The symmetry would not have been lost on any of them: the United States and Canada, two of the world’s best women’s soccer teams, meeting on a sweltering night and chasing a prize only one of them could win.
A tight match. A late penalty kick. A jubilant celebration.
A year ago at the Tokyo Olympics, it was the Canadians who rejoiced, converting a second-half penalty and winning the match on their way to the gold medal.
On Monday night in Monterrey, Mexico, it was the Americans who were dancing at the final whistle. It was they who had won the penalty kick and then the game, 1-0, to guarantee themselves a berth in the 2024 Paris Olympics. It was they who now had a chance to snatch that gold medal back.
Victory came via familiar hands: Lindsey Horan controlling the midfield. Rose Lavelle slipping in behind the defense and winning a penalty. Alex Morgan stepping up to bury it.
The victory was the second major goal achieved by the Americans in Mexico, in a tournament that served as a qualifier for both the 2023 World Cup and the 2024 Olympics. The United States had sealed its place in the former by merely advancing to the semifinals. But it still had a goal to go, and a point to prove, against Canada in the Concacaf W Championship final.
Morgan had started that Olympic semifinal last summer in Kashima, Japan, but had watched the end of it from the bench after being substituted. During the Games, she had been among the most vocal of the veteran players on that roster who had suggested — in no uncertain terms — that Coach Vlatko Andonovski was getting things wrong.
In the year since that defeat, Morgan, 33, had been among the veterans who had been asked to make way for younger attacking talents like Mallory Pugh, Sophia Smith and Trinity Rodman, to give Andonovski room to tinker and retool ahead of next year’s World Cup in Australia and New Zealand. But she also knew her chance would eventually come again, and on Monday, after two weeks of matches featuring young players and new lineups, Morgan got her chance to make things right, to prove she still has a role to play.
“I’m not surprised but very happy how she has handled the whole situation in how she came back,” Andonovski told reporters after the final. “I said it early on: Alex is a better player. That’s what makes her special. She doesn’t want to stop growing, doesn’t want to stop developing.”
Her opportunity to break the scoreless tie came in the 76th minute. Handed the ball by Horan after Lavelle was tripped in the penalty area, Morgan took a few deep breaths, strode confidently forward and buried a low, hard shot into the lower-right corner as Canada goalkeeper Kailen Sheridan dived the other way.
A few minutes after the final whistle, Morgan was honored as the tournament’s outstanding player.
“It just always feels good,” she said, “to be called a champion.”
Grateful to be back — her longtime frontline teammate Megan Rapinoe did not get off the bench in the final — Morgan appeared to agree with Andonovski’s choices this time. But she also was quick to note that breaking in new players, especially on the tradition-rich U.S. team, sometimes requires having older ones around to show them the way.
“Some of the younger players are able to look up to the older players in a big tournament like this,” Morgan said. “You just can’t replicate that with friendlies. It has to be the real deal. And this is the real deal.”
Andonovski, too, praised players like Morgan, Rapinoe and defender Becky Sauerbrunn for creating a “superb” environment conducive to success. “We came out for the last game of the tournament, after being in a hotel for a month, with the best energy we’ve ever had,” he said. “That’s a testament, first and foremost, to the senior players.”
How far ahead are the United States and Canada of their regional rivals? Neither team lost a game in Monterrey on its way to the final. Neither surrendered a goal. Each scored a dozen goals in its first four games.
Both teams were so dominant, in fact, that once Costa Rica and Jamaica had locked up the other two semifinal places — clinching the region’s two other automatic places in the World Cup — they appeared to stand down ahead of the final, resting some of their top players in the semifinals and focusing instead on winning the third-place game. Victory there seemed a safer bet, after all, and it came with a consolation prize: a shot at the U.S.-Canada loser in a two-legged Olympic playoff that offered a last-chance bid for a place in Paris in 2024.
Defeat in the final was hardly a catastrophe for Canada: Its team is still widely expected to qualify for the Paris Games by beating Jamaica, which beat Costa Rica earlier Monday in the third-place game, in the playoff next year.
Canada learned a few things about itself along the way, too. Sheridan, who kept her team in the game with several outstanding saves in the first half, was named the tournament’s top goalkeeper and now seems entrenched in that role. Julia Grosso won the golden boot as the championship’s top scorer, and she and her fellow 21-year-old Jordyn Huitema came off the bench Monday to provide the kind of game-changing spark that may force Canada into the same sort of young-vs.-old reckoning that the United States is now embracing.
“I think there’s another level,” Canada Coach Bev Priestman had said after her team’s semifinal win, “and I do think that playing a team like the U.S. will bring out some of our strengths that maybe teams haven’t allowed us to do.”
Now she and her players — just like the U.S. team — know a bit more about the mix they will need to get where they really want to go.