by Tim Grainey
This week, we review the final group games and the semifinals and final of the CONCACAF Women’s Olympic Qualifying Tournament in Vancouver B.C.
CONCACAF Olympic Qualifying Tournament Update
The United States defeated Canada 4-0 on Sunday evening, January 29 at Vancouver’s B.C. Place Stadium to claim the title of CONCACAF Olympic Qualification Tournament champions. The game was never in doubt after thirty minutes as Alex Morgan (one goal and two assists) and Abby Wambach (two goals and one assist) destroyed the hopes of the sold out crowd of 25,427. Alex Morgan added a second goal just before the hour mark.
The Americans speed, led by Morgan’s incredible acceleration, was the difference in a game that was less than 48 hours from both teams’ emotional semifinal victories that booked their Olympic tickets for London 2012 this summer. Wambach finished the tournament with 131 international goals, surpassing former teammate Kristine Lilly and now trails FIFA’s all-time leader Mia Hamm, who has 158.
The Americans, scoring 38 goals with none allowed in five games, also sent a message to the other Olympic Games qualifiers with their emphatic win over a galvanized and reinvigorated Canadian side led by head coach John Herdman. The Americans clearly signaled that they will be a force in London.
Japan, though worthy champions last summer at the Women’s World Cup, will face a powerful and creative attacking team that is playing better than ever in Pia Sundhage’s new 4-2-3-1 alignment. Even with the unfortunate injury to starter Ali Krieger, the defense has the experience and depth to come up with a solid and cohesive line, with 2011 World Cup veterans Christie Rampone, Rachel Buehler, Amy LePeilbet and Becky Sauerbrunn providing a tremendous platform to build from.
On Friday, January 27, the critical tournament semifinals were held, in which only the two winners would advance to the Olympic Games. Both of the favorites to move on, the Americans and the Canadians, were targeting the London Olympic Games as redemption. For the U.S., it was a chance to reclaim a major title, having lost last year’s World Cup final in penalty kicks to Japan. They also are the defending Olympic Games champions, having won the gold medal by defeating Brazil in overtime in Beijing four years ago. For Canada, London represented an opportunity to show that their shocking World Cup performance last summer--when as a favorite for a quarterfinal spot or beyond, they lost their first round matches to Germany, France and Nigeria and finished last among the 16 teams--was an uncommon aberration. Head Coach Caroline Morace hightailed it back to Italy and the Canadian Soccer Association lured New Zealand’s Women’s Head Coach John Herdman north to plot a course through the wreckage. However, both teams had to win their semifinal to get to England and dream of success there.
In the first match, the U.S. held up their end of the quest. Midfielder Tobin Heath, who had only played one half of the first game of the tournament against the Dominican Republic, gave the Americans the lead in the 16th minute. Midfielder Shannon Boxx started the play when she headed a corner kick towards goal that Heath then nodded in from right in front of the net. Costa Rica had their chances, with the closest coming when Daniela Cruz--who plays collegiately at West Florida University--hit the crossbar with a bullet shot from over 30 yards in the 27th minute as goalkeeper Hope Solo desperately tried to reach it. It was not until the 72nd minute that the U.S. added breathing space, as Abby Wambach broke away from her defenders. Her shot should have been well saved by goalkeeper Erika Miranda but she jumped too soon and the ball tipped off her hands and headed towards the goal. Daniela Cruz hustled back and cleared the ball off the line but in the ensuing scramble, Carli Lloyd banged home her sixth goal of the tournament. Alex Morgan scored the third goal for the U.S. in the 89th minute with a smart flick of the ball off her left foot after a long solo dribble. The goal was Morgan’s second of the tournament. The final shots on goal tally, 8-7 for the U.S., reflected that this was indeed a difficult test for the reigning Olympic Champions, though the total shot tally of 29-10 in favor of the Americans reflected their advantage in possession and their attacking mentality.
