The United States kicked off CONCACAF Olympic qualifying tonight against Costa Rica, deploying a full-strength starting XI that signaled head coach Jill Ellis' intentions. There are no easy teams when qualifying is on the line, and in any case Costa Rica is a spirited up-and-coming side that managed to grab a few points in last summer's World Cup against Spain and South Korea, while only losing 1-0 to Brazil. Costa Rica also features very real attacking threats in Paris Saint-Germain's Shirley Cruz and just-drafted-into-the-NWSL Raquel Rodriguez, who went second overall to Sky Blue FC.
STARTING XI: Hope Solo; Ali Krieger, Julie Johnston, Becky Sauerbrunn, Meghan Klingenberg; Morgan Brian, Lindsey Horan, Crystal Dunn, Carli Lloyd (c), Tobin Heath; Alex Morgan
For all that, it still took 12 seconds for the United States to score their first goal, as befit their we-are-not-even-screwing-around-here starting lineup. Alex Morgan put the US on the board with the fastest goal in Olympic qualifying history, starting with a deep ball from Lindsey Horan that Carli Lloyd looped over the top of Costa Rica's back line with a header. Morgan caught the ball on the run and finished well.
Goal number two was a penalty kick in the 9', earned by Crystal Dunn as she went on a jaunt into the box and got tripped up. Costa Rica wanted a free kick instead, arguing that the ball was outside the 18 (and on replay might have been right), but to the spot they went. Lloyd buried the ball calmly.
Goal number three was in the 15', once again involving Dunn. Becky Sauerbrunn's long throw-in got pinged into the box by Horan, where it bounced around a bit until Dunn cleaned up the mess and stuffed the ball into the net.
The US was firmly in control throughout the first half, with Costa Rica rarely making a foray beyond the halfway line. They had one or two threatening moments, but Hope Solo had the goal well covered and easily plucked the few errant balls sent her way.
Lindsey Horan and Morgan Brian were on patrol in the midfield, their usual positions switched as Horan was asked to stay deeper in front of the back four and start possession while Brian was allowed to roam higher. Brian was excellent in pressuring players and keeping Costa Rica on the back heel while Horan did a decent job of keeping her head up.
Unfortunately neither Tobin Heath nor Lloyd were quite up to picking up what Horan was putting down, leading to some turnovers that needed to be cleaned up so that the US could restart from the back and press forward again. Dunn was a bit more effective, both cutting into the box and carrying the ball to the endline to look for service.
The second half started out much the same as the first, although Horan was allowed to interchange a bit more freely with Brian. Costa Rica pushed out from their own half a bit more, but the United States still kept them looking for so much as a sniff of a counter, then made it 4-0 in the 62'. Carli Lloyd sent a beautiful, deceptively soft-looking ball to Alex Morgan right in front of goal and Morgan finished it with her head for a brace. Lloyd was just all around more on in the second half, and the combination of her with Morgan as a strike pair is an intriguing notion that may deserve a little more consideration.
The first United States subs came at the 68', with Jaelene Hinkle in for Ali Krieger and and Mallory Pugh in for Crystal Dunn. Pugh had some good moments trying to attack from the right, cutting into the box and looking for runners. She had a perfect set up in stoppage that Lloyd was unfortunate to miss and looked composed taking players on 1-v-1.
Christen Press subbed in in the 74' for Julie Johnston, with the team moving into a three-back formation and Lloyd withdrawing behind Press and Morgan into her usual position. Press then went on to create the most sublimely bonkers moment of the game in the 83', receiving a quick ball from Tobin Heath, somehow controlling it with a touch behind her back, and setting herself up to score to make it 5-0.
5-0 was the full time score, though it could have been seven or eight instead of five but for a few bad touches - but the team looked settled in and comfortable, not much warm-up needed. They should be ready to go against Mexico on Saturday; Mexico themselves looked slightly slow against Puerto Rico earlier in the day, their own 6-0 win notwithstanding, though it remains to be seen if they were truly slow or simply playing down to an outmatched opponent. The United States had some good moments of one- and two-touch passing, especially in the first half, easily working the ball out of pressure and getting the flow restarted without looking panicked. If they can continue that fluidity while also locking down Maribel Dominguez in front of goal, Mexico shouldn't be too much of a nailbiter.
The most interesting work in this game came from the midfield where Morgan Brian put in a shift and a half and Lindsey Horan balanced staying deep in front of the back four and pushing up to help create in the attack. We'll see if Ellis continues to hold Horan back from all-out attack, but wherever she's played, it's becoming clear that she's too valuable a piece to leave off the Olympic roster.
The United States next plays Mexico on Saturday, February 13 at 4 PM ET in Frisco, Texas.