USA women face moment of truth in CONCACAF tournament
USA women's soccer team is not quite the powerhouse it used to be, so it needs to make a statement in CONCACAF semis and final.
THIS IS THE GAME that really matters.
While the United States undoubtedly wants to win the CONCACAF women's championship tournament that concludes this weekend at PPL Park, its primary goal in this competition is to earn a berth into the 2015 FIFA Women's World Cup next summer in Canada.
To guarantee that, all Team USA must do is beat archrival Mexico in tonight's semifinal and advance to Sunday's championship match. Trinidad & Tobago will attempt to make history as the first Caribbean nation to qualify for a Women's World Cup when it plays Costa Rica today.
With Canada getting an automatic bid as host nation, the top-three finishers in CONCACAF get World Cup bids.
The loser of Sunday's third-place game will have one final chance to qualify via a play-in home-and-home with Ecuador, the fourth-place nation from South America.
But let's be honest, slipping in as the third-place qualifier from CONCACAF, much less having to win a fourth-place play-in competition, is not on the USA's radar.
Considering the United States is 25-1-0 all-time in the CONCACAF championships and Gold Cup, qualifying for Canada should be a lock.
Still, while the USA is still the world's top-ranked team, women's soccer has evolved greatly since every major tournament used to come down to America, Germany, Norway or China.
The USA knows surprises can happen.
Mexico, ranked 25th, is 1-29-1 all-time against the United States and got thumped by an aggregate score of 12-0 in friendlies against the USA in September.
All time, El Tri has been outscored, 27-2, by the United States in five World Cup qualifying matches, but those two goals came in the stunning 2-1 upset of the Americans in the semifinals of the 2010 Gold Cup. The loss forced the United States to beat Italy in an elimination series to qualify for 2011 World Cup.
Many of the USA players on the pitch tonight were there 4 years ago in Cancun. None will take Mexico lightly.
"I don't think I'll ever forget that," USA captain Christie Rampone said yesterday at PPL Park. "As an athlete, you definitely remember the tough times. It's always in the back of my head. We just have to come out with the right mindset."
Despite the fact the USA won Group A by an aggregate score of 12-0, questions about the quality of this squad remain.
Jill Ellis was appointed head coach on May 16 after serving as interim coach after Tom Sermanni was fired on April 6. Sermanni was never a popular choice as the replacement for Pia Sundhage, and players were rumored to be dissatisfied with him.
And when the United States placed seventh at the 2014 Algarve Cup, its worst showing ever in the prestigious and oldest international competition in women's soccer, it presented a good excuse for his sacking.
The team went 5-0-2 in friendlies leading into the CONCACAF championship.
A 1-0 victory over 46th-ranked Trinidad & Tobago in the Group A opener raised some skeptical eyes, but big wins over Guatemala and Haiti followed.
Again, however, this group has left people wanting.
Given its history of dominance in CONCACAF, the USA should easily win the championship, especially since Canada is not here.
But Japan - which beat the United States in the 2011 World Cup final - Germany, France, Sweden, Brazil and Canada, will all like their chances next summer.
Frankly, the USA needs two strong showings this weekend to get back some of its international swagger to take into next summer. USA midfielder and Delran native Carli Lloyd said as much after practice yesterday.
This program is not super-dominant as when players such as Mia Hamm, Brandi Chastain, Brianna Scurry and Kristine Lilly were the stars. Even CONCACAF teams don't fear the USA as they once did.
"I think it was kind of a wakeup call," Lloyd said of the 2010 loss to Mexico. "Nothing is guaranteed with this team anymore. Any opponent you play, you're not guaranteed to win. It kind of humbled us."
It is a harsh measuring stick, but this squad of USA women has not matched its predecessor's achievements.
The United States has won the last three Olympic gold medals, but the last World Cup win was the iconic one in 1999.
Rampone, 39, is the only World Cup champion on the roster.
Wambach and fellow 30-something stars Lloyd and goalkeeper Hope Solo know the clock is winding down on their careers, and 2015 might be their last opportunity to add a World Cup title to their impressive resumés.
A recent quote Wambach gave to ESPN best sums up the importance of 2015: "In order for me to feel, and of course I don't know how things will go, but, in order for me to feel whole about the complexities of the life I live, whether it be the fitness, the pressure, the nutrition, the daily sacrifice, all of that, it will be a lot easier for me to understand if I go off into retirement with a World Cup title."
The first requirement toward that goal can be assured tonight.