The U.S. is on its way to the Women's World Cup after beating Italy 1-0 Saturday on a first-half goal by Amy Rodriguez.
The Americans won the home-and-home playoff on 2-0 aggregate to earn the last spot in the 16-nation World Cup, which will be played June 26 to July 17 in Germany. The draw is Monday in Frankfurt.
"Obviously this was a little different road than we had expected," forward Abby Wambach told the crowd after the final whistle. "But this team has resilience. We never gave up. We never lost belief in ourselves."
The top-ranked Americans were in danger of missing the tournament they've won twice after a stunning upset loss to Mexico in the semifinals of regional qualifying. It was just their second loss since the 2007 World Cup, and first since the opening game of the Beijing Olympics, which the Americans went on to win.
"I think the country always thinks, 'Oh, the U.S. always goes, they're so good,"' Julie Foudy, part of the pioneering squad that won the 1991 and 1999 World Cups, said before the game. "When we stumble, they don't realize the rest of the world is getting much better."
Forced to beat Costa Rica in the regional third-place game and given a second chance with a playoff against the Azzurre, Europe's fifth-place team, the Americans — just barely — showed why they have been at the top of the game for two decades now.
When the final whistle sounded, several players raised their arms in triumph while the crowd of 9,508 roared.
Carrying a 1-0 aggregate lead after last weekend's victory in Padova, Italy, and needing only a win or a draw to advance, the Americans took a few minutes to settle in. Or maybe thaw out, with the gametime temperature 33 and the wind making it feel more like 25.
Their disorganization nearly got caught up with the Americans when Patrizio Panico was left unmarked at the edge of the 6-yard box. But Nicole Barnhart made the save easily and the U.S. finally found its groove, dominating possession and peppering Italian goalkeeper Anna Maria Picarelli — who grew up in Southern California — with a half-dozen chances.
Rodriguez and Megan Rapinoe both missed empty-netters, and Rapinoe skied another shot over the goal before the two combined for a score in the 40th minute. Rapinoe worked her way around two defenders before taking a left-footed angled shot. Picarelli blocked the shot, but the ball bounced right to Rodriguez, who poked it into the net from 6 yards out.
"I saw a scramble. I just went for it," Rodriguez said. "I think it's definitely made us stronger. I know that sounds cliche."
The score could have been even more lopsided, with Lauren Cheney hitting the crossbar in the 60th minute.
Italy coach Pietro Ghedin had given his team a "10 per cent chance" of beating the United States before the playoff series began — the U.S. has won 10 of their last 12 meetings — and the Azzurre were further hampered by the loss of striker Melania Gabbiadini. Gabbiadini, who has 22 goals in 71 appearances for Italy, including six during European qualifying, missed both games with a twisted ankle.