The 2020 CONCACAF Olympic Qualifying tournament is in the books, and the women of the US of A have come out on top.
What is the CON-CA-CAF, and how do I get it into my coffee? Well, it’s not decaf or half-caf or double caf. It’s CONCACAF, the Confederation of North, Central American and Caribbean Association Football. According to the precogs over at Wikipedia, CONCACAF has 41 member associations broken up by region.
28 from the Caribbean
7 from Central America
3 from North America
3 from South America
Seeing those three interlopers from South America I can’t help but wonder why this region isn’t called CONCASOCAF. But whatever. FIFA never called to ask my opinion on the matter.
Basically there are six regions of the soccering world, and they each provide a number of predetermined teams to compete in Tokyo for the Gold Medal. So, out of all of the CONCACAF member nations listed below, only two teams from our region get to go to the Olympics.
Here’s how the United States made it into the games.
USA vs Haiti
Nothing was a given with new coach Vlatko Andonovski at the helm and with a slightly different roster. The USWNT came out of the gates looking terrible. Messy, sort of unsure of themselves and lacking the type of control we’ve become accustomed to seeing them play with. But it was mostly just rust and nerves. It lasted about a minute, until superstar Christen Press buried a cross from Lynn Williams into the twine.
The game ended up 4-0 in favor of the USA, but it was probably the worst game in recent memory and caused longtime fans to panic a bit and wonder if the coaching change was a mistake. (Spoiler: it really, really wasn’t).
All credit to a vastly improved team from Haiti who held the world champions in check for more than an hour, and had a goal called back on an utterly incompetent call from the officials. It’s difficult to watch a team like Haiti play their hearts out and get robbed by a bad call. That said, a promising performance for their program.
USA vs Panama
Against Panama we began to see the women knock off the rust and start to control the gameplay in a much more dominating fashion. It was all about sustained pressure in this game, where the ball seldom found itself in the defensive zone of the U.S. Despite several instances where the United States showed difficulty finishing, they exhibited excellent control and generated umpteen scoring chances, taking 17 shots in the first half alone.
A special word of praise for the Las Canaleras goalkeepers, who played their hearts out and stuffed the US advances over and over and over again. First, applause for Yenith Bailey, a wunderkind who collided with US striker Jess McDonald about ten minutes into the game, and toughed out the collision. She ultimately ended up getting subbed out in the 33rd minute and it was later reported that the original collision had fractured her cheek bone. So she played for about twenty minutes or so with a broken face. Then, in trots keeper Sasha Fabrega, who was everywhere against the US side. Her position play was outstanding and time after time, her reflexes were impressive. Despite the 8 to nil final, the Panamanian gatewardens kept their team in it with tenacity and vigor.
USA vs Costa Rica
The US piled it on against Panama, but Costa Rica drubbed them as well, 6-1. Thus the stage was set for the first potential challenge for the United States. It didn’t play out that way. The US rolled as Costa Rica seemed to set its sights on a team they actually had a chance at beating: Canada. (Las Ticas ended up losing to the Canadians, 1-3). This game was yet another coming out party for American forward Christen Press, who scored two do-it-yourself goals that were astonishing. The USWNT’s roster is an embarrassment of riches, where players who would start on any other team in the world come trotting off the bench as subs. It’s kind of obscene.
USA vs Mexico
To this point, many of the lopsided imbalances that mark this FIFA region were out of the way. While it’s always fun to see our girls score, sometimes the margins of victory can make you wince for the other teams. That said, the stage was set for a more competitive matchup vs Mexico. It took less than five minutes for the USA to get on the board, thanks to a wormburner by Rose Lavelle.
The USWNT loves to score early. It sets such a tone. Speaking of tone and scoring, one of the more charming developments for the team is coach Vlatko Andonovski’s goal celebrations. He gets into it! Man! He watches the games with a degree of pain and worry on his face and as soon as the team scores he fist pumps and jumps and hugs everyone in sight and then returns to a state of near panic until the next US goal sets him to partying again. He’s a very winning coach and easy to like.
Sam Mewis, avid book reader and absolute titan on the field, hit two of the hardest shots you’ll ever see. She is a complete force on the pitch and I was shocked that the goalie’s hair didn’t turn white like that Crash Test Dummies song after the second goal. Dear god. Six minutes later Christen Press got her own rebound and chipped it over the head the Mexican goalkeeper. The amount of talent on the team is staggering. The US closed out Mexico, 4-0.
