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The Canadian Press, Jonathan Hayward, Associated Press
U.S.A.'s Amy Lepeilbet (6) fights for control of the ball with Mexico's Dinora Garza (10) during the first half of CONCACAF Women's Olympic Qualifying soccer at B.C. Place in Vancouver, British Columbia Tuesday, Jan. 24, 2012.

VANCOUVER, British Columbia — Not this time, Mexico.

The U.S. women's soccer team avenged one of its most shocking losses Tuesday night, and did so emphatically. A pair of early goals quickly put to rest any notion of another upset by the rivals to the south, and the defense held firm in a 4-0 victory that clinched first place in the Americans' group and put them a major step closer to the London Olympics.

Carli Lloyd scored the first of her three goals in the seventh minute, and Heather O'Reilly made it 2-0 a minute later. Lloyd also netted in the 57th and 86th as the Americans wrapped up group play with three wins by a combined score of 31-0.

Next up is the one game in this tournament that matters most, a London-or-bust semifinal against Costa Rica on Friday. The winner gets one of the two available berths for the Olympics; the loser stays home.

The U.S. will be heavily favored. Costa Rica is ranked No. 41 in the world and has never beaten the U.S., having been outscored 34-0 in seven meetings. Had the Americans lost to Mexico, they would have faced a much tougher semifinal against host Canada.

Instead, it will be Mexico vs. Canada in the other semi that will produce the tournament's second Olympic berth.

Tuesday's win also eased the sting from a 2-1 defeat against Mexico in Cancun in a World Cup qualifier 14 months ago, the only time in 28 tries the Mexicans have beaten the Americans. That loss forced the U.S. into a backdoor playoff just to qualify for the World Cup — and served as a wakeup call that the top-ranked team in the world can't take important games for granted any more.

That message has stuck with the Americans during this CONCACAF tournament. They routed their first two opponents — Dominican Republic and Guatemala — by scores of 14-0 and 13-0, the most lopsided results in U.S. team history.

Keeping with that theme, coach Pia Sundhage wanted a strong start against the Mexicans, and she got one. The Americans controlled the run of play early, and it paid off when Lloyd headed in the rebound after Rachel Buehler clanged a shot off the post following a corner kick.

It wasn't long before the lead was doubled. Amy Rodriguez's cross was deflected by a defender and then by goalkeeper Cecilia Santiago straight to O'Reilly for an easy goal.

The Americans had several solid chances to extend the lead in the first half. Abby Wambach's shot was saved off the line by defender Natalie Garcia Mendez in the 23rd minute. By halftime, the U.S. had taken six corner kicks to Mexico's one.

The Mexicans, buoyed by a vocal and slightly pro-Mexico crowd of 7,599 at BC Place, worked hard on the counterattack, but the American back four of Buehler, Becky Sauerbrunn, Christie Rampone and Amy LePeilbet cleared nearly every serious threat, leaving goalkeeper Hope Solo without much work to earn her third shutout of the tournament.

The defensive performance was especially heartening for the Americans given the absence of Ali Krieger, who tore two ligaments in her right knee against the Dominican Republic and likely won't be back in time for the Olympics. As a tribute to Krieger, each American player had the word "liebe" — German for "love" — written on her arm. Krieger has played five seasons in the German league for FFC Frankfurt.

Lloyd put an end to any suspense 12 minutes into the second half when she headed down Lauren Cheney's free kick. Lloyd completed her hat trick with an assist from Buehler in the final minutes.

Joseph White can be reached at http://twitter.com/JGWhiteAP