Consistency was not to be lost in either: the United States and Canada, two of the best women’s soccer teams in the world, meet on a sweltering night and chase a prize that only one of them can win.
Tight match. Late penalty. Cheerful celebration.
A year ago at the Tokyo Olympics, it was the Canadians who rejoiced in converting a penalty in the second half and winning the match on their way to the gold medal.
Monday night in Monterrey, Mexico, Americans were dancing at the final whistle. They were the ones who won the penalty kick and then the match, 1-0, to secure themselves a place in the 2024 Paris Olympics. They are the ones who now have a chance to snatch that gold medal again.
The victory came via familiar hands: Lindsey Horan dominated the midfield. Rose Lavelle slips behind the defense and win a penalty. Alex Morgan offers to bury her.
The victory was the Americans’ second major goal in Mexico, in a tournament that served as qualifiers for the 2023 World Cup and 2024 Olympics. The United States had previously held their place once they advanced to the semi-finals. But he still had a goal, and a point to prove, against Canada in the final of the CONCACAF W Championship.
Morgan had started last summer’s Olympic semi-finals in Kashima, Japan, but went on to finish off the bench after being substituted. During the games, she was among the most outspoken veteran players on that list who suggested – in no uncertain terms – that coach Vlatko Andonovsky was getting things wrong.
In the year following that defeat, Morgan, 33, was among the veterans who were asked to make room for young offensive talents like Mallory Pugh, Sophia Smith and Trinity Rodman, to give Andonovsky room to tinker and retool ahead of next year’s world championships. Australian and New Zealand Cup. But she also knew her chance would eventually come again, and on Monday, after two weeks of games featuring junior players and new squads, Morgan got a chance to make things right, to prove she still had a role to play.
“I’m not surprised, but I’m very happy with the way she handled the whole situation in how she’s coming back,” Andonovsky told reporters after the final. “I said it early on: Alex is a better player. That’s what makes her special. She doesn’t want to stop growing, she doesn’t want to stop developing.”
Her chance to break the goalless tie came in the 76th minute. After Horan handed the ball over after Lavel stumbled in the penalty area, Morgan took several deep breaths, confidently moved forward and fired a low, tricky shot into the lower right corner as Canada goalkeeper Kaelen Sheridan bounced the other way.
A few minutes after the final whistle, Morgan was honored as an outstanding player of the tournament.
“It always feels good,” she said, “to be called a heroine.”
Grateful to be back – longtime frontline teammate Megan Rapinoe didn’t come off the bench in the final – Morgan seemed to agree with Andonovsky’s options this time around. But she was also quick to note that breaking in for new players, especially on the tradition-rich American team, sometimes required older players nearby to clear the way for them.
“Some of the younger players are able to look at the older players in a big tournament like this,” Morgan said. “You can’t repeat that with friendlies. It has to be the real deal. And that’s the real deal.”
Andonovsky also praised players such as Morgan, Rapinoe and defender Becky Sauerbrunn for creating a “cool” environment conducive to success. “We came out of the last game of the tournament, after a month in a hotel, with the best energy we’ve ever had,” He said. “This is a commandment, first of all, for the big players.”
How far ahead are the United States and Canada over their regional rivals? Neither team lost a match in Monterrey en route to the final. None of the target gave up. All of them scored dozens of goals in their first four matches.
Both teams were so dominant, in fact, that once Costa Rica and Jamaica finished the other two places in the semi-finals – clinching the other two auto spots in the region at the World Cup – they seemed to dip into the semi-finals, resting some of the best players in the semi-finals and focusing instead To win the match for third place. Winning there seemed a safer bet, after all, and it came with a consolation prize: a shot at the loser between the United States and Canada in a home-and-away Olympic playoff that offered one last chance for a place in Paris in 2024.
The defeat in the final was not a disaster for Canada: Her team is still widely expected to qualify for the Paris Olympics by beating Jamaica, who beat Costa Rica earlier on Monday in a third-place playoff, in next year’s playoff.
Canada learned a few things about itself along the way, too. Sheridan, who kept her team in the game with several impressive saves in the first half, was named the tournament’s best goalkeeper and now looks well established in the role. Julia Grosso won the Golden Boot as the tournament’s top scorer, and she and fellow 21-year-old Jordyn Hetema came off the bench on Monday to provide the kind of game-changing spark that could force Canada’s same type of youth against. . An old account now adopted by the United States.
Canada coach Bev Priestman said after her team’s semi-final victory: “I think there’s another level, and I think playing with a team like the USA would bring out some of our strengths that the teams might not have allowed us to do.”
Now she and her players – just like Team USA – know more about the mix they’ll need to get to where they really want to go.