USWNT qualifies for 2024 Olympics, and quashes some concern, with yet another regional title

United States' Alex Morgan, right, controls the ball against Canada's Vanessa Gilles during the CONCACAF Women's Championship final soccer match in Monterrey, Mexico, Monday, July 18, 2022. (AP Photo/Fernando Llano)
Alex Morgan scored the only goal of the CONCACAF W Championship between the U.S. and Canada. (AP Photo/Fernando Llano)

The U.S. women’s national team retained its regional title and qualified for the 2024 Olympics on a Monday night that began with unease.

The Tokyo Olympics had spawned it. The past two weeks in Monterrey, Mexico, at the CONCACAF W Championship, had aggravated it. The USWNT, by its own coach’s admission, remained a work in progress. “If you ask me if we’re ready to go into a competitive World Cup tomorrow,” Vlatko Andonovski said last week, “we’re probably not ready for it.”

But in Monday’s final, the U.S. women offered reminders of unmistakable truths.

They are still the most talented team in North and Central America, and perhaps in the world.

They have, somehow, passed title-winning DNA down from generation to generation, including this one.

They are an unfinished product, but still a fearsome one.

They beat Canada 1-0 on an Alex Morgan penalty, and the scoreline undersold their dominance. Mallory Pugh could have scored as well; Sophia Smith should have. Throughout 90 tense minutes, shots sailed just wide of posts, and balls stopped mere feet short of goal lines. The near-misses spanned the entire first half, and got increasingly agonizing after halftime.

The breakthrough finally arrived after 77 minutes. Rose Lavelle, galloping into the penalty box, was clipped from behind. Morgan converted from the spot with confidence.

But it had been coming all night, ever since Pugh slapped a half-volley toward goal from a sharp angle in the very first minute. It had been coming since Sofia Huerta began fizzing in crosses from the right, and Lindsey Horan began bossing the midfield.

It didn't quite come when the U.S. concocted a near-perfect counterattack, or when Smith rounded Canada's valiant goalkeeper, Kailen Sheridan. But throughout the night, the USWNT's quality rose to the surface. They created more than three Expected Goals worth of chances to Canada's 0.5.

Whereas preliminary rounds and Thursday's semifinal brought results but not convincing performances, Monday delivered both and more: a vindicated, celebratory postgame huddle; some revenge for Tokyo 2020 heartbreak; and a trophy lift beneath confetti.

For all the talk of the world catching up, of tactical shortcomings and incomplete evolutions, of incoherence, the U.S. remains the queen of North and Central America. It has not lost a game or even conceded a goal at a continental competition since 2010. Its youth teams hold the U-17 and U-20 regional titles, and have for a while.

There is still work to do, plenty of work to do, between now and next summer's World Cup. An evolutionary process that typically starts post-Olympics began a year too late. The next generation, a supremely skilled one, has not been battle-tested or fully integrated with the old guard. Injuries, including a devastating one to rising star Catarina Macario, have complicated everything.

But Monday was a battle, and a test enthusiastically passed. It was World Cup champs against Olympic champs, and it offered emphatic evidence of superiority.

"I was very happy with the gradual improvements [throughout the tournament]," Andonovski said postgame.

He improved as a coach as well. Whereas in-game adjustments in the group stage were slow, on Monday, he turned an early injury stoppage into a quasi-timeout, and made a telling tactical tweak. Canadian winger Nichelle Prince had been been twisting and turning Huerta inside and out down the U.S. right. Andonovski, gesturing frantically during the stoppage, called on Smith and the right-sided central midfielder to double down on Prince, who stayed quiet for an hour thereafter.

This title, though, was largely about individual quality. It was about Morgan, after an eight-month USWNT hiatus, turning in a golden-ball performance. It was about Smith and Pugh dazzling, and Andi Sullivan and Emily Fox stepping in for pregnant veterans. "They're gonna be here for at least three, maybe four World Cups," Andonovski said of the youngsters, and then he smiled. "So, get used to them."

The title, the USWNT's ninth in CONCACAF, also qualified the Americans for Paris 2024, but Andonovski forgot about that until almost an hour after the final whistle. His and the players' focus has been, and is, on the 2023 World Cup, which begins a year from Wednesday. This qualifying tournament was part of the slow, at times painful build toward 2023. And the USWNT's progress, in the end, was satisfactory.

"As a coaching staff, we're celebrating a lot of things, because we think this is just the beginning of what we are going to see in the next 9-12 months," Andonovski said.

Immediately after admitting last week that his team wouldn't be ready for a World Cup "tomorrow," he continued: "But are we going to be ready in a year? Absolutely."