- Associated Press - Friday, January 27, 2012

VANCOUVER, British Columbia — So much was on the line for the U.S. women’s soccer team that maybe some jitters were understandable. When a 30-yard shot hit the frame of goalpost, leaving the ball sitting in front of an empty net, the hearts really started pounding.

“That,” defender Rachel Buehler said, “was a very intense moment in the game.”

Buehler motored in to save the day, knocking an opposing striker off the ball. The Americans had survived another dicey moment. It took a while, but eventually they wore down a heavy underdog and earned their spot in the Olympics.

The United States booked its 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.

“There were moments where I think Costa Rica were outplaying us, and it just shows you how important it was to all of us,” forward Abby Wambach said. “Nobody wanted to make that mistake. And luckily we didn’t.”

Tobin Heath scored in the 16th minute to give U.S. all the offense it needed, and goals by Carli Lloyd (72nd) and Alex Morgan (89th) put the game away.

“We know that sometimes under big game circumstances players can get a little tight,” Wambach said. “And you’ve just kind of got to deal with it. … It was almost as if we scored that goal and nobody wanted to get stuck into a tackle. We were kind of playing a little bit soft, and we fixed that in the second half.”

The top-ranked Americans were certainly not as crisp as they were when they were beating teams by a combined 31-0 in their previous three games and drawing criticism for running up the score. Sloppy passes led to giveaways in the first half, forcing goalkeeper Hope Solo to work harder than she has all tournament.

“When you play games that matter, everybody’s a little bit nervous. … We gave away the ball way too often,” coach Pia Sundhage said.

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 plucky team in red gained the rousing support of the Canadian fans at BC Place.

“We put together three great games in group play,” said Solo, who played despite a slightly pulled right quadriceps that had been bothering her all week. “You can’t play four, five, six. Not every team is going to play perfectly every single game, but we got the job done.”

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 U.S. 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.

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