After the match, Head Coach Pia Sundhage summed up the match when she said: “I always say I respect the game and the opposition and this is the proof. You can't take anything for granted. We score a lot of goals but Costa Rica, they came out and played well, played hard. Eventually, we had three goals. Despite [that] the first goal fell in quickly, we struggled a little bit. It became an emotional game more so than a technical game and we are going to London.” Sundhage also talked how her defense seemed tentative at first, “When you play games that matter, everyone is a little bit nervous; which is actually a good thing because if you can deal with that, which we did, eventually you have a better chance of winning the next game. We gave the ball away too often. The movement off the ball was not as good as I had hoped.” To be fair, the team was still trying to adjust to the loss of starting back Ali Krieger to knee ligament damage during their first game against the Dominican Republic. To replace Krieger, Sundhage started forward/midfielder Kelley O’Hara, who had never before played right back and had only played the second match of the event against Guatemala. Sundhage felt that she played “okay,” that she brought “attacking personality but needs coaching defensively.” Coach Sundhage added that her coaching staff will continue to explore different options in the back four over the coming months.
In the nightcap, the Canadians sealed their own ticket for possible redemption next summer with a well-played 3-1 victory over Mexico. Christine Sinclair settled the Maple Leafs’ nerves early with her eighth goal of the tournament in the 15th minute, with an assist from fellow forward Melissa Tancredi. Eight minutes later, Canada was ahead by two when Tancredi scored from midfielder Kelly Parker’s assist. Canada played fluently, patiently and maintained possession of the ball, which is usually Mexico’s forte, thus limiting the amount of touches for their opponents. In the second half, Canada dominated for the first 15 minutes before Mexico had some pivotal attacking moves, culminating in Veronica Perez’ 67th minute grass cutter from beyond the top of the box. Goalkeeper Karina LeBlanc had saved a dangerous corner from Monica Ocampo but could only punch it away, where Perez steamed in and powered the ball through a forest of bodies into the net. Canada dealt with the increased pressure and intensity from the Mexicans and nine minutes later had sealed the victory when Sinclair ran onto a brilliant thirty yard pass from Tancredi and launched a lob over advancing Mexican keeper Cecilia Santiago. Afterwards, a jubilant Canadian team took a lap of honor in front of a crowd of 22,954, the largest ever (prior to Sunday’s final) for a CONCACAF Olympic qualifier.
Head Coach John Herdman explained after the game that it had been an emotional game for his squad but, “We are going to London.” Herdman was very excited for his players: “It's been an amazing journey. These players are a wonderful bunch. They're an inspiration to their country. They knew what they had on their shoulders tonight. It’s no way they were going to let Mexico trip them over in their own country, in their own stadium, in front of their own fans. That was the energy that you see. That's what was driving them tonight.”
Mexican head coach Leonardo Cuellar was very gracious in defeat, saying that Canada would represent CONCACAF well in London. He said that as a team, “Canada is very good, but Sinclair was in another world.” He explained, “[Sinclair] was the difference. For me, what she means to her team and the things that she does, her composure, her guidance, the way she smells the play, her savvy, no question that’s one of the best players in the world.” Cuellar also said that he was “proud of his team’s effort and that we’re were going through a change of generation and with experiences like this, they will build for the future and hopefully we can be better contenders for the next qualification matches for World Cup, Olympics and Pan American games.”
Cuellar had suggested earlier that Mexican fans could outnumber the Canadians, after a large portion in the 7,599 crowd against the American on Wednesday was supporting his team. Cuellar joked after the semifinal, “I guess there was a big campaign after my comment. You make it sound like I didn’t think the Canadian people care for their team but obviously they do and we knew that. It’s just hoping to invite our Mexican fans to be here. We feel bad because we didn’t have a chance to please them with the result that they wanted, but if this game is in Mexico City, we would have a hundred thousand Mexicans there.” Seriously he meant no offense to his guests, but just wanted to get the word out to welcome any Mexican fans in the area to come and support the team for the semifinal. Canadian midfielder Brittany Timko, who played collegiately at the University of Nebraska, emphasized how important the vast Canadian support was to them, “We waited a long time to be able to play in front of our hometown crowd and they’ve just been phenomenal in this tournament, so I think it’s a really good thing for us to have home games in Canada, especially for such a big tournament.” The crowds that built for Canada’s game as the tournament progressed is an important step as the country coalesces momentum and support for the 2015 World Cup which they will host. Vancouver’s B.C. Place Stadium is expected to stage one of the premier games, such as the Opening Game or the Final.
