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Global Feb 21, 2016

U.S. Women keep border bragging rights with gutsy 2-0 win over Canada in CONCACAF Oly final

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HOUSTON – The U.S. Women’s National Team faced up to a bruising challenge from their northern rivals Canada on Sunday afternoon and came out smiling, riding goals from Lindsey Horan and Tobin Heath to a 2-0 win in the championship final of the CONCACAF Olympic qualifying tournament at BBVA Compass Stadium.

Both sides had already earned places in this summer’s showcase via semifinal wins on Friday, but there was no mistaking the hard edge to this occasion. Canada held the favorites in check with some ruggedly physical play, but ultimately could not keep pace as the Yanks – who have not allowed a goal in this tournament since the 2008 final – pulled away down the stretch.

The USWNT fielded the same starting lineup as Friday’s 5-0 thumping of Trinidad & Tobago, while Canada rang the changes with several youngsters brought into the XI and veterans like Erin McLeod, Diana Matheson and Christine Sinclair – who has been nursing a dodgy calf – left on the bench.

Two days after U.S. goalkeeper Hope Solo spoke at length of the “bloodbath” nature of this rivalry and compared Canada’s tactics to “American football,” Les Rouges looked happy to meet her expectations, snapping into challenges and pressuring the USWNT all over the field.

Solo herself looked to be the target of a brutish push in the back on Julie Johnston by Melissa Tancredi as Johnston shielded her away from a ball that Solo gloved as Johnston was thrown into her ‘keeper’s legs dangerously. Johnston required treatment before continuing, while the rugged Tancredi escaped booking and went on to mix it up with several other Yanks as the half wore on.

The physical approach antagonized the home fans and nudged the foul count upwards rapidly, but worked to knock the favored Americans off their rhythm. Canada pressed and probed, forcing Solo to race off her line to mop up danger more than once, but could not quite carve out a clear look at her goal.

The USWNT eventually came to terms with the circumstances and wrestled control of the possession battle. Tobin Heath cut in from the right flank in the 14th minute on a weaving run inside before setting up Meghan Klingenberg for a searching cross from the left corner that found the head of Carli Lloyd, whose header flashed across the face of goal just out of Morgan’s reach.

Lloyd would go close with another header as CanWNT ‘keeper Stephanie Labbe struggled to assert her authority on high crosses into her penalty box. Such service repeatedly wreaked havoc in front of Canada’s goal, and on one occasion Lloyd seemed to have won a penalty kick as Tancredi’s scissor sent her tumbling to the turf – but Mexican referee Quetzalli Alvarado blew her whistle and indicated a foul on Lloyd instead.

The Canadians gradually settled into a more defensive posture but continued to press cleverly at times, doing their best to bait the Yanks into turning the ball over in dangerous central areas as midfield pivots Morgan Brian and Lindsey Horan were forced to think more quickly and carefully than they have in this tournament to date.

The contest was hanging in the balance as the teams jogged into the locker rooms at halftime, and Canada coach John Herdman’s animated encouragements to his players suggested the first 45 minutes had gone well from his perspective. But the USWNT wrecked that optimism with an impressive surge in the opening minutes of the second half.

A strong run into the Canada box by Pugh was cut short by a trip some six minutes after the restart, only for Alvarado to dismiss her penalty appeals with a tetchy wave. But the 17-year-old stuck at it and showed street smarts beyond her years to earn a free kick deep in Canada’s left corner.

The reds fended off that initial set-piece delivery from Brian, but surrendered a corner kick in the process. Another Brian service was cleared, but only to Becky Sauerbrunn, who quickly lofted a teasing angled cross into the danger zone between the penalty spot and the six-yard box.

Labbe was baited off her line by the delivery, but Horan beat her to it, slipping in to flick the ball past the ‘keeper with a delicate header to push the U.S. in front 1-0.

After so much hard work up to that point, the Canadian disappointment was palpable. And it only deepened when Pugh and Heath connected for the second time in as many games barely a minute later, doubling the lead on a carbon copy of the USA’s opening goal vs. Trinidad & Tobago on Friday.

Pugh nutmegged her defender and raced down the left flank, then laid a delicate low cross across the CanWNT box that invited Heath to run inside from the right channel – and yet again, she made no mistake with a firm, curling drive that tucked inside the near post for a 2-0 advantage that the Yanks would not let slip.

Canada brought on veterans Sinclair, Matheson and Sophie Schmidt in search of a response, and they did help carve out one decent chance. Sharp reflexes by Solo denied Tancredi’s header with a parry at the near post in the 71st minute, though it was unclear whether the effort would’ve snuck inside the woodwork.

But the damage was too far gone to repair and the USWNT killed off the remainder of the contest with imperious pass-and-move possession. Heath went inches away from bagging a second, denied only by a goal-line block by Kadeisha Buchanan, and later drew the crowd to its feet with a swaggering bit of shake-and-bake on the ball in the final minutes.

Many of the fans lingered in their seats as the U.S. huddled on the field happily before hoisting the trophy as tournament champions. Both sides will move on to the Summer Games in Rio de Janeiro, but the border rivalry looks as one-sided as ever, with Canada winless against the Yanks since 2001.