PADUA, Italy (CBS / AP) — Cal’s Alex Morgan, coming in as a second-half substitute, moved the United States a step closer to the women’s soccer World Cup by scoring a last-gasp goal for a 1-0 victory over Italy on Saturday in the first leg of a playoff to determine the final spot in next year’s tournament.

For the last month, Morgan has been traveling back and forth between her team at the University of California and the U.S. squad. She played the final game of her college career with Cal last weekend.

Morgan came on in the 85th minute against Italy and finished off a counterattack with an angled shot from the edge of the box in the fourth minute of added time.

“We were pushing up and looking for a goal and that’s what we did,” Morgan said. “Me and Abby (Wambach) stayed up, got a great long ball, flicked it on and I was there to finish it.”

Morgan also came off the bench to score a late equalizer in a 1-1 draw with China last month.

“Every goal has been big so far,” she said.

Using their advantage in physical stature, the top-ranked Americans threatened throughout but had trouble finding the target against the Azzurre’s well-organized defense.

In the final 10 minutes, Italy defenders cleared four shots off the line with their goalkeeper out of position.

“Even before they scored, we could have very well allowed a goal in the previous five minutes,” Italy coach Pietro Ghedin said. “We didn’t have any strength left and fatigue led to that goal.”

Italy is hoping to have key forward Melania Gabbiadini back from an ankle injury for the second leg next Saturday in Bridgeview, Ill.

“We’re not defeated. We lost today but we honored our jersey,” Ghedin said.

U.S. coach Pia Sundhage wanted to bring on Morgan earlier, but she grew cautious after she had to take out right back Heather Mitts in the 75th due to cramps, leaving only one more substitution.

“We were waiting and waiting and the bench said, ‘What the heck, let’s do it,'” Sundhage explained. “We’ve seen her come in and change games before and the only thing I told her was ‘Just go to goal. You don’t have to be tricky, you don’t have to be smart, just go to goal, because you’re faster than everybody else.'”

At 21, Morgan is the youngest member of the U.S. team and this was her fourth goal in eight appearances.

“I’ve been transitioning for the last year, but this is where I wanted to get and this is where I am now, so I look forward to staying with the national team for many years,” she said.

Morgan’s stock for January’s Women’s Professional Soccer League draft is surely rising fast.

“I hope so,” she said. “I’m looking forward to it.”

The match was played before about 5,000 fans on a gray and damp afternoon at the 30,000-seat Stadio Euganeo, with a small, but loud group of American fans from a nearby military base waving flags and shouting “USA, USA.”

Italian fans disrupted the match by setting off sporadic firecrackers.

The Americans were forced into the playoff when they were upset 2-1 by Mexico in the semifinals of their qualifying region.

(Copyright © 2010 CBS Broadcasting Inc. and The Associated Press. All rights reserved.)


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