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U.S. qualifies for 2011 Women's World Cup with 1-0 win over Italy

It was far from conventional, but the United States Women’s National Team qualified for the 2011 Women’s World Cup on Saturday with a 1-0 win over Italy.  The U.S. entered the game with a 1-0 advantage in the home-and-home aggregate series thanks to Alex Morgan’s 94th minute goal in Padova last weekend and obtained the same result Saturday at Toyota Park in Bridgeview, Ill. thanks to a 40th minute goal from Amy Rodriguez.

Italy started the game strong and put the U.S. on its heels in the first 15 minutes.  Carolina Pini looked wide open in just the third minute, but U.S. defender Rachel Buehler recovered to make a great slide tackle from behind and deny an otherwise wide open shot for the Italians.

Patrizia Panico then found herself open at the top of the 18-yard box in the eighth minute but could only produce a weak shot that did not trouble U.S. goalkeeper Nicole Barnhart.  Two successive Italy corner kicks would follow, but the U.S. continued to hold off the pressure of an energetic Italian team.

The first breakthrough for the U.S. came in the 26th minute when defender Christie Rampone made a surging run up the right flank and provided a low, dangerous cross right into the path of Rodriguez.  However, Rodriguez was off balance and put the ball over the crossbar from 12 yards out.  Four minutes later, Heather O’Reilly was unable to get on the end of a back post cross from Abby Wambach, but the U.S. began to knock on the door.

That confidence turned to momentary panic in the 32nd minute when miscommunication between Buehler and Barnhart allowed Giulia Domenichetti to slip between them and face up to an open net.  Three U.S. defenders tracking back quickly closed down Domenichetti, though, and danger was averted as the Italian midfielder failed to even fire a shot.

Finally, the breakthrough came for the U.S. in the 40th minute when Megan Rapinoe found space on the left side.  She did well to burn Italy defender Roberta D’Adda and drive a low shot at Italy goalkeeper Anna Maria Picarelli., who made a great initial save on Rapinoe’s shot but spilt the rebound right to a waiting Rodriguez.  After missing chances earlier, Rodriguez found redemption and tapped the ball in from eight yards out to give the U.S. a 1-0 lead in the game and a critical 2-0 aggregate series lead just before halftime.

The rebound that led to the goal proved to be an uncharacteristic blunder for Picarelli, who made key saves throughout the aggregate series, one of which came just minutes after Rodriguez’s goal when Wambach found herself on a breakaway.  Still, the U.S. entered halftime with a 1-0 lead and would quickly prove to be too much for Italy.

Early in the second half, the United States pressed on and Picarelli came up huge just three minutes after halftime when she saved Wambach’s diving header from point-blank range.  O’Reilly found Wambach’s head from the right flank for the dangerous opportunity.

U.S. Head Coach Pia Sundhage proved to out-coach Pietro Ghedin, whose substitutes for Italy did not change the game.  However, Sundhage’s changes almost made immediate impacts.  Lauren Cheney entered the game for Rapinoe in the 59th minute and her first touch of the game was a shot that slammed off the crossbar.

Italy pressed for the necessary two goals and showed some urgency with 20 minutes to go, but quickly grew tired after the United States withheld the initial foray.  The U.S. would prevail 1-0 on its home soil (2-0 aggregate) and become the final of 16 teams to qualify for the 2011 Women’s World Cup.  The draw for the World Cup will take place Monday in Frankfurt, Germany (beginning at 1:40 p.m. on ESPN3.com).  Meanwhile, Italy has not qualified for the Women’s World Cup since 1999 when the United States hosted the event.

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