Tak­ing it easy not in their DNA

US play­ers re­fus­ing to rest on their ac­com­plish­ments

Baltimore Sun Sunday - - WOMEN’S SOCCER - By Steven Goff

UNITED STATES 4, MEX­ICO 0

CAR­SON, Calif. — A few mo­ments af­ter the U.S. women’s na­tional soc­cer team com­pleted a 4-0 vic­tory over Mex­ico on Fri­day, five play­ers used their arms to cre­ate in­ter­lock­ing rings.

Much like the match, their cir­cles were not per­fectly formed. Rose Lavelle, for ex­am­ple, gets a pass due to the red soft cast she wore on her lower left arm.

The mes­sage, nonethe­less, was clear: The Amer­i­cans are go­ing to the Olympics this sum­mer. Not that that’s any sort of sur­prise — they’ve never missed women’s soc­cer’s sec­ond-most im­por­tant com­pe­ti­tion.

Fresh off a World Cup cham­pi­onship, FIFA’s top-ranked team has not lost in more than a year, a span of 27 matches. And by sailing through the Concacaf tour­na­ment with four vic­to­ries by a 22-0 mar­gin, the Amer­i­cans booked a ticket to Tokyo, where they will pur­sue a fifth gold medal.

There, they will also at­tempt to be­come the first women’s team to win the World Cup and Olympic ti­tles in con­sec­u­tive years. Only a fool would bet against them.

Set­ting aside the tal­ent and depth, this is a team that, even af­ter decades of suc­cess, con­tin­ues to per­form with rag­ing in­ten­sity.

“Those emo­tions and mo­ti­va­tion is some­thing that is hard­est to get back up again,” said coach Vlatko An­donovski, who in the fall suc­ceeded Jill El­lis, a two-time world cham­pion. “I was glad to see the emo­tions were out there and the mo­ti­va­tion is there to make it hap­pen.”

Said for­ward Carli Lloyd: “There is hunger. There is de­sire.”

On those rare oc­ca­sions when things do go side­ways, the play­ers are hard on them­selves.

“Our ebbs are like mi­cro-ebbs be­cause we are so psy­cho,” mid­fielder Me­gan Rapi­noe said. “It’s hard to keep it up all the time, but as soon as it starts to ebb, it’s like, ‘Oh no, hell no, that’s not hap­pen­ing.’

“We keep each other ac­count­able. It doesn’t need to come from any­one else.”

The Amer­i­cans scored twice in the first 14 min­utes Fri­day but were a lit­tle off their game for stretches of the first half. Af­ter in­ter­mis­sion, they re­gained their form to im­prove to 37-1-1 against Mex­ico.

Lavelle scored a sen­sa­tional goal in the fifth minute, Sam Mewis had two goals and sub­sti­tute Chris­ten Press capped the semi­fi­nal

CONCACAF OLYMPIC QUAL­I­FY­ING FI­NAL vic­tory with a cheeky fin­ish.

In Sun­day’s fi­nal, the United States will face Canada, which de­feated Costa Rica 1-0 to earn a fourth con­sec­u­tive Olympic berth. Al­though that match is in­con­se­quen­tial — both teams will rest reg­u­lars af­ter play­ing less than 48 hours ear­lier — the U.S. squad will not ease up.

“We have the same at­ti­tude as the game be­fore and the game be­fore that,” An­donovski said. “That is not go­ing to change go­ing for­ward.”

His qual­i­fy­ing unit, which fea­tured 18 play­ers from last year’s World Cup ros­ter, re­spects the pro­gram’s his­tory.

“It’s a legacy that has been passed on,” said Lavelle, a Wash­ing­ton Spirit mid­fielder who will turn 25 in May. “When Vlatko first came in, he said, ‘What you did this past year was in­cred­i­ble, but that is the past now. We have new goals.

“It was re­ally fun, 2019, but that doesn’t dic­tate the rest of the years.’ We know that and don’t take any­thing for granted.”

Lavelle was fab­u­lous in the first half, lively and creative, keep­ing the ball close, spin­ning out of trou­ble and cre­at­ing op­por­tu­nity for her­self and oth­ers.

“Some of the things she comes up with some­times,” An­donovski said, “it sur­prises me too.”

Said Rapi­noe: “She just has some­thing spe­cial, some­thing dif­fer­ent that you can’t teach — that lit­tle bit of flair.”

Lavelle’s goal rekin­dled mem­o­ries of her left-footed strike against the Nether­lands in the World Cup fi­nal.

“I was like, ‘Oh my God, we are here again!’ ” Mewis said. “She is such a unique player in the way she cre­ates space for her­self and can wig­gle out of tight sit­u­a­tions.”

Mewis scored on a pair of wicked shots: an 8-yard one-timer off Rapi­noe’s cor­ner kick and a free kick from the edge of the penalty area.

Chris Cuel­lar, Mex­ico’s Cal­i­for­nia-born coach, said the U.S. strengths lie in the lay­ers of tal­ent.

“Ev­ery prac­tice,” he said, “is prob­a­bly tougher than a lot of their matches.”

Few would have blinked had An­donovski started any of his sec­ond-half sub­sti­tutes: Press, Lynn Wil­liams and Lind­sey Ho­ran. All was not per­fect, though.

Said An­donovski: “We played a good brand of soc­cer, we cre­ated lots of good op­por­tu­ni­ties and, with the qual­ity of the play­ers we have, I think we could score a few more.”

The Amer­i­cans could get away with that in Concacaf. They’ll need to tighten their per­for­mance in the fifth an­nual SheBelieve­s Cup, from March 5-11, against sixth-ranked Eng­land (in Orlando), No. 10 Ja­pan (Frisco, Tex.) and No. 13 Spain (Har­ri­son, N.J.).

The 12-team Olympic tour­na­ment will in­clude third-ranked Nether­lands and No. 5 Swe­den.

“We saw glimpses of some un­be­liev­able stuff, self­less stuff out there,” Lloyd said af­ter Fri­day’s match. “We are all along for the ride to keep get­ting bet­ter.”

CHRIS CARLSON/AP

U.S. mid­fielder Rose Lavelle cel­e­brates af­ter scor­ing against Mex­ico dur­ing a CONCACAF women’s Olympic qual­i­fy­ing match Fri­day.

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