The symmetry would not have escaped their notice: the United States and Canada, two of the world’s top women’s soccer teams, meet on a muggy night and chase a prize that only one of them can win.
A tight game. A late penalty. A jubilant celebration.
A year ago at the Tokyo Olympics, it was the Canadians who rejoiced, converting a second-half penalty and winning the game en route to the gold medal.
On Monday evening in Monterrey, Mexico, the Americans danced after the final whistle. It was they who won the penalty and then the game 1-0 to secure a spot at the Paris 2024 Olympics. It was they who now had the chance to reclaim the gold medal.
The win came from a trusted hand: Lindsey Horan controlled the midfield. Rose Lavelle slips behind the defense and win penalty. Alex Morgan steps forward to bury it.
The win was the Americans’ second big goal in Mexico in a tournament that served as both a qualifier for the 2023 World Cup and the 2024 Olympics. The United States had sealed their place in the former by merely reaching the semifinals. But they still had one goal ahead of them and one point to prove, against Canada in the final of the Concacaf W Championship.
Morgan had started this Olympic semi-final in Kashima, Japan last summer but watched the end from the bench after being substituted. During matches, she was among the most experienced players in that squad who had hinted – in no uncertain terms – that coach Vlatko Andonovski was doing something wrong.
The year after that loss, Morgan, 33, was among veterans who had been asked to make room for younger attacking talent like Mallory Pugh, Sophia Smith and Trinity Rodman to give Andonovski room to tinker and retool ahead of next year’s World enter Cup in Australia and New Zealand. But she also knew her chance would eventually come again and on Monday, after two weeks of games featuring young players and new line-ups, Morgan got her chance to make things right to prove she still had a role to play has play.
“I’m not surprised but very happy with how she handled the whole situation when she came back,” Andonovski told reporters after the final. “I said it early on: Alex is a better player. That’s what makes her special. She doesn’t want to stop growing, doesn’t want to stop developing.”
Their chance to break the goalless tie came in the 76th minute. After Horan passed the ball after Lavelle was brought down in the box, Morgan took a couple of deep breaths, confidently stepping forward and sinking a low, hard shot into the bottom right corner while Canada goalkeeper Kailen Sheridan into the other direction.
Minutes after the final whistle, Morgan was recognized as the Outstanding Player of the Tournament.
“It just always feels good,” she said, “to be called a champion.”
Grateful to be back – her long-time frontline teammate Megan Rapinoe didn’t come off the bench in the Finals – Morgan seemed ok with Andonovski’s decisions this time around. But she also quickly realized that bringing in new players, especially in the traditional US team, sometimes requires having older players around to show them the way.
“Some of the younger players can look up to the older players in a big tournament like this,” Morgan said. “You just can’t repeat that with friendlies. It has to be the real deal. And that’s the real deal.”
Andonovski also praised the likes of Morgan, Rapinoe and defender Becky Sauerbrunn for creating an “excellent” environment conducive to success. “We came into the final game of the tournament after spending a month in a hotel with the best energy we’ve ever had.” he said. “This is primarily a testament to the older players.”
How far ahead are the United States and Canada their regional rivals? Neither team lost a game in Monterrey en route to the final. Nobody gave up a goal. Each scored a dozen goals in their first four games.
In fact, both teams were so dominant that after Costa Rica and Jamaica secured the other two semi-final spots – thereby securing the region’s other two automatic spots at the World Cup – they seemed to hold their own ahead of the final and rested a bit Top players in the semifinals and instead focuses on winning the match for third place. Victory there seemed like the safer bet, after all, and it came with a consolation prize: a shot at losers USA and Canada in a two-legged Olympic playoff that offered one last chance for a spot in Paris in 2024.
The defeat in the final was hardly a disaster for Canada: it is still widely expected that his team will qualify for the Paris Games by defeating Jamaica, who defeated Costa Rica earlier on Monday in the game for third-place playoffs at the defeated next year.
Canada also learned a lot about itself in the process. Sheridan, who kept her team in the game with several outstanding saves in the first half, was named the tournament’s best goalkeeper and now seems firmly entrenched in that role. Julia Grosso won the golden boot as the championship’s top scorer, and she and fellow 21-year-old Jordyn Huitema came off the bench on Monday to provide the game-changing spark that could compel Canada to do the same kind of boy-on-boy.- old bill that the United States is now embracing.
“I think there’s another level,” Canada coach Bev Priestman said after her team’s semi-final win, “and I think playing against a team like the USA will bring out some of our strengths that the teams might give us didn’t allow. ”
Now, like the US team, they and their players know a little bit more about the mix they need to get where they really want to be.