November 27, 2010

US Qualifies for World Cup with 1-0 Victory

The United States were able to overcome a poor start and defeat Italy 1-0 to become the 16th and final qualifier for the 2011 World Cup. The US took the aggregate by a 2-0 margin in the home-and-home series against the 5th place UEFA team.

It wasn't always easy as the Italians, who seemed content to defend and counterattack in the first leg, came out as the aggressor in the opening minutes of this match. They created several great chances early on. Meanwhile, Coach Pia Sundhage described her team's first 20 minutes as "crap". Indeed, the Italians came close several times as the United States played very sloppily throughout the early stages of the opening stanza.

The first chance came in just the 3rd minute of the match as a Patrizia Panico cross to Carolina Pini was broken up at the last second on a great defensive play by Rachel Buehler. Panico had a golden opportunity just a few minutes later as Elisa Camporese played a square ball to her and she was unmarked 12 yards from the goal. Panico's low shot went right to US goalkeeper Nicole Barnhart. A US turnover in their own end gave Panico yet another chance in the 17th minute, but again, her shot from 10 yards on the left side went straight to Barnhart.

An apparent miscommunication almost led to a goal for Italy in the 32nd minute as the ball was rolling towards the US penalty area. Buehler was trying to shield Giulia Domenichetti off the ball, thinking that Barnhart would handle it. The ball had not yet reached the box as Barnhart, Buehler, and Domenichetti all came together at the same time. With Barnhart unable to handle the ball with her hands, a scramble ensued, but Italy was unable to get a shot at the open net and the ball was finally cleared.

While the Italians were unable to take advantage of their chances, the US made good on one of theirs in the 40th minute. Abby Wambach sent the ball outside left to Megan Rapinoe. Rapinoe made a move to the goal, beating defender Roberta D'Adda, and hit a hard low shot from the side of the penalty area. Italian keeper Anna Maria Picarelli made the save, but was unable to control the rebound as it rolled a few feet away. Amy Rodriguez beat a defender to the loose ball and was able to send it into the empty net putting the US on top 1-0.

Wambach nearly got on the board just before intermission, as she got behind the Italian defense. While being hounded by defender Elisabetta Tona, she was able to get a shot off from the 18 but an onrushing Picarelli was able to make the save and deflect the ball wide.

Italian coach Pietro Ghedin went to his bench much earlier in this match, substituting Alia Guagni for D'Adda at the half and Silvia Fuselli for Pini just minutes into the second half.

But if anybody thought the US would be content to sit on their lead, they were mistaken. The United States dominated the 2nd half, controlling possession and creating chance after chance as the Italians were unable to get anything going themselves. Italy spent a good deal of the 2nd half back on their heels as the US threw numbers forward in a menacing fashion.

Just a couple minutes into the half, Rodriguez sent a beautiful cross onto the head of a diving Wambach, but Picarelli made the save at point blank range, perhaps her best of the match.

Lauren Cheney entered the game for Rapinoe in the 59th minute and her first touch of the match was a shot off the crossbar which just missed putting the US up 2-0. Midway through the 2nd half, there was a scramble off of a US corner kick with Amy LePeilbet getting off a shot from inside the box, but Alessia Tuttino blocked the shot just a few feet in front of the goal to keep the margin at one.

As the second half wore on, the Italians mounted a few brief spurts of offense, but nothing particularly dangerous. It was obvious that they were tiring, probably the result of the constant US pressure, the physical nature of this contest, and the long qualifying schedule which they had to endure. In addition, they were playing without forward Melania Gabbiadini for the second consecutive game.

The final whistle led to a US celebration...and probably a sigh of relief...as they became the final team to qualify for next year's World Cup. The United States outshot the Italians by a 17-5 margin for the match, in front of a crowd of 9508 at Toyota Park.

The draw for the World Cup will be held on Monday. The 16 qualifiers are:

CONCACAF: Canada, Mexico, United States
CONMEBOL: Brazil, Columbia
UEFA: Germany (host nation), Sweden, Norway, England, France
AFC: Australia, Japan, North Korea
CAF: Nigeria, Equatorial Guinea
OFC: New Zealand