By Michael Lewis
VANCOUVER, British Columbia -- The United States players didn't know what do first, celebrate or heave a giant sigh of relief.
The Americans outlasted Costa Rica 3-0 Friday night, qualifying for their fifth consecutive Olympics and easing anxious memories of 15 months ago.
The Central Americans gave the Americans their toughest game at CONCACAF Olympic women's qualifying, holding the United States - which had outscored its opposition 31-0 in three previous games -- to a lone goal for 71 minutes.
Tobin Heath, Carli Lloyd and second-half substitute Alex Morgan scored for the Americans, which next head to an anti-climactic Sunday final against arch rival Canada.
"We celebrated. It was the first time we celebrated [at the tournament]," goalkeeper Hope Solo said. "It was a sigh of relief. We gave hugs to everybody.
"You could tell it was all right. We are London bound. It was time to relax a little. We have a final match and its going to be a great game. And we're going to London."
The United States was the obvious favorite. Entering the match, the Americans not only had won each of the seven previous encounters against Costa Rica, they had not allowed a goal while scoring 34.
"It's a great feeling, no matter what the score line is," U.S. striker Abby Wambach said.
The Costa Ricans pressed for the entire first half, testing the U.S. defense and forcing the Americans into some errors not seen from them in the tournament.
"I think everybody can feel the immense, not pressure, but how big that game was," Wambach said. "The first half, we score a goal. But there were moments when Costa Rica was outplaying us.
"It just shows you how exactly it was important it was to all of us. Nobody wanted to make that mistake and luckily we didn't. We kept a clean sheet."
Goalkeeper Hope Solo did her part. Solo, who despite an aggravated quadriceps injury, was clear to play late in the day. She raced off her line to thwart an onrushing Raquel Rodriguez at the top of the penalty area in the 25th minute.
"That is Hope Solo," U.S. coach Pia Sundhage said. "No other country has Hope Solo. That was an important save."
Two minutes later, Carolina Sanchez stuck a 40-yard shot off the crossbar.
"That is a little bit of a momentum shifter," Wambach said. "They were excited and loud. They were very energetic on the field. They were excited. Credit to them for that."
Solo was just happy the United States maintained its lead.
"Going in at halftime in a one-nil game, it wasn't very comfortable for us," she said. "There could be a penalty kick at any moment.
"We can give up the ball. Anything can still happen. I had an actual flashback to the Japan game in the final of the [Women's] World Cup when we thought we had it. We thought it was our game to win, but we were proved differently."
The United States twice lost leads in the Women's World Cup final, late in regulation and then in extra time before succumbing on penalty kicks.
This time the Americans were not going to allow history to repeat itself.
Costa Rica coach Karla Aleman could not have been prouder of her players.
"For Costa Rica it has been a great honor of playing against the best team in the world, at the moment," she said. "These kinds of experiences are the ones that we need for Costa Rica to get better and grow.
"I'm not upset with my players. I'm very proud of them. They did a great job. I wish I could have had a chance with the national team T-shirt and wearing it."