Hope Solo knew that the Canadian National Team would provide the stiffest challenge yet for the United States Women’s National Team in the CONCACAF Women’s Olympic Qualifying Final.
But as she correctly predicted, the American side’s skill was too much to handle.
The USWNT fourth consecutive CONCACAF WOQ title with a 2-0 win over Canada, and in the process showed why they’re the No. 1 team in the world. Hope erased Canada’s only shot on goal, while the U.S. got tremendous contributions from its newcomers and its returners for a well-rounded team victory.
“I love playing Canada,” Hope said before the match. “It’s a physical game, I get to be involved a little bit more. So, I don’t think it’s necessarily the most prettiest games when we play Canada, but hopefully with this new group of players, we’ll find a way around that, we’ll find a way around their kind of American football style of play.”
A pair of U.S. newcomers teamed with a pair of wily veteran to do just that. World Cup defensive anchor Becky Sauerbrunn assisted on 21-year-old Lindsey Horan’s game-winner, and 17-year-old Mallory Pugh set up 27-year-old midfielder Tobin Heath on a decisive dagger. Afterward, USWNT coach Jill Ellis was especially complimentary of the vital roles both Horan and Pugh played in the U.S. win, not only on Sunday, but their entire victorious run through the tournament.
“Getting to this game, you could start to see their class,” U.S. coach Jill Ellis said of Horan and Pugh. “Obviously, there were some good things in these earlier games, but getting pressured and having to deal with a team that was a quarterfinalist in the World Cup, that’s why I wanted to put them in this environment. Because what I’ve seen is that they can deal with it. They can add things to our game. They add more tools to our team. And I just think they’re a big part of how we want to move the ball.”
While the rookies and vets combined for the two scores to ensure the U.S. came out on top, No. 1 was brilliant in her own right on here way to the team’s fifth shutout of the tournament. Hope and Alyssa Naeher, who started the final game of group play against Puerto Rico, kept the sheet clean throughout the entire event as the Americans outscored their opponents 23-0. Hope earned the Golden Glove Award for the tournament’s top goalkeeper in a podium sweep for Team USA.
She was joined by Golden Ball winner Morgan Brian, Golden Boot winner Crystal Dunn and captain Carli Lloyd, who accepted the team’s Fair Play Award. The Americans had eight players in the Best XI for the tournament: Solo, defender Kelley O’Hara, Sauerbrunn, Horan, Brian, Heath, forward Alex Morgan and Lloyd.
The tournament’s top keeper was ready for the physical match right from the start. Canada threatened just two minutes into the game, but No. 1 leaped up and grabbed a ball, sent into the box by Rhian Wilkinson, clean out of the air to prevent a scoring chance. At the 15-minute mark, Hope thwarted another attack, coming off her line to register another stop with help from Julie Johnston.
Canada generated a few more opportunities as the first half rolled along. Ashley Lawrence pressed the issue down the left side and tried to sneak one inside the back post, but Hope was ready for it, and she swallowed up the attempt with ease. The U.S. sent pressure Canada’s way all evening at BBVA Compass Stadium in Houston as well. Defender Kadeisha Buchanan, who recently joined Hope in the FIFA Women’s World XI, was a thorn in the side of the American attack—but the USWNT finally broke through 53 minutes in.
Sauerbrunn drove a beautiful loft pass deep into the box, where Horan leapt up to challenge the charging Canadian keeper, Stephanie Labbé. Horan beat the keeper to the ball and flicked a header in for the match’s first goal.
Eight minutes later, Pugh, another American youngster, sparked another score.
Pugh was a constant thorn in the side of the Canadian defense all match, and she showcased some brilliant accuracy to set up the dagger. Pugh beat her defender with a crafty nutmeg down the left flank before playing a hard ball on the ground through to Heath. Heath looked to be at perhaps the top form of her career in Texas, and the tourney’s final goal was no different. She calmly received Pugh’s cross and crushed a velocious left footer into the back of the net to put the Americans up by two, 61 minutes in. Afterward, Ellis continued to rave about the contributions of both Pugh and Horan.
