The U.S. women’s national team clinched first place in Group A of the Concacaf Women's Championship on Wednesday with an easy 7-0 win over Trinidad and Tobago.
The away side showed no interest in really playing, instead settling into a deep block and looking to absorb pressure as much as they could.
It's hard to blame T&T for this approach, as the Soca Princesses had absorbed three-goal defeats to both Panama and Mexico – teams the U.S. beat by a combined 11-0 scoreline. The strategy worked to a certain extent, with the U.S. only up 1-0 just a couple minutes before the half, but the floodgates eventually opened.
With the win, the U.S. sets up a date with Group B's second-place side (likely Jamaica) on Sunday, with the winner clinching a berth at the 2019 Women's World Cup.
Here are three observations from the USWNT's win.
Has Ellis settled on a starting lineup?
U.S. manager Jill Ellis has a myriad of options to make up her starting lineup, but there does appear to be a preferred hierarchy taking shape for the USWNT. Ellis started the same lineup on Wednesday that started the tournament opener last Thursday against Mexico, and that group has the makings of the first-choice XI for now.
There is, of course, time for that to change with the World Cup not kicking off for another nine months. In particular, the injured Tierna Davidson could still force her way into a starting role at central defense, Samantha Mewis or Morgan Brian could overtake Rose Lavelle in midfield and Mallory Pugh or Christen Press could have a say at the wide forward positions. Injuries are always a factor as well, but this appears to be the first-choice lineup for now.
The unbeaten run goes on
There is little doubt that with less than a year to go until the World Cup kicks off, the U.S. is the favorite to repeat as world champion.
Sure, Ellis' side wasn't really challenged in Cary but the win against Trinidad and Tobago extended the USWNT's unbeaten run to 24 matches, a streak that includes 21 victories.
That stretch includes games against much stronger opponents than the U.S. has faced in World Cup qualifying so far, but Ellis' side has proved up to every challenge.
"We’ve had a very tough schedule this year in terms of the quality of opponents we’ve played and I think every time we play we learn something about ourselves," Ellis said in her post-game press conference. "Tonight, playing against such a low low block was really good for us to try and sharpen our skills."
Rose Lavelle, who scored two goals on the night, believes that despite its unbeaten run, the U.S. still hasn't peaked yet.
"Every game we’ve looked to just build on the last and the awesome thing is we know we still haven’t reached our full potential," Lavelle said. "I think that’s exciting going into the next game, we just want to build on this and play even better than we did this game."
Concacaf has a long way to go
There has been an expectation, or maybe just a hope, that the U.S. would be challenged more by Concacaf teams in 2018 than it had in the past. After these three games in Cary, though, it is clear that the region’s teams outside of the U.S. and Canada have a long way to go.
The U.S. won its three games by a cumulative score of 18-0, making a mockery of its competition in Group A. Mexico was supposed to be the USA's biggest challenge in group play, but El Tri failed to even get out of the group after a surprising 2-0 defeat to Panama on Wednesday.
There have been pleasant surprises in the tournament in the form of Panama and Jamaica, with the Reggae Girlz likely to be the USA’s semifinal opponent after they upset Costa Rica to put themselves in pole position for second place in Group B.
Of course, with Jamaica and Panama's gains have come setbacks for Mexico and Costa Rica, two teams who would have hoped to be farther along in their development at this stage.
"I’ve said so many times, steel sharpens steel and we’ve got to make sure our opponents within our region are strong so that we’re challenged out on the pitch," Ellis said, after calling for more investment into the women's game in Concacaf.
The U.S. is now 30-1-0 all time in Concacaf Women's World Cup qualifying, with a cumulative score of 176-5. A more even playing field would undoubtedly benefit everyone in the region.