VANCOUVER, British Columbia -- The final goal in the game that put the U.S. women's soccer team into the Olympics was scored by Alex Morgan, the super-sub who made her name at last year's World Cup.
That's the same Alex Morgan who wasn't a sub at all in the Americans' previous game, leading to an interesting moment in a meeting with coach Pia Sundhage.
The formality is that the U.S. beat Costa Rica 3-0 Friday night to earn a ticket to London. The game was quite a bit more suspenseful than expected, with the Americans overcoming some early sloppiness and waiting until deep into the second half to put the game away.
The real fun now begins over the next six months as Sundhage figures out how best to use the best, deepest roster of women soccer players in the world. For instance, the newest hot-off-the-presses talent is Sidney Leroux, who got the call instead of Morgan in the second half of the big win over Mexico three days earlier.
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"I asked her how she felt when Sidney Leroux came in the game and she didn't," Sundhage said. "I wanted an honest answer. She said 'I don't think you want that answer.' Great. That tells a little about how badly she wants to play."
Morgan felt she got her point across.
"We both laughed," Morgan said. "And she said 'That's all I need to know.' ... But that's the great thing with Pia. She lets you feel you can be honest with her. She lets you feel very comfortable around her."
Morgan's goal in the 89th minute made the score 34-0 -- the margin by which the Americans have outscored their opponents at the CONCACAF qualifying tournament. The only one that wasn't as lopsided as the score was Friday's London-or-bust semifinal.
"There were moments where I think Costa Rica were outplaying us, and it just shows you how important it was to all of us," forward Abby Wambach said. "Nobody wanted to make that mistake. And luckily we didn't."
Tobin Heath scored in the 16th minute to give U.S. all the offense it needed, and Carli Lloyd (72nd) and Morgan (89th) provided the insurance.
But the top-ranked Americans were certainly not as crisp as they were when they were drawing criticism for running up the score. Bad passes led to giveaways in the first half, forcing goalkeeper Hope Solo to work harder than the Richland native has all tournament.
Then again, so much was on the line that some jitters were understandable.
"We know that sometimes under big game circumstances players can get a little tight," Wambach said. "And you've just kind of got to deal with it. ... It was almost as if we scored that goal and nobody wanted to get stuck into a tackle. We were kind of playing a little bit soft, and we fixed that in the second half."
Costa Rica is ranked No. 41 in the world, has never qualified for an Olympics or a World Cup and has never scored on the U.S. in eight meetings. Las Ticas proved to be scrappy opponents, however, occasionally frustrating the Americans with physical play and just missing on two solid scoring chances in the first half in the London-or-bust match. As the possibility of an upset lingered deep into the second half, the plucky team in red gained the rousing support of the Canadian fans at BC Place.
"We put together three great games in group play," said Solo, who played despite a slightly pulled right quadriceps that had been bothering her all week. "You can't play four, five, six. Not every team is going to play perfectly every single game, but we got the job done."
The U.S. will be the two-time defending champions in London, having taken gold in Athens in 2004 and in Beijing in 2008. It will be the third straight Olympics in which the Americans will be trying to make amends for World Cup disappointment from the previous year. They finished second at last year's World Cup in Germany, losing to Japan in the final.
The victory also puts the Americans into the tournament final Sunday, a bragging-rights-only game against Canada, a 3-1 winner over Mexico in the second semifinal.
Sundhage's team arrived in Canada with a bit of apprehension. The Americans, having become somewhat complacent from years of uncontested success in the region, were stunned in a World Cup qualifier by host Mexico in November 2010, forcing them into a home-and-away playoff with Italy just to get for the World Cup. Also, the format for Olympic qualifying is such that everything hinges on one game -- the do-or-die semifinals -- regardless of how a team performs in the rest of the tournament.
Determined to take nothing for granted, the Americans had been full throttle for every game. They set a U.S. team record for goals in a game in a 14-0 win over the Dominican Republic, then nearly matched the feat in a 13-0 rout of Guatemala. Then came a 4-0 win in the much-anticipated rematch with Mexico to set up the semifinal against Costa Rica.
And even though the vital game didn't go quite as planned, the outcome was all that mattered.
"We," Sundhage said, smiling, "are going to London."