“In terms of just their poise tonight, I think Mal got cooking there as the game evolved, and you can see the things that she is special at,” Ellis said. “And if we don’t have Horan in the midfield, we’re not going to be as class as we were tonight.”
Still just a high schooler, Pugh made three starts by tournament’s end, and Hope wasn’t surprised that she played with such a tremendous comfort level in the final.
“Mallory Pugh, being on the field, it was so cool,” Hope said following Pugh’s second start in the semifinal victory. “I was so proud for her to start. To be honest, she didn’t seem nervous. She just seemed excited and happy. It was good energy.”
With a 2-0 lead in hand, Hope made her best play of the day 10 minutes after the second goal, to keep the Americans ahead by a comfortable margin. Canadian forward Melissa Tancredi knocked a hard header to Hope’s near post on the left side, where No. 1 made a textbook reaction save, sending the ball aside for a Canadian corner kick. She then swiped the ensuing corner out of the air to preserve her 95th career shutout and her 144th win in her 190th USWNT cap.
Both the U.S. and Canada are headed to the Summer Olympic Games in Rio de Janiero, Brazil.
Canada was undoubtedly the toughest challenge the Americans received in the CONCACAF qualifier and should be a factor in Rio alongside the United States, which will go into the Olympics as the world’s No. 1 team and prohibitive favorite to win gold. Still Hope was very complimentary of how far the Canadians have come and the threat they pose on the pitch.
“I think that they want to be the best and they want to beat the Americans,” Hope said of Canada. “I think they always want to prove that they’re growing the game in their country—and they’ve come a long way.”
The same can honestly be said for the USWNT given their unwavering level of play so far this year.
The U.S. has shown that, even after some major departures from the World Cup team, the future is incredibly bright. Pugh was a major storyline, making her way onto the roster at age 17 and proving her worth as a brilliant creator, which earned her a starting spot by tournament’s end. Dunn had a coming-of-age tournament as well, leading all competitors with five goals, showing that she too is deserving of a spot on the squad after being left off the World Cup roster. It all has the Americans looking forward to defending their World and Olympic titles in Rio.
“They’re learning a lot, they’re embracing our culture,” Sauerbrunn said of players like Horan and Pugh. “And so it’s really fun to see it coming out on the field, as well, when you see these certain combinations — Mallory Pugh coming in and doing some great stuff and Crystal Dunn scoring so many goals. It’s just been really phenomenal having these players come in and just be brave and courageous and show what they bring to the table.”
But the Olympics are still a long way off for this group, and the USWNT now turns their attention to another tournament that will keep them stateside again in the month of March.
The upcoming tournament begins at Raymond James Stadium in Tampa, Fla on March 3 before moving to Nashville, then circling back south to FAU Stadium in Boca Raton, Fla. for the final round. France, England and Germany will come to the States for the four-team round-robin style tournament. All four squads will go head-to-head with one another, and the side with the most points wins the cup. The competition will be stiff for the U.S.—Germany, France and England ranked second, third and fifth, respectively, in the latest FIFA rankings.
The Stars and Stripes will face England in their opening match at 4:45 p.m. PT on March 3. The game will be broadcast on Fox Sports 1.
- WNT defeats Canada 2-0 to win 2016 CONCACAF Olympic Qualifying Championship (US Soccer, Feb. 21, 2016)
- US women’s soccer team wins fourth consecutive Olympic Qualifying Championship (Houston Chronicle, Feb. 21, 2016)
- USWNT, Canada ignite bitter rivalry on Sunday (Equalizer Soccer, Feb. 19, 2016)
- Youth is served with Mallory Pugh on national soccer team (AP, Feb. 20, 2016)
- USWNT’s wealth of talent foils Canada in CONCACAF final (ESPN W, Feb. 22, 2016)
- CWOQ Best XI, Awards (CONCACAF, Feb. 22, 2016)