Ticket to Tokyo: Canada weathers tough start, rides Huitema goal to punch ticket to 2020 Olympics

Canada’s Women’s National Team continued its strong run of games on Friday, beating Costa Rica by a score of 1-0 to officially qualify for the 2020 Olympics, which will be held in Tokyo later this year. It wasn’t as pretty as Canada would have liked, but they did enough to get through on the evening, riding a second-half Jordyn Huitema goal to an eventual victory. 

Reserve them a spot, Tokyo. 

Around 40 extra people are going to be coming in your direction on a direct flight from the country just north of the 49th parallel later this year. 

For the 4th consecutive cycle, Canada’s Women’s National Team has qualified for the Olympic Football tournament, as they officially punched their way through to this summer’s edition of the tournament, beating Costa Rica in an all-important ‘win and you’re in’ tie down in Los Angeles. 

“Of course (it’s special),” Canada’s captain, Christine Sinclair, said after the game to OneSoccer. “Going to the Olympics never gets old. Every one of us has brought a different story, experience. We’re looking to get back onto the podium, but we had to get there first.”

Thanks to a crucial second-half winner by Jordyn Huitema, the current goalscoring leader of this qualifying tournament, Canada will be among the world’s best nations come August, as they chase their first-ever major tournament win. 

After a slow start to this game, Canada woke up in the second half, as they would slowly find their footing, before Huitema, currently of Paris Saint Germain, delivered the knockout blow in the second half. 

From there, she and her team would have the poise of a veteran fighter, carefully diverting Costa Rican efforts en route to a stingy result, one that might not have been a Picasso, but one that was enough to get them to the heights they hoped to eventually reach when they came into this tournament. 

“Costa Rica made it difficult for us all game,” Sinclair said. “I thought we dominated, but we just couldn’t put the ball into the back of the net, and to finally get one, we were solid defensively, we weren’t going to give up a goal at that point.”

The game may have started without a hitch down in Los Angeles, but for many north of the border, that wasn’t the case, as the streaming service onesoccer crashed right before kick off, remaining down until the second half.

Luckily for those who were affected, the match started out nice and slowly, with both teams seeming to feel the pressure of the ‘win and you’re in’ nature of this game. Besides a couple of half-chances, including an ambitious Rocky Rodriguez 50 yard chip in the 28th minute, neither team found a way to scare the opposing number in what was shaping up to be a cagey affair. 

Despite this lack of offensive punch early on, both teams were not short of physical gumption, with many players laying out some bone-crunching tackles early on. Allysha Chapman and Jessie Fleming caught a pair of Costa Ricans with some tough challenges, with Chapman earning a yellow for her efforts, while Costa Rica’s Katherine Alvarado tumbled right through Canada’s Sophie Schmidt, forcing the ref to give her a caution.

Canada would arguably get the best chance of the half, right at the end of proceedings, with Jordyn Huitema doing well to play Janine Beckie into space. The Manchester City product did well to take on her defender 1 on 1, cutting outside before slicing inwards onto her left foot, but her shot was unable to really test Costa Rica’s Noelia Bermudez in goal. 

All-in-all, it was an uninspiring start to the game, especially for the Canadians. The Costa Rican’s had them right where they wanted, but it was hoped that Canada could have come out stronger, with their Olympic hopes on the line in this one. Despite a wealth of attacking options on the pitch, they looked deflated, unable to pierce through the Costa Rican backline, making for what was a pretty dire half overall. 

With the looming possibility of the ‘5 Rings’, it was hoped that Canada could find some offensive life, and in a hurry, to avoid a potential big upset against a team ranked nearly 30 spots lower than them in the FIFA rankings.

Spurred on by this potential of Olympic glory, Canada found some offensive life early on in the second half, as they started to push Costa Rica further and further down the pitch. Huitema came close in the 57th minute, as she slalomed her way into the box, but her left-footed strike was blocked nicely by a defender, keeping things close. 

The floodgates weren’t quite opening, but they were cracking at the seams, as Canada continued to pile up the chances. Janine Beckie would find herself wide open at the back post in the 60th minute, and Allysha Chapman did well to find her, but Beckie would slash her volley just wide. 

But shortly after, with the chances piling up, Canada would find their breakthrough. Mere minutes after Schmidt just sent a tight angled strike over the goal, Les Rouges would put together their best sequence of passing all game, with Janine Beckie playing Deanne Rose into the space behind the Costa Rica defence, after her, Rose and Ashley Lawrence had done well to open up that space in the first place.

And with Huitema all alone in the box, Rose would curl a lovely low ball right into the feet of the PSG star, who had only Bermudez to beat. She would do just that, hitting the ball beyond the keeper, but she would find herself foiled by the woodwork.

