February 13, 2016
A REAL TOUGH THREE POINTS
USA survives an organized, physical, defensive-minded Mexico to reach Olympic qualifying semifinals
By Michael Lewis
|Carli Lloyd: "It's one of those games where you have to move on, learn from it, get better and take care of Puerto Rico. At least we're in the semis. That's why we came here to do."
Linda Cuttone/Sports Vue Images
FRISCO, Texas -- One by one, players from the U.S. women's national team walked somewhat wearily through the mixed zone at Toyota Stadium and trudged toward the team bus.
There was a good reason they were tired. They had just dispatched a tough, physical and defensive-minded Mexico side, 1-0, in a Group A match of the CONCACAF Women's Olympic Qualifying Championship and let's say the Americans wound up on the ground a lot.
"That's what happens when you play against a very compact, bunkered team," said U.S. captain Carli Lloyd, who scored the lone goal of the match in the 80th minute. "I think at one point they had all nine players behind the ball and made it very difficult for us. They were organized. They came to play.
"It's one of those games where you have to move on, learn from it, get better and take care of Puerto Rico. At least we're in the semis. That's why we came here to do.
"Its not one of those matches were you walk away and feel good about it. That's the teams here are trying to do -- frustrate us and just get really compact behind the ball."
Bunkering in against the world champions isn't anything new. Opponents tried that last year but as Lloyd related, many teams such as Germany, France and England "come to play."
"They don't pack it in," she added. "There are teams that don't want to concede goals. That's what teams are trying to do here, making very difficult. But that seems to be the pattern of the CONCACAF qualifying tournaments."
USA head coach Jill Ellis admitted that she did not remember seeing a Mexico senior side this organized.
"They were very compact, very disciplined," she said. "We didn't help ourselves at times, but hat's off to them for a game plan that minimized the space, minimized the goal differential and helped them going into the last game."
Some of it was self-inflicted.
The USA could not move the ball quick enough. "I don't think at times we took care of the ball like we should have," Ellis said.
"We definitely have to move the ball faster," she said. "When you dwell on the ball and take a couple of touches it kind of starts to become the theme within the group. We can move the ball quicker. I think it will definitely help. it will shift their defense. Not to worry. This is the early stages. We've had matches Ďlike this before, where itís frustrating.
"We walk away with a win, but know we all can put in a better effort. But it's hard when you're playing the Chelsea-ized teams where they just park the bus."
As for the physical side, USA central midfielder Lindsey Horan seemingly wound up on the grass more than any other player.
"I got a little beat up today," she said.
And sometimes fouls were not called, which can be more than frustrating.
"I just need to keep my head," she said. "That is one thing I try to do ... because I'm known to lose it a little bit. Foul after foul, it's kind of frustrating. I was just trying to keep going with the game and not lose my head."
And what was her secret?
"Just move on and not look at the player because they'll be rolling around and trying to get the foul," Horan said.
Despite that, the U.S. is doing just fine, especially compared to the rest of their group. The win clinched a spot in Friday's semifinals in Houston. A victory there will mean the Americans have qualified for all six Olympics, a competition they have dominated since its inception in 1996. They have won four gold medals and one silver.
But before worrying about another medal in Rio, the Americans have to take care of some business here in Texas.
Against Puerto Rico ((0-2-0, 0 points), which has been eliminated from contention on Monday, the USA (2-0-0, 6) can clinch first place if they draw, depending on how Mexico (1-1-0, 3) and Costa Rica (1-1-0, 3) fare in the opening game of the doubleheader.
In contrast to Wednesday's 5-0, win over the Ticas, which included a qualifying record-setting goal scored 12 seconds after kickoff, this was match was a labor. The USA dominated for long stretches, but could not break down the defense.
There were a couple of near misses when second-half Christen Press and Lindsey hit the left post in the 52nd and 76th minutes, respectively.
In the 80th minute, it changed when referee Melissa Borjas of Honduras ruled that Mexico midfielder Karla Nieto for a hand ball in the penalty area, although it appeared it was unintentional.
Mexican coach Leonardo Cuellar did not challenge the call.
"It was one of those situations where the ball went to the hand and not the hand to the ball," he said. "It's the decision of the referee and you have to live with those things."
Lloyd, the FIFA Women's World Player of the Year who connected for penalty kick against Costa Rica and the hero of the two previous gold-medal matches, took the kick.
She sent her attempt to the left side, but goalkeeper Cecillia Santiago blocked it with her chest. Lloyd raced in and slotted the ball into the net.
"Another big moment. Just made sure I was mentally focused, ready to kick it," she said. "I guess you can't make all of them all of the time. Luckily the rebound came right back to me."
Forced to attack, Mexico had to forget about its bunker style. The USA did not take advantage of it by securing an insurance goal, but it finds itself with a huge advantage and the driver's seat in Group A.