MONTERREY, Mexico -- There was palpable hope inside the Estadio Universitario on Monday as a home crowd of 20,522 Mexico fans attempted to will their underperforming team to its most unlikely victory in history against the United States.
For 89 minutes, everything went as close to plan as possible, right down to Jamaica blowing out Haiti 4-0, in the other Group A game of the CONCACAF W Championship being played simultaneously across town, opening the door for Mexico. One goal would have salvaged a place in the global FIFA Women's World Cup playoff for El Tri Femenil and saved the complete embarrassment on home soil.
Even after Lizbeth Ovalle was sent off in the 73rd minute for a reckless challenge that twisted Rose Lavelle's ankle in the wrong direction, Mexico pushed on with 10 players, nearly going ahead through Jimena Lopez in the 87th minute on their best opportunity of the night.
Then Kristie Mewis scored an ugly, scrappy goal in the 89th minute, pouncing on a rebound from Emily Sonnett's header, which was initially pushed off the crossbar by Mexico goalkeeper Itzel Gonzalez. Several bodies fell into the net as part of the scramble, and after a long VAR check for a potential offside, Mexico's fleeting dreams of a miracle fell by the wayside.
For the United States it was a gritty 1-0 win, the type of result any good team needs to labor through to prevail at a big tournament. On home soil, and in friendlies, the 1-0 victory could be viewed as ugly and unsatisfactory. In Mexico, against a home side desperate to keep its World Cup hopes alive, it was a new experience for just about every player on the roster -- and exactly the type of adversity U.S. coach Vlatko Andonovski has repeatedly said he wants his team to endure prior to next year's World Cup.
"As the atmosphere was getting fired up, our team started losing the focus [and] the tempo," Andonovski said postmatch. "We actually had very good control of the tempo until the atmosphere started getting riled up a little bit. And then our players started falling into the trap. We could have just finished the game the way we started it, controlling the tempo, but that's where the inexperience comes.
"But I was very happy to see at the end that we found a way. It wasn't pretty, it wasn't nice, but in order to win big tournaments, we know that sometimes you are just going to have to find a way. We were able to do that."
USWNT shakeup for the knockout stage
Pregame brought the unexpected news of a roster shuffle for the U.S., one that will impact the group stage in multiple ways. Ashley Hatch was ruled out of the tournament after sustaining what U.S. Soccer is calling a muscle strain in her left leg against Jamaica on Thursday. She was replaced on the roster by Sam Coffey, who was due to arrive in Monterrey late Monday night from Portland, where she has been a breakout star for the Thorns as their starting defensive midfielder.
Hatch's exit, and replacement with a holding midfielder, leaves the U.S. with Alex Morgan as the team's only true No. 9. Taylor Kornieck replaced Morgan in the final minutes Monday. Kornieck played in more advanced positions earlier in her career but was brought into her first U.S. training camp for her superlative play in midfield with San Diego Wave FC.
If the U.S. is to win the CONCACAF W Championship and claim the sole automatic berth at the 2024 Paris Olympics, it will once again be with Morgan running the front line the rest of the way in the stifling heat in Monterrey.
U.S. Soccer also announced on Monday that Emily Fox is in COVID-19 protocol, leaving some uncertainty at full-back. Fox is the clear first choice for Andonovski at left-back and offers a unique attacking ability both in wide channels and as a full-back who likes to invert and join the attack centrally.
Sonnett started in Fox's place Monday, switching sides with fellow full-back Kelley O'Hara on multiple occasions. Sonnett offers less of an attacking profile than Fox, but she is the next-most-experienced player at the position as a 2019 World Cup winner.
Mexico's World Cup hopes ruined, Vergara future uncertain
On the other end of the pitch, El Tri Femenil fought valiantly against the USWNT, but following the tense loss, Mexico are now officially out of the running for the 2023 Women's World Cup. The result has wrapped up a highly disappointing tournament in which El Tri Femenil finished at the bottom of Group A, while also failing to qualify for the knockout round of the competition and the 2024 Olympics.
The writing was already written on the wall heading into Monday's final match of the group stage. "Milagro" (miracle) was the go-to word utilized by Mexican media and fans before the daunting task against the U.S. With two shocking and unexpected losses for the tournament hosts against Jamaica and Haiti beforehand, a victory for Mexico, which was needed to remain in the running for the World Cup, seemed unimaginable against the current title-holders.
Even Aztec deity Quetzalcoatl -- through the means of a new jersey -- had little faith. Friday's release of a green home kit, which will be used in the men's World Cup this November, initially included the news that the Quetzalcoatl-inspired jerseys would be debuted by El Tri Femenil against the U.S. According to some working behind the scenes, there were worries about the kit debut because of Mexico's run of form in the CONCACAF W, likely leading to the decision to wear a white jersey that has been used over the past couple of years.
Divine guidance absent without the spiritual backing of an Aztec god, a necessary miracle never materialized on the sweltering and later dusty pitch of the Estadio Universitario, signs of either a local severe drought or perhaps the ashes of Mexico's World Cup hopes drifting away.
That said, they were tantalizingly close. Led by standout goalkeeper Gonzalez, who was the hero of the night, Mexico defended well and frustrated most of the USWNT's attacking efforts. In an improved XI that included Alicia Cervantes and Gonzalez, as well as 20,522 in attendance for the first time in the tournament, Mexico were far from the listless team from the first two group stage games. Problem is, they offered very little going forward, and once winger Ovalle earned a direct red in the 73rd minute from a reckless tackle, El Tri Femenil struggled to find the back of the net. Ultimately, the Americans kept knocking on the door, finding the lone goal by Mewis.
"It's time to look forward, learn from mistakes, but take responsibility of making the team better in the future," Gonzalez said in the mixed zone after the defeat. "It's sad for some of us that are a little bit older to acknowledge that we let go of a great opportunity."
In the context of one single game, it's uplifting to see Mexico go toe-to-toe with the world champions and hold them to a narrow result, but it's also worth absolutely nothing in the greater circumstances of the CONCACAF W group stage. The loss closed out a dismal run in the competition with three losses, no goals scored and five allowed. Mexico coach Monica Vergara, who is dealing with the most extreme of temperatures on her own in the managerial hot seat, may not last much longer after the collapse of El Tri Femenil.
"I'm not a person that gives up on things. Evidently, I'm going to be evaluated," Vergara said after the match. "If the cycle finishes here, it's been a spectacular ride."
In what was supposed to be a showcase tournament for the inspiring growth of Mexican women's soccer, El Tri Femenil fell short as the vanguard of futbol femenil in the country, leaving a promising generation without a spot in the World Cup.