Led by its veterans, the U.S. starts Women’s World Cup qualifying with an easy win

The veterans showed the way for the United States in the first round of Women’s World Cup qualifying.

Megan Rapinoe and Alex Morgan each scored a brace in their third World Cup qualifying tournament, and Julie Ertz and Tobin Heath added solo goals as the U.S., top-ranked in the world, blitzed Mexico 6-0 on Thursday night before a crowd of 5,404 in Sahlen’s Stadium at WakeMed Soccer Park.

Panama, at No. 66 in the world the lowest ranked team in Group A, dominated Trinidad and Tobago 3-0 in the night’s early game, taking a big step toward advancement as it seeks its first World Cup berth. The top two teams in Group A join the top two from Group B, playing in Edinburg, Texas, for the CONCACAF semifinals in Frisco, Texas, on Oct. 14-17. The top three will automatically earn placement in the 2019 World Cup in France, with the fourth-place team advancing to a playoff for another spot.

Marta Cox, Kenia Rangel, and Erika Hernandez had the goals for Panama, which outshot Trinidad and Tobago 18-10. Panama will play the U.S. at 5 p.m. Sunday, followed by Mexico-Trinidad and Tobago at 7:30 p.m.

It was only 1-0 at halftime, but the U.S., which has played in all seven World Cups and won three of them, had controlled the run of play to that point. The Americans possessed the ball for 74 percent of the time, connecting on 82 percent of their passes and outshooting Mexico 11-0.

“Really pleased with the start,” U.S. coach Jill Ellis said. “The players felt good about their performance. I thought we grew as the game went on.”

Rose Lavelle hit the left post from distance in the 26th minute, and otherwise Mexico goalkeeper Bianca Henninger was there for two saves. Her defenders blocked four more shots that would have been challenging, too.

Rapinoe, wearing the captain’s armband, put the U.S. in front in the third minute, redirecting a cross from Lindsey Horan into the lower right corner of the net on the first shot of the match. Rapinoe added a second-half assist and was named the Woman of the Match.

She said it was a matter of staying patient against Mexico, which sat back with five defenders and tried to absorb pressure.

“Just be really patient and move the ball,” Rapinoe said. “Just making sure that we’re finding the right option. You can’t force it into spaces.”

Rapinoe has seen her role change somewhat as the U.S. has gone to a 4-3-3 alignment that finds her at the left forward instead of her customary outside midfielder spot.

“I’m playing a little bit higher up the field,” Rapinoe said. “But I think it’s my natural tendency to come back and get the balls underneath. When they sit back like that, those little pockets open up in front of the defense.”

It didn’t take long for the U.S. to pad its lead in the second half. Less than two minutes in, Rapinoe served up a free kick into the penalty area that Ertz headed off the crossbar. Horan got the loose ball in the box back to Ertz, and she knocked it home for the second goal.

Morgan made it 3-0 in the 57th with a sharp header off a Rapinoe corner kick, one of three setpiece goals for the U.S.

Ellis said the team refocused its attention on setpieces after spending less time on them in recent months of training.

“Coming into the tournament, we did amp that up a little bit,” she said.

It became 4-0 in the 61st minute when the Tar Heel connection clicked in for the U.S. Heath headed in a pass from Crystal Dunn after Dunn blew by a defender on the left wing and set up her fellow North Carolina alum with a laser of a cross.

Rapinoe got her brace in the 71st when she tapped in a loose ball after Carli Lloyd, who entered the match in the 66th minute as a substitute, challenged for a loose ball after a save.

Morgan added her second goal in the 80th when central defender Becky Sauerbrunn dribbled to the left post and slid a pass across the goalmouth to her.

“Becky doesn’t have an international goal, but in true Becky fashion she was typically selfless,” Morgan said.

The U.S. held a whopping 23-3 advantage in shots, and Mexico finally registered its first in the 48th minute. Henninger finished with four saves, while her U.S. counterpart, Alyssa Naeher, had to make only one.

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