HOUSTON -- With a hat trick from star striker Alex Morgan, the U.S. women's national soccer team's ticket to the 2016 Rio Olympics is booked.
The Americans secured their sixth consecutive trip to the Summer Games with a 5-0 victory over Trinidad & Tobago in the CONCACAF Olympic Qualifying Championship semifinals at BBVA Compass Stadium.
If it was an inevitable win, the reality of nailing a return trip to the Olympics felt no less good for a U.S. side that is younger and still hungry for more after its 2015 Women's World Cup title.
The U.S. joins Canada, which also qualified Friday night by defeating Costa Rica, 3-1, here on the stellar play of Christine Sinclair. The Canadian captain scored a pair of goals, in spite of a sore calf that knocked her out of the match after 70 minutes.
Canada and the U.S. will square off in the finals here on Sunday, but both North American rivals are through to Rio, along with Germany, France, New Zealand, Zimbabwe, South Africa, Colombia and Brazil.
"It's what these girls were really looking forward to coming in here,'' Canada coach John Herdman said about the U.S. vs. Canada final, adding: "This group is ready and hungry to take on the U.S. We're going to give them one hell of a fight as we always do and they're looking forward to. All Canadians look forward to it. We're ready for the fight.''
For the U.S., the job of qualifying took a turn toward completion just 12 minutes into the match. Tobin Heath kicked things off for the U.S., scoring what was unbelievably the crafty midfielder's first goal since the 2015 Women's World Cup. Heath was assisted by 17-year-old Mallory Pugh, who got her second Olympic qualifying start and continues to impress.
Morgan added the second U.S. goal at the 30-minute mark. The U.S. striker got the tap-in after defender Kelley O'Hara launched a pass in to Lindsey Horan. Stationed a few yards in front of the goal, Horan headed the ball back to the right side of the goal, where Morgan connected for her 60th career goal.
"I think we broke them down really well. Once we started having runs from behind and different waves of runs, we were able to break them down. Overall it was a really good team performance,'' Morgan said.
Carli Lloyd put the U.S. ahead 3-0 in the 43rd minute off a corner kick from Morgan Brian. The Houston Dash teammates connected and pleased the home crowd when Lloyd headed Morgan's corner ball into the grass and through the knees of T&T goalkeeper Kimika Forbes, who was too late collapsing to make the save.
Forbes had made some good saves to stave off what could have been a much worse U.S. onslaught. The goal was the 86th of Lloyd's career and the 23rd in the U.S. captain's past 18 games. It also was Lloyd's 12th career Olympic qualifying goal, two away from Abby Wambach's record.
Morgan's hat trick was completed in the second half, when the striker broke through in the 70th and 73rd minutes. She now has 62 international goals for the U.S. and seems more successful finishing her chances now that she's back to full health.
With the 2015 Women's World Cup title under their belt, and a bevy of roster changes based on retirements, pregnancies and injury to some familiar players, clinching the Olympic berth was exciting for the U.S. women. They say they're not short on incentives to keep them hungry.
"We are delighted that we punched our ticket, but I was really pleased tonight with how we played. It's certainly about scoring goals but I thought in the first half it was exceptional at times. For me, these are steps for how we want to play and tonight we made a big step forward,'' Ellis said.
Lloyd said that this summer, the U.S. women are looking to achieve another distinguishing feat. No women's national soccer team that has won the World Cup has gone on to win Olympic gold. Given the laser focus that this Lloyd-led squad thrives on, the U.S. women are eager to be the first team to win the World Cup and then the Olympic title back-to-back.
"No more saying we have to qualify,'' Lloyd said. "What I think everyone has to realize that this (win over Trinidad) is not very realistic. The games are going to open up. There's going to be transitions. We've got Canada next, we have tough matches in March, so there won't be any bunkers anymore and it will back and forth defending and attacking.''
The U.S. vs. Canada finale here on Sunday may seem a bit like an afterthought, given the relief both sides expressed after their clinching wins in the semis. But the matchup almost certainly will ignite fireworks between the North American rivals.
"We were pretty excited. It's not easy to qualify,'' Sinclair said, adding: "The teams in CONCACAF are getting better and better and when qualification comes down to one game, it's a huge relief when it's over and you know you're going to the Olympics. We'll enjoy it for a little bit but our job here isn't done. We've got another game here against the best team in the world.''
Sinclair, who is now the second-leading goal scorer in women's international soccer history after Wambach (184), demonstrated why she's so prolific. Sinclair stunned the crowd -- and her own coach -- with an amazing goal 52 minutes into the match against Las Ticas.
After Costa Rica failed to clear safely, Sinclair found herself with the ball in front of the box. She kept the ball in the air until she found an angle that worked, then flicked the ball over her head before volleying it past Costa Rica goalkeeper Dinnia Diaz. To add to the drama: The ball hit off the post before finding the back of the net. "I guess I decided to juggle it a little bit,'' Sinclair said.
The U.S. and Canada both agreed that the night was worth celebrating. Come Sunday, however, the intense rivalry should produce a fitting finale. It was in London during the 2012 Summer Games that the U.S. came away with a 4-3 win over Canada that, to this day, is called the greatest women's soccer match. The Olympics are secure, but bragging rights and more are up for grabs.