ROCHESTER, N.Y. – Jill Ellis did as she said she would and tested out new players in the United States’ lineup on Thursday, and the result against Mexico was the same: a comfortable 4-0 victory over Mexico on a brisk night at Sahlen’s Stadium.
And now Ellis has a sense of the 20 players she will bring to World Cup qualifying next month.
“Yea, certainly,” the U.S. national team coach said. “I’m going to back and kind of mull on it and talk to the staff, but yea I think we got some answers. This is a tough, tough job. That’s a fantastic group of 28 players that we have here. They’ve made it hard.”
Ellis, who took over the job in May after Tom Sermanni’s firing, said at training on Wednesday that her task in the United States’ final World Cup qualifying preparation match would include both tactical preparation and player evaluation.
She made four changes to the lineup, starting Kelley O’Hara at left back and Amy Rodriguez, Sydney Leroux and Tobin Heath in the front six. Recent usual starters Abby Wambach, Alex Morgan and Christen Press begin the match on the bench in winter coats.
Rodriguez, Rapinoe and Heath all scored in the first half. Morgan came on after halftime and scored in the 79th minute. The result was only half as bad for Mexico, who lost 8-0 to the U.S. on Saturday in Utah.
Earning a rare start, Rodriguez opened the scoring in the 9th minute, pouncing on a loose ball after Rapinoe pressured Mexico’s defense and forced a turnover. Rodriguez calmly tucked away the finish for the early U.S. lead.
Rodriguez is a microcosm of the hard decisions Ellis faces in the coming days as she fills out her roster for qualifying. The 27-year-old played her first minutes for the U.S. since June 19 against France, when she came off the bench in the 79th minute. Her last start for the United States was on March 12 in a 3-0 win over Korea Republic at the Algarve Cup.
“Right now I’m working on my role with this team,” Rodriguez said after Thursday’s win. “I obviously want to get in as much as I can, more playing time and just being dynamic and dangerous for this team. I want to break into our lineup and hopefully with more time I can hopefully do that.
She scored 13 goals in the NWSL regular season and added three more in the playoffs – including both in the final – to help lead FC Kansas City to the 2014 NWSL championship. Rodriguez missed all of 2013 to give birth to her first son.
But from recent lineups, she looks to be fifth on the forward depth chart, and Ellis can only take 20 players to the World Cup qualifying tournament. Pia Sundhage brought four forwards – Rodriguez was one of them – to the 2011 World Cup, where 21 players fill out a roster.
Whether or not to bring Rodriguez to qualifying – and if at the cost of another forward – is perhaps the biggest decision Ellis has to make.
“I think that A-Rod gained a lot of confidence in the NWSL,” Wambach said. “The confidence factor is huge for any striker. For her to be in top form right now, playing really well – I don’t know what decisions Jill is going to make for our qualifying roster, but I know that Amy has done everything possible to put herself up for it.”
Other players also had one last chance to impress Ellis before cuts are made. O’Hara played the full match, while Crystal Dunn came on in the 61st minute to replace Meghan Klingenberg at right back. Both Klingenberg and Dunn are fighting for time on the right side. Julie Johnston came in for Lauren Holiday to start the second half in the holding midfield role, and Heather O’Reilly entered at the same time to replace Heath.
Now unbeaten in 87 straight home games, the U.S. only had one real moment of defensive issues on Thursday. That came in the 55th minute, when goalkeeper Hope Solo came out of net and gave the ball away to Veronica Perez with an empty net. But Perez took an extra touch, and Becky Sauerbrunn closed the space and blocked the shot.
Mexico coach Leo Cuellar said prior to Thursday’s match that he felt his team’s mistakes were responsible for several of the United States’ eight goals in Saturday’s meeting. His team did that in the opening half-hour – minus the Rodriguez tally – but the U.S. scored twice late before the break.
Rapinoe finished a spectacular left-footed volley from 12 yards out in the 37th minute and Heath added a third in the 44th minute when Rodriguez flicked on a ball down the middle from Rapinoe and into the path of Heath for the finish under Mexico goalkeeper Cecilia Santiago.
Morgan’s goal came in the 79th minute, when she headed in O’Reilly’s lofted cross. Morgan had twice been denied 1-v-1 in the three minutes prior.
The United States will play Trinidad & Tobago, Guatemala and Haiti in group play of the CONCACAF Women’s Championship, where the top three finishers automatically qualify for the 2015 World Cup. The fourth-place team will go into a playoff with the third-place finisher from South America. Canada has already qualified as 2015 World Cup host.
The U.S. opens Group A play against Trinidad & Tobago in Kansas City, Kan., on Oct. 15 while Mexico begins Group B the next day against Costa Rica in the same venue.
Canada and Mexico qualified automatically in 2010 after Mexico upset the U.S. in the semifinals of qualifying. The U.S. beat Italy in an intercontinental playoff and lost the 2011 World Cup final to Japan.
Solo wore the captain’s armband on Thursday for the second time ever to recognize her record-breaking 72nd clean sheet earned in Saturday’s 8-0 victory over Mexico in Utah. Solo’s other captaincy was on Sept. 22, 2011 against Canada to recognize her 100th cap, which is a U.S. national team tradition.
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