It took a dubious call and a fortuitous rebound, but the United States women's national team is a single win away from the 2016 Olympics in Rio de Janeiro.
A hard-fought 1-0 win over Mexico on Saturday afternoon cemented first place in Group A with a game to spare, meaning the Americans move on to an all-or-nothing semifinal Friday. The winner of that game and the opposite semi will earn berths to the Summer Games. A doubtful penalty called on a stout Mexican team in the 79th minute and Carli Lloyd's pounce on her own rebound after Cecilia Santiago saved her initial attempt decided the game.
The lady Yanks had made a habit of hammering their southern neighbors in recent years. In the past, it didn't much matter what kind of approach Leo Cuellar's teams took to the contests. The outcome was always the same: a lopsided American win. Although El Tri has historically been staffed for the most part from the U.S. college ranks, they had simply never been competitive.
Until Saturday. Mexico, as often, willfully absorbed pressure but did so in a far more cohesive way than usual against the Americans. Late in the first half, El Tri even began stringing together good combinations in midfield. The U.S. had found space and success attacking through the middle in the 5-0 win against Costa Rica in their tournament opener. But in those areas, they found only the solid blocks and banks of red jerseys, shunting them out to the flanks.
On the rare occasions that the U.S. did get promising attacks going against their physical opponents, Mexico committed savvy and strategic fouls to cauterize the attack.
The U.S. got close a few times before bagging the winner. Half-time substitute Christen Press hit a low, driven shot just after the break on a loose ball that dinked off the far post. Lindsey Horan, whose midfield partnership with the equally unseasoned Morgan Brian looked much less convincing against better opposition, pinged a long-range attempt off that some spot on the same post. Alex Morgan, meanwhile, who was mostly pushed out of the middle, where she is most effective, ripped a shot just over the bar from close out.
But other than that, the Americans appeared disjointed in the final third and failed to forge much offensively. Cuellar's well-drilled team simply blocked the avenues to goal expertly as Mexico kept its composure and proved sufficiently fit to last.
A curious refereeing decision, however, would make the difference. And if you're Mexican or a sympathizer, you will have every right to feel badly aggrieved. A header came off Karla Nieto's arm in the penalty area. But she was pulling her hand away from the ball, rather than toward it. Ball to hand, in referee speak, not hand to ball. The call was made anyway – wrongly.
Santiago made a sprawling save on Lloyd's penalty kick, but it bounced right back to the American captain, who coolly slotted it into the unguarded net.
When the final whistle rang and sealed the Mexicans' sorry fate, the faces of players on both teams spoke clearly on the game they had just played. The Americans got away with a sub-par performance while Mexico could feel hard done by.
All the same, the Yanks remain on track for Rio.