CONCACAF Women's Olympic Qualifying: Canada 1, Costa Rica 0
Canada’s national women’s soccer team is headed to the Tokyo Olympics.
The Canadians did just enough to get by Costa Rica 1-0 in Friday’s semi-final of the CONCACAF Women’s Olympic Qualifying Championship in Carson, Calif. Teenager Jordyn Huitema scored in the 72nd minute to give Canada the win.
Canada has now qualified for every Olympic Games since 2008. They won back-to-back bronze medals in London in 2012 and 2016 in Rio.
“Going to the Olympics never gets old,” said captain Christine Sinclair. “Every one of those is a different story. We’re looking to get back on the podium.”
“Ever since we came out of the World Cup, we’ve been setting new goals,” said head coach Kenneth Heiner-Møller. “We definitely looked a little bit beyond the qualifying, because we want to be on the podium again. I do think that we’ve got the team for it.”
The top two teams in the qualifying tournament advance to this summer’s Olympic Games in Tokyo. The United States and Mexico play in Friday’s other semi-final for a chance at the second berth to the Olympics. Canada will face the winner of that match in Sunday’s final.
Canada, ranked eighth in the world, improves to 14-0-0 all-time against 37th-ranked Costa Rica, outscoring the Central Americans 46-6 over that stretch. But this was Canada’s closest margin of victory over Costa Rica since 2008.
Despite outscoring opponents by a 22-0 margin during the three group games, Canada struggled to get anything going offensively for most of the game. In fact, the team went into half-time with more yellow cards than shots.
“I think our performance in this tournament has been kind of consistent. There’s something about the performance today where you go, ‘ahh,’ “ Heiner-Møller groaned, indicating a touch of frustration with his team’s offensive game. “But you can tell the players definitely brought some nerves on the pitch.”
Heiner-Møller started his squad in a 3-5-2 formation, and although the Canadians dominated possession – at points holding a 70 per cent advantage – they failed to create any quality chances, especially during the first half.
“They set very, very deep. We didn’t get the room we looked for between the two lines,” said Heiner-Møller. “When we got it in there, we didn’t have space enough to actually turn on the pass, and it was a little bit too slow, so their centre back was stepping onto us.”
Huitema and Sinclair began the game as Canada’s two forwards, the seventh time Heiner-Møller has started the duo together. He began using the two together more towards the end of last year. They were both in Canada’s starting 11 in four of the team’s last five games of 2019.
“We have so many skilful players that we are able to rotate our starting players and keep everyone fresh, so come game time everyone is able to really perform and come out at 100 per cent,” said Huitema. “I think it really showed tonight how fresh, versatile and hungry our team was as we just pushed until that last whistle.”
However, Heiner-Møller changed tactics just after the 30th minute, shifting into the team’s more familiar 4-3-3 formation in an attempt to get more support up front. Canada registered its lone shot in stoppage time on a chance from Janine Beckie.
“Costa Rica made it difficult for us all game,” said Sinclair. “I thought we dominated. We just couldn’t put the ball in the back of the net.”
Despite the lull in Canada’s attack, Heiner-Møller made just one second half sub. In a bizarre move in the 64th minute, he took out Jessie Fleming, a key cog in Canada’s midfield, and brought in forward Deanne Rose. While Rose is an impactful player up front, Fleming had been moving the ball well and was one of the lone bright spots for Canada in the first half.
“We needed someone to break the line. There isn’t anyone better than Deanne Rose to make sure we do break the line,” said Heiner-Møller. “When she came on, the game was a little more stretched. We had room to play in behind, we got her in a few times… She definitely had a significant impact on the result in the end.”
HUITEMA THE HERO
Huitema finally broke the deadlock in the 72nd minute. Ashley Lawrence, Beckie and Rose combined for some nice passing down the right wing. Substitute Rose made her impact on the game with a great feed into the box for Huitema. But it was almost more frustration for Canada, as the 18-year-old initially hit the post. But the ball took a lucky bounce right back to her foot, and Huitema netted her 13th international goal.
“The first thing was, ‘How did she miss the first one?’” joked Sinclair. “And then when the ball bounced back through – we just needed that little bit of luck.”
Huitema now leads the tournament with seven goals in four games, with the United States still yet to play its semi-final. American Lindsay Horan is behind her with five goals.
There was plenty of rough stuff throughout the game, with several wild challenges from both sides, and a total of 30 fouls and four yellow cards.
Canada especially seemed to be getting frustrated in the first half. Sinclair picked up a rare yellow card in the fourth minute after an inadvertent elbow caught Mariana Benavides in the head. Later in the half, Allysha Chapman earned Canada’s second caution with an ill-timed slide just outside of Canada’s penalty area, but the ensuing Costa Rican free kick was easily cleared by the Canadians.
The most egregious yellow card was handed to Costa Rican Melissa Herrera in the 86th minute, when she purposefully shoved goalkeeper Stephanie Labbé to the ground when the goalkeeper was shielding the ball. Labbé made her second start of the tournament and earned her 34th career clean sheet. Canada still has yet to concede a goal through four games in 2020.