USA did what was expected of them at the CONCACAF qualifying tournament for the 2008 Women's Olympic Tournament, roaring to yet another regional title to reaffirm their dominance in the New World. After making easy meat of their opponents in the group stage and their crucial semi, the Stars and Stripes needed penalties to slip past Canada, who also qualify for Beijing, in an entertaining final on Saturday.
After cruising through Group A in Juarez, Mexico with two wins over Jamaica and the hosts, scoring nine goals and conceding only one in the process, the US secured their place in Beijing this August thanks to another comprehensive 3-1 win in their semi-final against Costa Rica on Thursday.
The much-fancied Americans were, however, pushed all the way by fellow Olympic qualifiers Canada en route to their eighth CONCACAF women's title. After 90 minutes of regular time finished goalless, Carli Lloyd scored a stunning free-kick in the 110th minute. However, the Canadians, not to be denied without a fight, hit back through a header from tournament top scorer Melissa Tancredi just two minutes from time.
US goalkeeper Nicole Barnhart then saved from Brittany Timko in the resulting shootout to see the Americans triumph 6-5. The USA's record in CONCACAF competition now stands at an amazing 27 wins, no losses and one draw.
"It was an exciting game, you could hear it in the crowd's reaction," said US coach and former Sweden international Pia Sundhage, who recently led the US to their sixth Algarve Cup title in Portugal. "We created a lot of chances. You can't match the feeling in practice of taking penalty kicks in a game like this, and it could happen in the Olympics."
The US had 24 efforts on goal to their northern neighbours' 10, but keeper Erin McLeod kept the Canadians alive and kicking with a series of fine saves. After winning their group with a 6-0 thrashing of Trinidad and Tobago and a slim 1-0 victory against Costa Rica, the Canadians did just enough to edge a much-improved Mexico 1-0 in the semi-final on Thursday to progress to their first-ever Women's Olympic Football Tournament.
Canada await Olympic debut
Norwegian-born coach Even Pellerud was pleased with his team's overall performance.
"Of course there are things to work on," he said, having led the Canadians to their second straight regional final (they pushed the US all the way to extra time in the Women's Gold Cup final in 2006). "We need to work more on our middle shape and more on our back four shape. But overall we did very well considering (we conceded) just one goal in the whole tournament.
," he added.
The US will head to Beijing looking for their third gold medal, and their second on the trot having won the tournament in Athens in 2004. Led by towering striker Abby Wambach, who scored three goals in Mexico, and without the talismanic Kristine Lilly, who is expecting a baby in July, the Americans will also be hoping to put behind them the disappointment of a battering at the hands of Brazil that saw them bow out early at the last FIFA Women's World Cup.
Eleven of the 12-team field that will participate in Beijing are now known. The USA and Canada will represent North, Central America and the Caribbean while Argentina will stand for South America. The Asian Zone will be led by hosts China PR, Japan and Korea DPR while world champions Germany, Norway and Sweden will fly the European flag.
Nigeria will represent Africa and New Zealand will be the lone Oceania side. Ghana (runners-up from Africa) and Brazil (runners-up from South America) will meet in a play-off on 19 April to decide the final participant, just one day before the Official Draw for the tournament in Beijing.