February 21, 2016
USA women capture CONCACAF women's Olympic qualifying crown for the 4th time
By Michael Lewis
HOUSTON, Texas – The United States women won yet another CONCACAF competition Sunday.
And the sun also rises.
Midfielders Lindsey Horan and Tobin Heath scored goals within an eight-minute span in the second half to boost the USA to a 2-0 victory over Canada and to its fourth consecutive CONCACAF Women's Olympic Qualifying Championship title at BBVA Compass Stadium.
Both teams already had qualified for the Rio Olympics with wins in their semifinal matches Friday.
"I was really pleased on how we committed to try and play," USA head coach Jill Ellis said. "We just stayed with it. We deserved to win. It was a good step on where we want to go with this team."
The Americans, three-time defending Olympic gold medalists and reigning FIFA Women's World Cup champions, dominated, leaving the Canadians with only a handful of opportunities. The USA (18-0-1) has never lost in this competition, outscoring its foes, 98-4.
The key to the USA's success was its midfield, particularly the central mids who usually do things you rarely see on the scoresheet or in many statistics.
That duo happened to among the youngest Americans on the field -- 21-year-old Horan and the 22-year-old Morgan Brian. Horan is more of the holding midfielder, although she is not afraid to go forward, while Brian has become the quarterback of the team after Lauren Holiday's retirement.
In fact, Morgan was so impressive over the past 12 days that she was selected as the winner of the Golden Ball as the player of the tournament.
"She has been asked to do a little bit more," Sauerbrunn said. "She helps us build out of the back a little bit more. Lauren Holiday used to do it for us. She's also done runs from behind. She is doing a bigger job and he has done a wonderful job. It is no surprise to me she is the player of the tournament because she had a phenomenal five games."
Horan, who forged a reputation as a hard-nosed forward at the youth international level, has made a smooth transition to midfield, all things considered.
"It's so much better now," she said. "Coming into it, playing a new position, it was so hard for me at first, but I think with these players and playing with someone I have played with for so long, i am really comfortable here. Now after so many games with these players, you get to know each player and how they play."
The USA controlled the match from the opening kickoff to the final whistle but was forced to wait until early in the second half to be rewarded for its efforts.
Horan broke a scoreless tie in the 53rd minute. After a Canadian defender cleared the ball out of the area, USA center back Becky Sauerbrunn latched onto it about 40 yards out on the right side. She floated the ball into the box that Horan got to a split second before goalkeeper Janine Beckie did and headed the ball home from eight yards for her second international goal.
"It was just a great ball from Becky," Horan said. "It kind of made us more comfortable in the match. It's always good to get that first goal."
The Americans doubled their advantage in the 61st minute when 17-year-old midfielder Mallory Pugh dribbled into the area on the left side and found Tobin Heath on the opposite flank. Heath drilled a 12-yard shot into the upper right corner for her 14th international score.
USA goalkeeper Hope Solo, who was rarely tested, made a diving save on Melissa Tancredi in the 71st minute. As it turns out, Tancredi was the last player to solve the Americans' defense in qualifying as she tallied in the 2008 CONCACAF Olympic Championship final. Since then, the USA has recorded 10 consecutive shutouts, extending its qualifying scoreless streak to 903 minutes.
Canada coach John Herdman gave some of his regulars a rest as striker Christine Sinclair and 16-year-old sensation and forward Deanne Rose, goalkeeper Erin McLeod and midfielders Diana Matheson and Sophie Schmidt. U.S. coach Jill Ellis, on the other hand, deployed the same Starting XI as in the 5-0 semifinal win over Trinidad & Tobago Friday.
Sinclair, who is second on the all-time international goal-scoring list (161), came on for Nichelle Prince in the 62nd minute.
Believe it or not, there seems to be room for improvement for the USA.
"We're getting there," Sauerbrunn said. "I still think we have a few levels left to go. Our potential, we're not close to reaching it yet."
She then rattled off the areas that need upgrading: taking care of the ball, tempo, runs off the ball, runs in the penalty area.
"Sophistication I am talking about," she said. "We are just scratching the surface in a lot of areas where we can really master and become experts at.
"I think that's what's great about this team, that we're constantly evolving and we all feel it and we all see it. There were moments today against Canada. We don't want it to be every other play. We want it to be every play."