HOUSTON — Second-half goals by Lindsey Horan and Tobin Heath lifted the U.S. to a 2-0 win Sunday over Canada in the final of the CONCACAF Women's Olympic Qualifying Championship.
The top-ranked Americans were full value for the victory despite a game effort from 11th-ranked Canada.
Canadian coach John Herdman said prior to the game he would "be trying something a little bit different." And he was true to his word when the starting lineup came out.
Captain Christine Sinclair and fellow veterans Diana Matheson, Sophie Schmidt and goalkeeper Erin McLeod dropped out of the starting 11. The foursome have 666 caps and 194 goals — not to mention a few miles — between them. Herdman also moved 16-year-old Deanne Rose to the bench as he continued his roster rotation.
The Americans, who have bossed the confederation that covers North and Central America and the Caribbean for years, fielded an unchanged lineup.
After a scoreless first half, the U.S. went ahead in the 53rd. Captain Becky Sauerbrunn, celebrating her 100th cap by carving open the Canadian defence with her accurate passing, sent a ball into the box that goalkeeper Stephanie Labbe came out for but was beaten by Horan, who headed it in. Defender Kadeisha Buchanan slipped on the play.
Herdman sent in Matheson and Schmidt in the 58th minute with Sinclair warming up.
Heath, from just inside the penalty box, made it 2-0 in the 61st minute by sinking a sweet left foot into a fine ball from 17-year-old Mallory Pugh that made its way through a scattered Canadian defence. That brought Sinclair on the pitch.
Canada showed more attacking flair with its stars on the field. The Americans defended and launched counter-attacks.
The margin of victory could have been more. Fullback Allysha Chapman stopped a sure U.S. goal in the 88th minute with her foot and American Carli Lloyd shot wide moments after.
Herdman may have been electing to keep his power dry for an encounter that really matters. Both teams had accomplished their mission Friday, winning their semifinals to secure Olympic qualification.
It has been almost 15 years since Canada beat the U.S. — 2-0 at the Algarve Cup in March 2001. Since then, the Americans have won 27 and drawn five. The teams tied 1-1 the last time they met, in May 2014 in Winnipeg.
Herdman has been digging into his roster throughout the tournament and Sinclair (calf) and McLeod (knee) have had limited training. Given the tournament's tight schedule — it was Canada's fifth game since Feb. 11 — there seemed little upside in risking Sinclair or McLeod.
It also allowed Herdman a chance to give youngsters Janine Quinn and Nichelle Prince time against the vaunted Americans.
Stand-in captain Melissa Tancredi (113 caps) and Rhian Wilkinson (170) helped fill the experience void in the Canadian starting 11.
The physical Canadians started well, pressing the Americans and frustrating their buildup. But the first scoring chance went to the U.S. in the 14th minute when Lloyd headed a Meghan Klingenberg cross just wide after a slashing cross-field run by Heath.
The Americans began finding their rhythm, stroking the ball around and firing in crosses. Two more headers went wide with Labbe kept busy as Canadian marking went astray.
When Canada did stage a counter, there were few players up front to fuel the attack. And as the half closed, Canada's defence was wobbling at times.
The Canadian mantra here was to qualify for the Olympics and then "do the unexpected." A tough task considering that going into Sunday's final, Canada's all-time record against the U.S. was 2-42-6.
"Any team that plays them has a very similar record," Herdman said prior to the game. "They're world No. 1 for a reason."
The U.S. literally is the gold standard of women's Olympic soccer. The Americans have taken part in all five Games that have featured women's soccer, winning gold four times (1996, 2004, 2008, 2012).
Canada, beaten 4-3 in extra time by the Americans in the Olympic semifinal four years ago, won a memorable bronze with a 1-0 win over France in London.
The two teams secured qualification to Rio on Friday night as Canada beat Costa Rica and the Americans dispatched Trinidad & Tobago.
Both teams were dominant en route to the final here. Canada outscored the opposition 24-1 while the U.S. blanked its opponents while piling up 21 goals.
Herdman will now ponder his roster options ahead of the Rio Games. His team won't be centralized to allow his players to take part in the NWSL.
Asked about his roster for Rio, he pointed to London saying his squad for the 2012 Games was not the same as the one he used for qualifying although he conceded "it was very similar."
The U.S. (18-0-1) has never lost a game in Olympic qualifying, but did tie Canada 1-1 in the 2008 final before prevailing in penalty kicks.
The Americans have blanked the opposition in their last 10 CONCACAF Olympic qualifying games — since Tancredi scored in the 116th minute of the 2008 final.
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Neil Davidson, The Canadian Press