PHILADELPHIA — With qualification to the 2015 Women’s World Cup officially secured, the United States women’s national team gets one last official competitive match before next year’s tournament: the CONCACAF Women’s Championship final on Sunday against Costa Rica.
The Americans will play plenty more high-quality opponents in friendlies on the road to Canada. There’s the annual Algarve Cup in Portugal, where the best teams in the world convene each March in the most high-profile friendly tournament in the women’s game. And there will friendlies against some for the world’s best teams, including a trip to Brazil in December.
But Sunday is about hardware. Sunday is about reasserting regional dominance after being embarrassed by Mexico four years ago and almost missing the World Cup. Costa Rica has the unfortunate burden of being the next team standing in the United States’ way.
Costa Rica coach Garabet Avedissian is keeping everything in perspective, admitting that Friday’s win to secure World Cup qualification for the first time was the biggest game for his team.
“Here we come up against the strongest team in the region, the United States,” Avedissian said through a translator. “With all due respect that that game merits, our objective is to enjoy this game. We want to play a quality game but we want to enjoy it.”
Costa Rica has certainly seemed to enjoy the journey thus far. The Ticas have arguably been the most impressive team at the CONCACAF Women’s Championship, surprising even themselves. They qualified for the Women’s World Cup for the first time ever on Friday, beating Trinidad and Tobago in penalty kicks. The U.S. secured its World Cup berth with a comfortable 3-0 win over Mexico on Friday.
The U.S. is yet to give up a goal this tournament, outscoring its four opponents 15-0 over the past 10 days in the region’s World Cup qualifying tournament. It’s been 10 years and 91 games since the Americans last lost on home soil. Costa Rica, however, is also unbeaten in this tournament and has turned heads within the region.
“I really like how Costa Rica plays,” U.S. coach Jill Ellis. “They’ve really evolved their program, the development — they play a great style. They have some talented players, some skilled players, so I think they’ll be a tremendous representation of this region.”
It’s easy to see why Ellis would be impressed with her next opponent. Costa Rica’s system of play is ironically similar to the one the U.S. coach has been grooming her team into — a more free-flowing, technical style of soccer that is easy on the eyes. In some ways, World Cup debutant-to-be Costa Rica is not all that different from the United States — minus the whole two World Cup title and four Olympic gold medals.
This Costa Rican team has been a 10-year process, Avedissian said, and the team has been developed through the local youth ranks as well as on the international level. Many of the Ticas at this tournament played in the 2008 U-17 Women’s World Cup, as well as the 2010 U-20 World Cup. Gloria Villalobos, 15, even played in both this year’s U-17 World Cup on home soil and U-20 World Cup in Canada.
“Our players, they know each other very well,” Avedissian said. “They know how each other play, so it’s easy for them to interchange in terms of attacking and going forward.
That open style of play could be scaled back on Sunday, Avedissian admits. His team had to play 120 minutes on Friday, going to extra time and eventually penalty kicks to beat Trinidad and Tobago. He admitted on Saturday that it would be “foolish, even suicidal” — for Costa Rica to try to play the United States the way they have played other teams in this tournament.
The Americans are starting to hit their groove — at least relative to their opening-match win over T&T, which was a disjointed effort. But Ellis still wants better build-up play and possession out of the back, and she’s still looking for more depth at outside back. A healthy Ali Krieger has the right back position on lock, and this tournament has seen the emergence of Meghan Klingenberg at left back.
The United States’ wide players have developed successful relationships throughout the tournament, highlighted by the reemergence of midfielder Tobin Heath, who both player and coach admitted over the last two days fell out of form in September but stepped up to the plate in October.
But as much as progress is crucial, make no mistake: The result is always paramount.
“We’re here to win the tournament,” said U.S. forward Christen Press, who scored in Friday’s World Cup-clinching win over Mexico. “We want the one-seed, we’re here to go out of this tournament with a bang and have our confidence just growing.”