VANCOUVER, British Columbia — In the end, what matters is that the U.S. women's soccer team is going to the Olympics. What the players won't soon forget is how hard they had to work get there.
The Americans booked their way to London on Friday night with a 3-0 victory over Costa Rica in the semifinals of the CONCACAF qualifying tournament, a game more suspenseful than most anyone expected.
Tobin Heath scored in the 16th minute to give U.S. all the scoring it needed, and goals by Carli Lloyd (72nd) and Alex Morgan (89th) put the game away late.
But the top-ranked Americans were less crisp than when they were beating teams by a combined 31-0 earlier in the tournament and drawing criticism for running up the score.
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 underdogs gained the rousing support of the Canadian fans at BC Place.
In the end, a speedy, unflappable quartet of American defenders — Kelley O'Hara, Rachel Buehler, Christie Rampone and Amy LePeilbet — combined with goalkeeper Hope Solo to keep Costa Rica out of the net. Solo played despite a slightly pulled right quadriceps that had been bothering her all week.
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 the winner of Friday's late game between Mexico and Canada.
The Americans had scored so easily in the tournament that it seemed odd to see the game scoreless until the 16th minute, when a set piece produced the first goal. Lauren Cheney's corner kick was headed down at the far post by Shannon Boxx. Goalkeeper Erika Miranda made the save but deflected the ball to Heath, whose looping header was her fifth career U.S. national team goal.
Costa Rica, outscored 34-0 in the seven previous games against the U.S., nearly tied the game after a giveaway by Buehler set up Fernanda Barrantes with a clean look from 15 yards in the 20th minute, forcing Solo to the ground to make the save.
Then, in the 27th, Carol Sanchez launched a 30-yarder that clanged off the frame at the intersection of the post and the crossbar. With Solo on the ground, Buehler fought off Barrantes to keep the striker from getting the rebound with a clean shot at an open net.
Costa Rica finally had its hopes deflated in the 72nd, when Abby Wambach's chip shot was cleared off the line by Daniela Cruz and out to Lloyd, whose left-footer from the top of the 18-yard box doubled the lead.
Morgan, a second-half substitute, chipped in the insurance goal shortly before the final whistle.
Even with the closer-than-expected result, the Americans have evoked the good old days at this tournament with their mostly lopsided scores. While that's hardly surprising given the slow development of women's soccer in parts of North and Central American and the Caribbean, it's also indicative the U.S. still have the deepest, most talented team in the world.
But Pia 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 have 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 a much anticipated rematch with Mexico to set up the semifinal against Costa Rica.
Joseph White can be reached at http://twitter.com/JGWhiteAP