Commentary

U.S. a step away from qualification

Updated: January 25, 2012, 11:15 AM ET
By Jeff Carlisle

VANCOUVER, British Columbia -- Revenge, it would seem, is a dish best served in climate-controlled conditions. While a steady rain came down outside, inside BC Place the U.S. women's national team was high and dry, and took a major step toward qualifying for this summer's Olympic games, defeating Mexico 4-0.

Carli Lloyd led the U.S. with her first international hat trick, while Heather O'Reilly added another tally. The U.S. also received a stellar display from its makeshift back line, as Mexico's attack was limited to a few long-range shots that barely troubled U.S. goalkeeper Hope Solo.

The win not only secured the top spot in Group B but also allowed the U.S. to gain some payback for a painful World Cup qualifying defeat to Mexico 14 months ago. "It was redemption for us," said Lloyd. "We came out strong and knew we had to get it done. There's no second chances from Olympic qualifying, so we made sure we got into the semifinal, and the semifinal is going to be the big one."

All that stands now between the Americans and a summer trip to London is Friday's semifinal against Costa Rica. While the U.S. will be a heavy favorite, the Americans are determined to not treat that game like a cakewalk. After the final whistle, forward Abby Wambach gathered the team together in the middle of the field and delivered a not-so-subtle message.

"This is exactly the same position we were in in Mexico in 2010 for World Cup qualifying," she said. "'We still haven't done anything, we still have one game left' -- that's what I said. Stay focused, enjoy tomorrow -- we have tomorrow off -- get the legs back, and start preparing for Costa Rica."

Usual right back Ali Krieger was out due to torn ligaments in her right knee, and as a tribute, her teammates each inscribed "liebe" (the German word for love) on their arms. But U.S. coach Pia Sundhage still needed to find a replacement, and her response was unconventional, to say the least; she inserted Becky Sauerbrunn into the center of the U.S. defense and moved Rachel Buehler to right back in place of Heather Mitts. Buehler said she had spent some time playing left back in 2011, but couldn't recall the last time she had been stationed on the right.

"It's been awhile," she said. "But growing up, you play everywhere on the field, so I just had to channel my youth a little bit."

But whatever concerns there might have been about the U.S. defense were quickly brushed aside. Not only was the back line outstanding all game, but the U.S. attack came out firing from the opening whistle. Some dynamic runs by Lauren Cheney helped give the U.S. some momentum, and soon the Americans went ahead. In the seventh minute, a corner kick from Cheney was redirected by Lloyd to Buehler. The defender's shot struck the bar, but Lloyd was there to nod home the rebound past Mexico goalkeeper Ceci Santiago.

The Americans didn't let up, and it took them just over a minute to extend their lead. Amy Rodriguez's deflected cross was touched away by Santiago, only for O'Reilly to prod home the loose ball.

"We just wanted to get after them," said Buehler. "The last time we played them in qualifying, that was not a good game for us, and we just knew we had to come out and set the tone and really get after it tonight."

Mexico soon settled into the match, but the U.S. remained aggressive and nearly put the game out of reach in the 23rd minute. O'Reilly's cross was deflected by Santiago right to Wambach, but her shot was cleared off the line by Mexico defender Natalie Garcia.

The rest of the half was played on more level terms. At times the U.S. was its own worst enemy as the central midfield duo of Lloyd and Shannon Boxx struggled to connect their passes. Give credit to Mexico, whose midfield began to press the U.S. and establish the kind of possession game for which it's known. The U.S. back four remained resolute, however, and prevented Mexico from creating any clear opportunities.

"We couldn't find the rhythm in the attack," said Sundhage. "We couldn't change the point of attack and get a goal in."

Sundhage replaced Rodriguez with Sydney Leroux to start the second half in a bid to stretch Mexico's defense, moving Cheney to the left side of midfield. But it was from a set piece that the U.S. put the game away. Cheney sent her free kick to the back post, and Lloyd easily outleaped the Mexico defense and headed the ball home in the 57th minute.

Mexico's self-belief wilted after the tally as the U.S. midfield reasserted itself. Lloyd nearly scored again when her low shot struck the post in the 75th minute, but she didn't half to wait much longer to finish off her hat trick, pouncing on a loose ball 11 minutes later to complete the scoring.

"I think in the second half [Lloyd] picked it up a little bit, on both sides of the ball, defending and the attack," said Sundhage. "Eventually her performance went up there. You gain confidence by scoring goals."

At this point, the Americans' toughest test would appear to be behind them, especially after watching Canada dispatch Costa Rica 5-1 on Monday. But the U.S. has shown in this tournament that they won't take any opponent lightly. Wambach will make sure that continues.

Player ratings (1-10; 10 = best)

G Hope Solo, 6 -- Wasn't asked to do much, but commanded her box when called upon.

D Amy LePeilbet, 6.5 -- Defended her side well, but caused problems for herself by getting caught in possession going forward. Overall, few complaints.

D Christie Rampone, 8 -- Used her speed to good effect, as Mexico tested the U.S with long passes over the top. Rampone was commanding in the air, as well.

D Becky Sauerbrunn, 8 -- Steady as ever, both in terms of her decision-making and passing.

D Rachel Buehler, 8 -- Delivered an impressive performance as a stand-in right back. Was also a factor going forward.

M Shannon Boxx, 5 -- Struggled mightily in all phases in the first half, as her timing was just off and she was too eager to dive into tackles. Settled down in the second half and her overall play improved.

M Carli Lloyd, 7 -- A Jekyll and Hyde performance, as crazy as that sounds, considering she scored three goals. Got the U.S. off to a dream start with the first tally, but couldn't find the range on her passing. Too often she was just not on the same page with Boxx. Still, she put the game away with two more goals and was much sharper after halftime.

M Amy Rodriguez, 6 -- Caused problems with some slashing runs, popping up in unusual spots. A bit surprised to see her come off at halftime.

M Lauren Cheney, 6.5 -- Helped set the tone with some mazy runs that put Mexico on its heels. Was dangerous from set pieces, as well. Wasn't as precise with her passing as time went on.

M Heather O'Reilly, 7 -- Showed good anticipation to crash the net on the second goal and was a constant menace down the right wing. She was also effective when moving into central positions.

F Abby Wambach, 5.5 -- Was a physical presence, per usual, but her link play wasn't as sharp as it normally is, and she just seemed to lack jump in her legs. Her shot that was cleared off the line in the 23rd minute is one she usually puts away.

Subs:

F Sydney Leroux, 5.5 -- Provided good energy, but seemed reluctant to take players on at times. Skied one chance over the bar from close range in the 60th minute.

M Megan Rapinoe, 6 -- Settled into the left side of midfield, and kept the U.S. attack ticking. Provided some good hustle on defense, as well.

M Lori Lindsey, NR -- Made a late cameo, coming on for Boxx.

Jeff Carlisle covers MLS and the U.S. national teams for ESPN.com. He is also the author of "Soccer's Most Wanted II: The Top 10 Book of More Glorious Goals, Superb Saves and Fantastic Free-Kicks." He can be reached at eljefe1@yahoo.com.

Jeff Carlisle covers MLS and the U.S. national team for ESPNsoccernet.