By Michael Lewis | Feb. 19, 2016, 10:30 p.m. (ET)


HOUSTON -- So, just how good is the U.S. women’s national soccer team?

Well, the Americans are so good they can afford to bench a player who scored five goals the previous game, replace her with a 17-year-old, and still win a decisive Olympic qualifying game.

That was the case on Friday night as teenager Mallory Pugh replaced Crystal Dunn in the lineup and played a key role in the team’s opening two goals en route to a 5-0 win over Trinidad & Tobago.

The victory in the CONCACAF Women’s Olympic Qualifying Championship semifinals sends Team USA to the Rio de Janeiro 2016 Olympic Games, where it will look to defend its Olympic gold medal and become the first FIFA Women’s World Cup champion to win the next year’s Olympic gold medal.

“We are delighted we have booked our ticket,” said a smiling U.S. coach Jill Ellis. “I was really pleased on the way we played.”

The Americans dominated the action at BBVA Stadium, taking a 3-0 lead into halftime. Striker Alex Morgan led the way with her third career hat trick while Tobin Heath and captain Carli Lloyd added one goal apiece.

“Alex wants to push her game,” Ellis said. “She’s hungry. She’s a poacher.”

Pugh, who will attend UCLA in the fall, was impressive early on with her passing and ball movement in place of midfielder-forward Dunn, who scored five goals in the 10-0 win over Puerto Rico in the final Group A encounter.

“I knew she was ready,” Ellis said. “It was kind of what we wanted to see.”

Dunn, who was one of the final cuts from last year’s team that won the Women’s World Cup, came on as a 66th-minute sub. She said she was just happy to be along for the ride and contribute.

“It’s an intense environment at all times,” said Dunn, who has scored six goals in four games. “You don’t know when you’re going to play or when you’re not, so you’ve just got to be prepared.”

Given her performance and versatility shown in the CONCACAF tournament, Dunn is expected to be an important component for Team USA in Brazil in August.

“I’m super excited,” she said. “I think the team performed really well tonight. So it’s obviously good to qualify and to go out with a bang. We still have one more game, but it’s very soothing that we booked our ticket.”

That last game is the tournament final against rivals Canada, who clinched a spot in Rio with a 3-1 victory over Costa Rica. Remember, the Americans and Canadians played a game for the ages in the semifinals at the London 2012 Olympic Games, with Team USA prevailing 4-3 in one of the great women’s international matches of all time.

“It’s just a derby,” Canada coach John Herdman said. “It’s what these girls were really looking forward to. We use the analogy of being in Houston and great things can happen here. We used Kennedy’s speech as a bit of a motivation to do the unthinkable and the unachievable.”

Herdman meant the late U.S. President John F. Kennedy’s speech from the 1960s about reaching the moon. NASA’s Johnson Space Center, based in Houston, led the Apollo missions that landed the first humans on the moon.

“We said that there’s one group that’s going to put us on the moon, and there’s a group in two days time that is going to take us home safely,” Herdman said. “It’s a group ready hungry ready to play against the U.S. We’re going to give them one helluva fight like we always do.”

U.S. goalie Hope Solo said the Americans, who are now 17-0-1 overall in Olympic qualifying while outscoring opponents 96-4, will be ready.

“USA-Canada always tends to be a bloodbath,” she said. “I don’t think it’s the prettiest game when we play Canada.”

Michael Lewis, who covers soccer for Newsday, has written about the sport for four decades and has written six books about soccer. He is a freelance contributor to TeamUSA.org on behalf of Red Line Editorial, Inc.