The United States' 3-0 win over Costa Rica on Monday means the U.S. can take a few deep breaths, having survived the one-game elimination stage of its quest to snag the final spot in the 2011 Women's World Cup in Germany. As the third-place finisher out of CONCACAF, the Americans will face Italy, which finished fifth in UEFA qualifying, in a home-and-home playoff series Nov. 20 in Italy and Nov. 27 at Toyota Park in Bridgeview, Ill.
The U.S. should not, however, rest comfortably in the two weeks leading up to the playoff. In Italy, the Americans will find an opponent stronger than Mexico, an opponent that has gone through the ups and downs of UEFA's grueling qualifying stages. Italy will go into the games much more battle-tested of late than the U.S. and more comfortable with the home-and-home format. Italy played three such series to make it to this stage, but the format is not used in the U.S.
The Italian women currently are ranked No. 11 in the world. They penned one of the best upsets of 2009, shocking England 2-1 in group play of the Women's European Championships, but were knocked out of the tournament by eventual champion Germany in the quarterfinals.
Italy has been looking tough in this World Cup cycle, too. In 14 qualifying matches spanning more than a year, Italy lost just once. In the second leg of its playoff versus France, Italy blew a 1-0 lead at home and tired in the second half, losing 3-2 to fall to the losers' bracket. There, the team advanced past Ukraine and Switzerland to clinch a playoff spot against an opponent to be decided later -- the U.S.
Women's Professional Soccer fans know Italy's top scorer, Patrizia Panico, very well, as she played in 10 matches for Sky Blue FC in 2010. She has 11 goals and seven assists for Italy in qualifying. Her time in WPS was considerably less productive, and she is perhaps best remembered for a rough yellow card foul on Boston midfielder Leslie Osborne that knocked Osborne out for Boston's final six games of the season with a broken collarbone.
The U.S. is still the top-ranked team in the world, but the loss to Mexico on Friday has eliminated some of the air of invincibility that normally surrounded the team. Never has the U.S. lost to such a lesser opponent in such a meaningful game.
Mexico beat the U.S. soundly, the 2-1 result making the game seem closer than it was. Mexico was better both physically and technically on the night, leaving large question marks that the U.S. only started to answer against Costa Rica on Monday night.
The back line, which of late has featured three natural center backs with Rachel Buehler out of position on the left flank, lacks a bit of pace and was not on the same page early in the loss to Mexico. If Amy LePeilbet and Christie Rampone remain the pair in the center, coach Pia Sundhage should utilize more natural flank players in Stephanie Cox on the left and Ali Krieger on the right. Both Krieger, who started in place of Heather Mitts against Costa Rica, and Cox have excelled when called into action in 2010.
The midfield, where the U.S. perhaps struggled the most against Mexico, could use the most shoring up, although two weeks is likely not enough time to make any long-lasting changes. Carli Lloyd and Shannon Boxx in the middle, alongside Megan Rapinoe and Heather O'Reilly on the flanks, simply did not get the job done against Mexico. The U.S. struggled to maintain possession for most of the game. Lori Lindsey did well starting in place of Rapinoe (suspended for yellow cards) against Costa Rica, but whether Sundhage will make any changes in the midfield is uncertain.
Although it's Sundhage's preference to play without a more defensive holding midfielder type, there's value in a player like that and the presence in the middle could have made a difference against Mexico. It might be time to call Osborne, who performed well in the role for Boston in WPS, back into camp to see whether she can contribute in the games versus Italy.
As a result of the midfield's struggles versus Mexico, forwards Abby Wambach and Amy Rodriguez did not see much of the ball. Cheney started in place of Rodriguez in the win over Costa Rica, and she and Wambach both scored in the game. Sundhage has several options for Wambach's strike partner when they face Italy, but she should be quick to make a change at halftime if one pairing isn't working out. Cal's Alex Morgan, who has just a handful of caps, has shown flashes of brilliance in her limited minutes and remains a valuable option off the bench.
Goalkeeper Nicole Barnhart perhaps could have done better on Mexico's two goals and in keeping the back line organized, but with Hope Solo out after shoulder surgery, Barnhart is a solid option at the position.
All in all, the U.S. has done well to bounce back from the stunning loss to Mexico, but Italy will be a much tougher challenge than Costa Rica. The U.S. has never finished lower than third in the World Cup or Olympics and has never faced any kind of qualifying danger. That is, until now.