HOUSTON—Less than eight months after exiting the World Cup on home soil, Canada is poised to book its ticket Friday to women’s soccer other major—the Olympics.
Costa Rica stands in the way in the CONCACAF Women’s Olympic Qualifying Championship semifinal. Ranked 34th in the world, the Ticas are seen as a team on the rise. Still, the 11th-ranked Canadians would seem a significant cut above.
The top-ranked U.S. will face No. 48 Trinidad & Tobago in the later semifinal Friday at BBVA Compass Stadium. Both semifinal winners qualify for the Olympics, where Canada won bronze four years ago.
Coach John Herdman anticipates the Costa Ricans parking the bus in front of their goal.
“We’d expect them to probably throw a deep block out there and ask Canada to come and break us down,” he told the pre-match news conference. “We’ve had a lot of experience of that over the last three games—teams parking the bus and forcing us to be creative. So we’re in a good rhythm in that sense.”
If teams have parked the bus, they have left the windows and doors open.
Eleven different Canadians scored during the pool stage as Canada thumped No. 89 Guyana 5-0, Trinidad and Tobago 6-0 and No. 76 Guatemala 10-0.
“That’s the exciting part,” said Herdman. “Everyone coming out of the World Cup hammered us because we couldn’t score. We were one of the best defensive teams in the tournament. We didn’t get enough credit for that I don’t think but you never do for defending.
“I think we’ve got a new threat there,” he said of his attack.
Canada scored four goals and conceded three in five games at the World Cup where it exited in a 2-1 quarter-final loss to England.
Costa Rica made its World Cup debut last summer tying Spain 1-1 and South Korea 2-2 before losing 1-0 to Brazil.
The Ticas, who have never reached the Olympics, advanced to Friday’s semifinal by beating No. 108 Puerto Rico 9-0 and No. 26 Mexico 2-1 after an opening 5-0 loss to the U.S.
Herdman calls Costa Rica a well-organized team that has grown together.
“I think they genuinely believe they can go to Rio,” he said. “And that’s dangerous.
“Sometimes you come up against teams and you know in the pit of their stomachs, they know they can’t beat Canada. But I think this team believes they can, which can be a strength and a weakness.”
Costa Rica’s star player is Shirley Cruz, who plays for Paris Saint-Germain in France. Fellow midfielder Raquel Rodriguez Cedeno scored in Penn State’s 1-0 win over Duke in the NCAA Division I final and won the MAC Club Hermann Trophy as the top women’s college.
“They bring everything to life for Costa Rica,” said Herdman.
Canadian captain Christine Sinclair and goalkeeper Erin McLeod did not participate in the part of Thursday’s practice open to the media under sunny skies at a suburban complex. Herdman called it “just precaution.”
“This is such a big game for our country and for the team.”
Canada is 9-0 against Costa Rica, outscoring the Central Americans 30-3. The last meeting was a 5-1 win in Vancouver for Canada in qualifying for the London Olympics although a Canadian under-23 side, missing top players Kadeisha Buchanan and Ashley Lawrence, lost 2-0 to the senior Costa Rican side at the Pan American Games last summer.
Buchanan earned the latest in a line of accolades Thursday when the 20-year-old defender from Brampton, Ont., was named to the inaugural FIFPro Women’s World XI, as voted on by female players around the world. FIFPro is the global soccer players’ association.
Unlike the 24-team World Cup, the women’s Olympic field numbers just 12.
At the 2008 Games in Beijing, the Canadian women lost 2-1 after extra time to the U.S. Mexico upset Canada 2-1 in the semifinals of the CONCACAF qualifying tournament in Costa Rica for the 2004 Games. Canada did not make the 1996 or 2000 Olympics when the field was just eight and only one team (the U.S.) represented CONCACAF (North and Central America and the Caribbean).
Host Brazil, Colombia, France, Germany, New Zealand, South Africa and Zimbabwe have already qualified for Rio. The 12-team field will be completed by the two teams from CONCACAF, two from Asia and one of Netherlands, Norway, Sweden and Switzerland.