured passage Friday, defeating Costa Rica, 1-0, in a match played at one-third the speed of the U.S. performance. Sunday's final is for bragging rights only.
The top-ranked Americans have not lost in more than a year, a string of 27 matches, and remain unbeaten in Olympic qualifying history. Aside from Canada, the region offers a test every few years. In 39 meetings with Mexico, the United States has lost once and tied once.
That one defeat was a big one - a 2011 World Cup qualifier in Cancun that forced the Americans to earn a berth via playoff.
Though that shocker occurred many years ago, the U.S. players were aware of the precarious nature of these short tournaments.
"They reminded themselves," first-year coach Vlatko Andonovski said of his players ahead of Friday's match. As the state of the women's game improves, "we have to be at our best every time we step on the field."
In the opening moments, they were. They were fierce and focused, eager to kill Mexico's spirit before the visitors could gain a sip of confidence.
Lavelle scored in the fifth minute, gathering Megan Rapinoe's clever, no-look pass and taking on two defenders.
The Washington Spirit midfielder could have tried infiltrating the penalty area by taking a central route. But with a golden left foot - a weapon that sealed the World Cup championship against the Netherlands last summer in France -- Lavelle steered left and stung a 22-yard shot against the grain to beat goalkeeper Emily Alvarado to the far corner for her 12th international goal.
Nine minutes later, Mewis got into the act. Rapinoe served a low corner kick. At the near post, Julie Ertz let the ball pass through to Mewis for a rising 8-yarder.
For the rest of the half and after intermission, the Americans were not as sharp with their passing and squandered several opportunities.
Mexico was not going to recover from the deficit, but the score line bolstered the Mexican cause and left the Americans itching for more goals.
They came. In the 67th minute, Mewis scorched a free kick from the edge of the penalty area through a tangle of players and into the far side for her 18th U.S. goal.
Six minutes later, Press chipped a 12-yard shot over Alvarado after her initial bid was blocked, increasing her international total to 56.
In the first match eighth-ranked Canada defeated No. 37 Costa Rica to earn a fourth consecutive Olympic berth.
After winning bronze at each of the past two Summer Games, the Canadians are looking to take the next step. Friday's performance, however, did not inspire confidence in getting to the gold-medal match.
"We definitely looked a little beyond the qualifying because we want to be at the podium again," said Kenneth Heiner-Moller, Canada's Danish coach. "I do think we have the team for it."
Canada did not impress. Possession was abundant but ideas and opportunities were sparse.
"You can definitely tell the players brought some nerves onto the pitch," Heiner-Moller said.
The breakthrough came in the 72nd minute, but even that was not without a touch of anxiety.
Substitute Deanne Rose, whose entry injected life into the attack, crossed into the 6-yard box. Jordyn Huitema, an 18-year-old forward from French club Paris Saint-Germain, one-timed a left-footed shot off the left post.
The ball returned to her for a quick, right-footed finish into the lower right corner of the net for her seventh goal of the tournament.
The Ticas have shown growth in placing players in leagues beyond their borders and qualifying for the 2015 World Cup, but for the fifth consecutive time, they fell a victory short of the Olympics.
Costa Rica wasn't a threat but wasn't intimidated either, engaging in a bruising match that produced several injury stoppages.
"As the game went on," Costa Rica Coach Amelia Valverde said through an interpreter, "the team's confidence was growing."
If not of winning inside 90 minutes, the Ticas entertained thoughts of dragging the match into extra time or penalty kicks.
Huitema's goal, however, shattered their hopes and set the stage for another regional showdown with the Americans.