USA vs Canada
By the time these two North American sides met, they had both qualified for Tokyo, so all that was left was bragging rights. To the viewer who watched the United States steamroll other teams, it was a wake up call that not everyone is going to just lay down for us.
Team Canada is great, and has a combination of some older heroes and young stars who will dominate in the sport for years to come. This tournament was a picture of those two Canadas: on the one side, living legend Christine Sinclair scored three goals in the tournament to finally pass USA’s Abby Wambach as the all time international goal scorer in women’s soccer.
Meanwhile, Canada’s 18 year old, six foot tall phenom, Jordyn Huitema, won the golden boot for being the tournament’s high scorer.
There’s a lot to like, and with young players like defenders Ashley Lawrence & the dreamslayer that is Keisha Buchanan, middie Jessie Fletcher and forward Janine Beckie, this Canada side has promise at every level.
And their defense is stout. They came out playing hard against the US. Team USA’s plan was to keep the pressure on, assuming that would eventually lead to a mistake in Canada’s back third. It took fifty nine minutes for a giveaway of any import, when Lynn Williams took a misplayed ball from Canada and buried a rocket upstairs. Vlatko looked like he was seriously considering a samurai honor death for himself before the seal broke and of course he jumped around like he won the World Series. Forgive me if it seems like I’m taking the greatness of the women’s team and using it to highlight a man, but this dude loves when they score like the fans do. It’s fun as hell.
Lindsay Horan put one in the panel in the 70th minute and Megan Rapinoe nailed the clincher in the 87th minute and the US wrapped up the tournament with a 3-0 win. Credit to US goalkeeper Alyssa Naeher who came up with a major save on a breakaway to keep the US in it. The US goalies just don’t get a lot of work, so to have the jukes to come up big like that when you’re sort of playing cold is amazing.
Everyone in the ‘verse knows names like Megan Rapinoe and Alex Morgan and Carli Lloyd, but I’m here to tell you that we’re watching something amazing happen on the women’s team: the next generation of players is coming into their own and becoming superstars in their own right. Dare I say it, but the next iteration of this team might just be better than the one that won the World Cup. Here are the names you need to know.
Christen. Mothereffing. Press.
We’ve waited a decade to see the full soccer metamorphosis of Christen Press, and now she has arrived. At the ripe young age of 31 Christen Press has finally, completely, come into her own. Don’t get me wrong: she has always been great. Any serious fan will tell you that for free. In college she won the Mac Hermann award over Alex Morgan. It’s just that instead of being an every game starter for the national team commensurate with her talent, she got stuck behind hot players and didn’t see the field on a consistent basis.
Now, she finally is. Some people think former coach Jill Ellis made a mistake not starting her. Maybe the worm finally turned in the World Cup game against England when Ellis made the call to start Press over Rapinoe. It took Pressy only nine minutes to validate the move.
With Vlatko bringing a new ‘best player plays’ philosophy, and opening the field to players like Lynn Williams, who always seemed to be out of favor with Ellis, a new day has dawned for Christen Press. One where she can be the football assassin that she was always meant to be.
Her knack for pure goal scoring reminds me of Wayne Gretzky. When she comes off the bench to enter the game it hearkens back to Pedro Martinez coming into game 7 of the 2004 ALCS. If she wasn’t such a ray of sunshine, it would make sense to play The Imperial March every time she steps onto the field. She’s that good.
She just has an innate sense about where opponents are leaning and how to take advantage of it. And now she’s the complete package: lightning fast, superb anticipatory positioning, and a powerful, lethal shot with either foot. Even my mother, who doesn’t watch soccer and had popped over for a visit, saw her come off the bench and said “she’s the best one on the field.” Her two goals against Costa Rica were a clinic. This first one she just stops mid move, tees it up and spins it far corner with her left foot.
Damn, Press. pic.twitter.com/Y8rE35lCAp— Our Game Magazine (@OurGameMagazine) February 4, 2020
This next one she makes a move, cuts across the face of the trailing defender (you can’t teach that, people!) and KABOOM, lights the lamp top shelf with her right. Both goals all her, no help.
You see this every game with Christen Press. She’ll cross it, cross it, cross it — totally unselfish — and then eventually she’ll just say ‘what the hell, I’ll take one for me,’ and she scores. It’s astounding. She had a six game goal streak in this tournament. I shudder to think how she could get better. Even now, she might be the most dangerous forward on the planet.
