The U.S. women did all that was required in Friday night's Olympic qualifier against Mexico, netting four sweet goals to book their ticket to the Tokyo Games, but it wasn't easy work, even after grabbing a quick two-goal advantage in the first 14 minutes.
The Yanks might not have been particularly sharp in the attacking third through the 4-0 triumph in the Concacaf semifinal at Dignity Health Sports Park -- Rose Lavelle's superb fifth-minute opener and Christen Press' cheeky chip for the 73rd-minute finale aside -- but Samantha Mewis' precision in two key moments made none of that particularly important.
Mewis was terrific in finishing Megan Rapinoe's corner kick for the second goal, then gave the U.S. a needed lift with a brilliant strike on a free kick in the 67th minute to ensure that El Tri, looking to build on an increasingly impressive defensive performance, wasn't going to mess with their hosts' Olympic plans.
The 27-year-old midfielder, who also netted a pair of goals in the 6-0 romp over Costa Rica in the group-stage finale in Houston, was unstoppable when the Yanks most needed her to be, to nobody's surprise.
“Sam is the tower of power. She doesn't get that nickname for nothing ...,” Rapinoe said when it was over. “She's just powerful in the way she plays, the way she eats up space. She can cover a ton of ground, [and] she has a knack for the goal as well.”
The U.S., which will close the tournament with Sunday's meaningless but sure-to-be-competitive final against Canada, looked like it might hammer Mexico in the opening minutes, thanks to Lavelle's strike and Mewis' finish soon after. Rapinoe's low corner kick skipped past the near edge of 6-yard box -- with Julie Ertz, the best player on the field, making a run that effectively shielded a Mexican defender from the ball -- and Mewis, just outside the 6, hammered it home.
The 6-foot Mewis, who debuted with the national team at the 2014 Algarve Cup and became a regular after the 2015 Women's World Cup triumph, said it reminded her of her first goal against Costa Rica, from a Press free kick on the right that she half-volleyed home from the edge of the 6 to give the U.S. a 4-0 lead in the 63rd minute.
“Great ball in, and we've been working a lot on set pieces,” Mewis said. “And, actually, kind of similar to the goal the other day, like a similar ball that was just kind of already at my feet, and all I had to do was get it on frame.”
Her second goal was better. Bianca Sierra had taken down Tobin Heath a step outside Mexico's box, just to the right of the semicircle. Mewis crushed the ball, sending it through a seam and past the scrum, beyond the reach of goalkeeper Emily Alvarado, and inside the far post.
Could it have been any better?
“I don't know, I don't know,” Mewis said. “I'd have to see it. Can always be better, but I'm glad they let me take it, and 'Pinoe was so excited for me to take it, so it was a cool moment.”
Rapinoe said she didn't think it could be improved upon, and she took shouldered some responsibility for it.
“Me and Kelley [O'Hara] feel very proud about this, we're taking a lot of credit for it,” Rapinoe said. “When it's set up, I mean, it's obviously close enough to take the free kick and there's actually a bit of space on that side, but I was like, 'Kelly, I think Sam should just smash it.' Like, she can hit it so hard. ... She did us proud.”
The goal provided a spark, and head coach Vlatko Andonovski immediately brought on Press and Lynn Williams for Rapinoe and Heath, who had struggled much of the evening. The U.S. spent the rest of the game on top of the Mexicans, and Press' goal -- her fifth of the tournament -- finished the victory with style.
“I see that everyday in training,” Ertz said of Mewis' strikes. “It's world-class in training, and she always brings it to the game. I hate when I play her in NWSL, love her when she's on my team. She's been phenomenal.”
Mewis, who has won three National Women's Soccer League titles with the North Carolina Courage, the first when the club was the Western New York Flash, was a key figure in last year's World Cup triumph but knows she can do more. Working with Andonovski, she says, is pushing her toward greater things.
“I feel like I'm learning so much under Vlatko already, and I'm really excited,” she said. “I hope I have a lot more potential and a lot more to give the team. ... [We're doing] a lot of really specific and detailed technical work, which I have found to be really helpful for me.”
Rapinoe says the new U.S. coach, who succeeded Jill Ellis in late October, “has worked a lot with the midfielders in just finding those little half-spaces and essentially wants to get them the ball as much as possible and then they can dictate it from there.”
“I think they're starting to feel a little bit more comfortable in that role and find those little spaces and figure out the game is all right for them.”
Said Mewis: “I find that I'm working on these more specific passes, and he really has narrowed in on what he wants me to work on. I feel like I have a very clear path with that.”
The U.S. wants to be at its best when the Olympic soccer competitions begin July 23. As anticipated as Friday's victory might have been, it was a big step.
“It's just kind of good to get that elephant out of the room, seal it for us to go to Tokyo,” captain Carli Lloyd said. “I think, overall, this team has loads of talent, and the best is yet to come. I think we saw glimpses of some unbelievable stuff, selfless stuff out there. Some of the midfielders stepping up, scoring goals. It's just great to see.”
Photo: Ken Murray/Icon Sportswire