Group Third Day Matches
On Monday January 23 and Tuesday January 24, the final CONCACAF Olympic Qualifying Tournament group matches were held. After the second round of matches, the semifinalists were determined—Canada, Costa Rica, Mexico and the U.S.--but the last group matches between the four teams that had each won their first two games would finalize placement and their semifinal opponents. The U.S. would face Costa Rica and Canada would play Mexico in the second semifinal at Vancouver’s B.C. Place Stadium, after the third round results.
On Monday in Group A, Canada defeated Costa Rica 5-1. Canada started fast, playing with confidence and purpose, and gave Costa Rica little room to maneuver. Christine Sinclair scored in the 6th minute, followed by Sophie Schmidt’s goal in the 10th minute. Kaylyn Kyle had a brilliant header from Sinclair’s short cross from the edge of the box in the 19th minute. Sinclair scored again in the 45th minute, her 129th career goal and 7th of the tournament. Canada added to their lead in the 50th minute when Costa Rican defender Marianne Ugalde played an easy ten yard ball back to her goalkeeper Julieth Arias, who let the slow back pass slide under her foot and roll into the net. The Ticos scored late in the game through an excellent Fernanda Barrantes half-volley past Canadian goalkeeper Karina LeBlanc. This was the first goal that Canada had conceded during the tournament and they finished with three wins in their three group games and 13 goals for with one against. Costa Rica had two wins and one loss in three matches with five goals for and five conceded.
In the other match, Haiti defeated Cuba 3-0. Kimberly Boulos, Manoucheka Pierre Louis and Nadia Valentin all scored second half goals for the Haitians, who finished the tournament with one win and two losses, with three goals for and eight against. Cuba lost all three games and did not score while giving up seven goals.
Cuba became one of the stories of the tournament for an incident off the field as two of their players—22 year old midfielder Yisel Rodriguez and 20 year old forward Yezenia Gallardo—snuck away from their hotel and fled in a cab to the U.S. border, located less than an hour away. Once on U.S. soil, the players sought political asylum, which is usually granted to Cubans once they set foot on American soil. Though past CONCACAF men’s tournaments in Canada and the U.S. have seen players defecting, including the Seattle Sounder’s Osvaldo Alonso who defected after a Gold Cup match in Seattle some years ago, this is the first time we have seen it on the women’s side. Rodriguez has a brother in Miami and though she hasn’t seen him since she was six, she has reportedly gone there to reunite with him. Rodriguez was one of the leading players on the young Cuban side in their tournament and wants to continue her career in the U.S. Gallardo, two years younger, scored half of Cuba’s ten goals in qualifying for the finals from the Caribbean zone and could be of interest to a number of college sides. It will be interesting to see if both players end up with college or W-League/WPSL teams.
On Tuesday in Group B, the U.S. exacted revenge over neighboring Mexico, defeating their neighbors to the south by a 4-0 scoreline. It was just over a year ago that Mexico defeated the U.S. 2-1 in the CONCACAF World Cup Qualifying Tournament semifinals that forced the Americans to playoff with Italy for a final World Cup spot. Carli Lloyd had a hat trick with goals in the 7th, 57th and 86th minutes while Heather O’Reilly scored in the 8th minute. The U.S. outshot the Mexicans 17-4 and had 9 shots on goal to none for their opponents. The U.S. advanced to the semifinal versus Costa Rica with an astounding 31-0 goals advantage in their three tiffs—averaging over ten goals a game. Mexico finished with six points on two wins and the single loss, with 12 goals scored and 4 against.
In the other Group B game, Guatemala defeated the Dominican Republic 6-0 with a hat trick from Wendy Pineda, two goals from Maria Monterroso and a single tally from Ana Lucia Martinez. Guatemala had three goals within the first nine minutes and overall had a 33-3 shots advantage over the Dominican Republic; 18-1 for shots on goals. Guatemala finished with one win and two losses and six goals scored with 18 against. The Dominican Republic finished with three losses, no goals for and 27 against.
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