CARSON, Calif. -- By being effective for 90 minutes against Mexico on Wednesday night, the United States earned 10 more months to work on being excellent.
Abby Wambach scored twice for Greg Ryan's team in the semifinal of the Gold Cup at the Home Depot Center. Wambach gave the United States all the offense it needed to beat Mexico 2-0 and earn a place in next year's World Cup in China, as well as Sunday's Gold Cup final against Canada. But as is the case in every game that doesn't involve the U.S. hoisting a trophy or accepting medals, the questions after the game focused on the artistic value and degree of difficulty of the win.
"I think it was a very difficult situation," Ryan said about what amounted to a one-game qualifying process. "I think what we got was a professional result."
Even at less than full strength, Wambach was front and center in getting that job done, both in terms of providing the margin of victory and serving as a stabilizing presence for the whole field.
Although she practiced with the team during Tuesday's light session, it wasn't entirely clear that Wambach would be available for the game after injuring her ankle in a game against Holland in the Peace Cup earlier this month. She left Tuesday's practice early for a precautionary MRI and said her availability would depend on how the ankle felt in the morning. But with a spot in the World Cup on the line, it was difficult to envision anything short of amputation keeping her off the field.
"Ankle held up very strong," Wambach said after the win. "Our training staff did a fantastic job ever since we came into camp last Wednesday. It was a bit sore, but I got an MRI yesterday and wasn't going to do any more damage to it. So psychologically I think that helped me."
Fittingly, both of Wambach's goals came more as a result of hustle and effort than sheer skill. After Kristine Lilly drew a foul on the sideline about 45 yards from Mexico's goal in the 10th minute, Cat Whitehill's free kick found Lilly just outside the box, where the captain lofted a pass to Carli Lloyd well inside the box. Mexico keeper Sophia Perez saved Lloyd's one-touch shot from close range but couldn't corral the rebound, giving Wambach just enough time to slide in and put the ball into the back of the net.
|2006 CONCACAF Women's Gold Cup Schedule|
Third-place game, Nov. 26
Mexico vs. Jamaica, 6 ET
Final, Nov. 26
Lilly and Wambach again teamed up on the second goal, this time more directly, when Lilly lofted a cross from near the corner flag in the 64th minute that Wambach guided inside the near post on a diving header with Mexico's Monica Gonzalez draped all over her.
"We've got great players in Abby and Lil who find ways to win games for us, and I think that was really evident again tonight," Ryan said.
One or the other has scored in 17 of the team's 21 games this year, giving the U.S. a consistent, veteran combination around which to work in young pieces.
"Her and I have developed chemistry over the course of playing with each other for the past couple of years," Wambach said. "And now that she is on the forward line, we have been able to develop really incredible chemistry."
The flip side, of course, is the danger of relying too heavily on Wambach and Lilly, and there were periods of Wednesday's game when, despite dominating possession, the U.S. didn't seem to have much of a plan for attacking the goal. Most glaringly, both teams had two shots on goal in the first half, and the U.S. finished with just a one-shot edge in the category.
"In terms of our play, we all know we could play better than we played tonight," Ryan said. "We could have possessed better, we could have supported each other better off the ball, we could have made better decisions on the ball, in the attacking third, in the middle third."
But Ryan didn't accept the notion that his team should have walked over Mexico, reminding the assembled media that Mexico knocked Canada out of Olympic qualifying in 2004.
"Mexico is a for real team," Ryan said, his voice rising almost imperceptibly in frustration, which is still saying something for a man as soft-spoken as he is stoic. "And for all the people that think that the USA is supposed to beat everybody 8-0 and this and that, and it's just wrong. You can keep believing that if you want to, but the fact is Mexico is a for real team right now."
Certainly, if the United States plays the same game next September against a team like Germany that it played against Mexico, the questions will be far more pointed because they'll likely come after a loss. If the United States isn't more adept at converting possession into chances, or if it gives up the same two or three runs down the flanks that Mexico did little with, trouble looms.
But perhaps the point is Ryan isn't playing next year's games right now. With players together in training for more than 200 days already this year, the team is working toward the identity that so many want it to have right now.
Only four players who were in the starting lineup for the final of the 2004 Olympics were in the starting lineup on Wednesday: Wambach, Lilly, Lindsay Tarpley and Chritine Rampone. Even with Shannon Boxx back from injury next year, more than half the starting lineup will be novices in that role in a major championship.
"I think that there are a bunch of us that this was our first World Cup qualifier," Tarpley said. "And of course, nerves are going to play a role. I think it just took us a couple of minutes to settle down, and it's a good game to have under our belts because the next time we play in a huge game this game's going to help us in the long run."
And from Tarpley creating some of the best chances the team had in the second half, before yielding to Heather O'Reilly in the 63rd minutes, to a couple of good overlapping runs from Lori Chalupny early in the game, there were many moments when the young players looked comfortable and cohesive.
The goal for this game, and the goal for this year, was to qualify for China, no matter how easy a task that was presumed to be. Beating Mexico, whether by two goals or eight goals, was the final piece of that puzzle. Facing questions for the next 10 months about whether or not this team is progressing at a sufficient rate to win the World Cup is fair game, but Wednesday was about getting the result that was needed.
"I can't say enough about the stress that is relieved qualifying for the World Cup," Wambach said. "Especially when you're projected to, and you're in a region where the CONCACAF tournament is one game and you're in."
Graham Hays is a regular contributor to ESPN.com's soccer coverage. E-mail him at Graham.Hays@espn3.com.