What a player! Crystal Dunn gets nowhere near the credit she deserves. The only player to start and play every game in the tournament, she has cemented herself as a fixture on the national team. It’s hard to explain why she’s so good, but hustle and tenacity has a lot to do with it. No one ever comes down the right side vs Crystal Dunn and lives to tell the tale because all she does is shut. you. down. A true two way player, she crashes back to help on D and surges forward to set up scoring plays on O. Mild mannered with a lunchpail mentality, she is among the best in the world and become as crisp and fluid and important as the likes of Julie Ertz. A delight to watch and root for.
Sammy doesn’t get enough love because she’s so laid back and even-keeled but she may sneakily have become one of the most fearsome players in the world while no one was watching. The six foot tall Mewis has more power in her lower body than a runaway locomotive and you sort of feel like games shouldn’t allow children in the first ten rows on the off chance a Sam Mewis grenade goes off near them. Her two goals vs Mexico were blurs of light. She’s huge on set pieces, is a fiend on defense and has crazy finishing touch to go with her power. In fact, of all the players for every team in the last world cup, Sam Mewis was ranked #1 overall. In the world. AND SHE COMES OFF THE BENCH MOST DAYS. I can’t even. We love her so much. She’s amazing.
Six goals in this tournament. Count ‘em. Six. Ho hum. NBFD for The Great Horan. In the last eighteen months her game has improved in every way and now she’s adding slick finisher to her resume. Once upon a time it looked like we may have lacked some depth at midfield but with players like Horan, Mewis, and Lavelle, the future is bright. Horan is great on set pieces, great at setting up in the offensive zone, passes in tight lines, and now has a scorer’s touch. She’s the complete package.
The other half of the mythological supergroup Preath, Tobin Heath has the sweetest feet in the world. Hard stop. My daughter and I watch her play and shake our heads about how amazing her ball control is. She can do anything, and especially when she’s on the field with Pressy, it’s like every move into the opponent’s back third feels like it has the chance to find home. She has eel hips and her top control, crossovers and headfakes are second to none. And when she scores her smile lights up the planet. She’s magical.
Oh, and Tobin Heath’s no-look goal against Panama? Helloooo! Every NFL football pundit in the country gushed for a week when Patrick Mahomes made a no-look pass for a first down. Well, Tobin Heath scored an international no-look goal. How do you like them apples? Bow down!
Tobin Heath hit 'em with the no-look! 😱😱 pic.twitter.com/4jqkyg7giM— FOX Soccer (@FOXSoccer) February 1, 2020
I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again, Rose Lavelle has an honest to goodness chance to be the single best player in the world. What makes Rose special? Well, she has a very particular set of skills. Skills she has acquired over a very notable career. Skills that make her a nightmare for opposing defenses.
If I had the time I’d love to break them down the way people break down baseball pitchers or NFL quarterbacks. Rose has no weaknesses except her fragile avian bones and the fact that she doesn’t know or play like she has avian bones. She is TOUGH. Fierce. Rose, more than anyone else on the team, can carry the ball coast to coast like Pele used to do. She can just decide to turn it on and then she’s gone. Her speed is so deceptive. I don’t know how, but when she hits the jets it’s like three long strides and she’s a memory.
Like Tobin, she has ridiculous feet. The things she does mid-play with the ball? Nothing short of shocking. She has power and touch. She can score from downtown.
She has the best hips on the team. She has an ethereal “zone” she gets into where I swear she ceases existing as a human being and instead becomes a possessed soccer goddess. Her eyes just go blank and then she’s this creature of unreal balance and speed and ability. And then she scores and this little-kid sense of wonder takes over her face and it’s pretty much the greatest thing to watch. Every time she does something amazing she looks like she’s shocked. It’s charming as hell.
I could go on and on with this team. They’re so exciting. Vlatko is such a fun addition and the women are out there having an absolute blast.
I’m taking the fam to see them play live against Spain in the SheBelieves Cup next month and I couldn’t be more excited. I urge you, fans of all walks of life, to support this team of amazing women. Buy their gear. Go to the games and witness legends being made in front of your very eyes. This is the rare sports dynasty where every player is lovely and worth rooting for. Go out there and help them make a case for the equal pay they so richly deserve.
Header Image Source: CONCACAF