The USWNT’s Italian Job

Photo by Michelle Morrison

Nine years ago this month, the US women’s national team did something it had never done before (or since) — qualify for a Women’s World Cup through the “intercontinental playoff.” Having failing to qualify directly through the CONCACAF tournament, the team faced Italy in a two-game series, and won 2-0 on aggregate to book their place at the 2011 Women’s World Cup in Germany. Here’s a look back at the final four games of the USWNT’s qualifying campaign back in fall 2010.

For the 2011 Women’s World Cup, CONCACAF was given 2.5 berths, meaning that two teams would qualify directly for the tournament, and a third team would face the 5th place team from UEFA qualifying. The final CONCACAF qualifying tournament was played in Cancun, Mexico in late October/early November of 2010.

The USWNT won their CONCACAF group easily and was paired with Mexico for the semifinal (Mexico finished behind Canada in the other group). Maribel “MariGOL” Dominguez got on the board in the 3rd minute to give El Tri the lead, but Carli Lloyd equalized in the 25th minute. Just two minutes later, Veronica Perez (who would later play in NWSL) scored the go-ahead goal for Mexico. Despite recording twice as many shots on goal, the USWNT could not manage another goal, and for the first time in program history lost to  Mexico. The win for El Tri meant they’d be heading to the Women’s World Cup for the first time since 1999.

Side notes:
• Nicole Barnhart was the USWNT’s starting goalkeeper for qualifying, as Hope Solo was recovering from shoulder surgery.
• This match turned out to be Kristine Lilly’s final game (and world-record 354th cap). She announced in January 2011 that she was retiring from soccer (both international and professional), and later announced that she was pregnant with her second child.
• Be sure to check out the video below (not for the faint of heart) showing Abby Wambach getting stitches literally stapled into her head in second-half stoppage time so she could get back on the field in a hurry.
• Wambach spoke frankly about the lack of coverage of the USWNT’s qualifying campaign before the loss to the Mexico: “If you’re at all smart about the media — any press is good press, especially when it comes to women’s sports. The irony of the whole thing is when the US men win they get all the coverage, and when the US Women lose they get the coverage. The problem with that is we are good enough and we are strong women and we do deserve to be in the World Cup in Germany, but we gotta prove it. And in order to prove it — the joke that we’ve been telling each other is ‘we planned this, this is the only way we’re gonna get the kind of coverage we think we deserve and this all just a big joke’ … but that’s obviously a joke.” And Lauren Barker of had a great article about it.


Having lost to Mexico, the USWNT ended up in the qualifying tourney’s 3rd place game versus Costa Rica. The Americans had already defeated Las Ticas 4-0 in the group stage. The team had to win the 3rd place match to still have a chance at reaching the Women’s World Cup, and they easily beat Costa Rica 3-0 off a goal from Lauren Holiday (then Lauren Cheney) and a brace from Abby Wambach. And in the championship game, Canada defeated Mexico 1-0 thanks to a penalty-kick goal from Christine Sinclair.


Instead of taking a break after a long WPS season followed by CONCACAF qualifying, the USWNT headed to Italy in mid-November for the first of two games against Le Azzurre. Winner of the “home and home” series, based on aggregate goals, would earn the final Women’s World Cup berth.

Italy had won its UEFA qualifying group but had not earned a direct berth (Europe had four slots for 2011, in addition to host Germany). Le Azzurre survived the playoff rounds against other European teams to earn the right to face the CONCACAF third-place team in the intercontinental playoff.

The match in Padua was a taut affair, and neither team could find the net until the Americans finally broke through in the 4th minute of second-half stoppage time. It was “Baby Horse,” aka a young Alex Morgan, who gave the USWNT a 1-0 away win and a crucial tiebreaker advantage going into the return match. It was just the 4th international goal of her career (current count is 107).


The following week, the USWNT hosted the Italians at Toyota Park (now SeatGeek Stadium) in Bridgeview, Illinois, just outside Chicago. A win or draw would clinch a World Cup berth. In freezing temperatures, the Americans again earned a 1-0 win, this time with the goal coming from Amy Rodriguez, assisted by Megan Rapinoe. The 2-0 aggregate win meant the USWNT continued its streak of qualifying for every World Cup.

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