Luckily for her, however, the ball would bounce right back to her, and she made no mistake in front of an empty net, giving her nation a chance to collectively catch its breath with the goal. After a tough start to the game, Canada had found their legs, and just in time, with a ticket to Tokyo looming ever so large.

“The first thing was (in my mind): how did she miss the first one?” Sinclair joked. “And then when the ball bounced back to her, we just needed that little bit of luck.”

It wouldn’t be all the game would yet have to offer, however, as Costa Rica would come close in the 82nd minute via second-half substitute Gloriana Villalobos, who would volley just over, before Huitema came close with an ambitious chip minutes later, keeping the game tight as the minutes wound down. 

But beyond that, that would eventually be all she wrote for this one, as Canada would do enough to stimy their Central American foes the rest of the way, riding out the rest of the 90 to punch their tickets to Tokyo. It might have not been the way they drew up a victory, but they got the result they needed, and now they can start planning for what promises to be another solid Olympic tournament. 

Luckily for them, with their qualification now assured, they have time to start preparing for what are going to be bigger and stronger tests in Japan, with a chance to be Olympic medallists on the line. It won’t be easy, but Canada has so far done what they need to do in order to be there this summer, which can often be half of the battle for teams looking to achieve Olympic supremacy.

In the Mixer: 

  • Canada continues to be Jekyll and Hyde offensively. One day they’ll blow the doors off of their opponents, and the next they’ll struggle to even get the ball into the final third, as was the case in this one. At this point, it’s clear that there is a disconnect there, mostly from a tactical standpoint, as despite all of the top attacking players at their disposal, they seem uninspired when in possession. Too often, the players would find themselves both too narrow and immobile in possession, making it hard to open up their opponents. Against top opposition, that won’t cut it, and it’s something that they need to fix urgently, because if not, it’s hard to imagine them doing much at this summer’s Olympics. 
  • Kenneth Heiner Moller only made 1 substitute in this game, which is surprising for a team with so much attacking depth. The one move he made, which was to bring in attacker Deanne Rose, worked marvellously, as she would help tee up their opening goal, making it even more shocking that Canada elected to stand put on their changes after that. You don’t need to make a substitution just for the sake of making one, but when you have quality options up and down the lineup, it can be a good way to get some life back into your team, which Canada surely needed at times in this one. 
  • One positive throughout this tournament has been Canada’s play on the defensive end of the ball, as they once again kept a clean sheet in this one, keeping their perfect defensive record this tournament intact. With plenty of reason to be worried about the defence heading into this competition, Canada has quickly abated those worries, returning to their early-2019 defensive form. Until they figure out their offensive woes, just having that solid spine will be huge, as it gives them a bit of protection in cases where they struggle offensively, as they did early on in this one. 
  • At the very least for Canada, their to-do-list is quite simple, as the fixes remain clear. They need to be less static when in possession, they need to control the midfield more, and they need to continue to play through wide areas when possible. To get to those all-important wide areas, that will mean having better midfield play, along with more on and off-the-ball movement, which is why all of these ideas intersect rather nicely. While a question could certainly be asked of personnel, as Canada’s deployment of its players could certainly be playing a role in their struggles, just watching them attack does spell out the crux of the problem, as they were too often caught looking very immobile in the attack. Too often, someone would receive a ball without any support, with Canada both unable to provide their teammates with options, but at the same time, they were unable to spread out the play and open up space. It’s a lot of work to do, but that sort of effort can separate a good offensive team from a great one, as everyone has to be willing to work hard to open up space for others. If Canada is unable to find a way to rectify that, it’s hard to imagine this problem solving itself, especially against top opposition, who will be thrilled to defend against a team that doesn’t always push a defence as hard as it could. 

Looking Forward

It’ll be a short turnaround for Canada, who will play in the final of this qualifying tournament on Sunday, with a chance to win some silverware on the line. Having never done that, losing to the US in the last 3 finals in this tournament, they’ll be motivated to win that one, as they look to add some hardware to their trophy cabinet. 

After that, it’ll be time to start preparing for the Olympics, which get underway in late July and early-August. With 5-6 months until then, that gives them plenty of time to get games and training sessions in, allowing them to work on the holes that are currently present in their game, as they look to make some noise in Tokyo. 

And make no qualms about it, they do have a chance to win this summer, but they’ll need to be at the top of their game. Based on the calibre of this squad, there is certainly another level that can still be reached, one that could see them coming home with a podium finish, but from what we’ve seen so far, they haven’t quite reached that gear yet. 

So now, the quest towards finding that mythical gear continues. This program has always seemed close to finding it, and that hasn’t quite changed here, but for all we know this could be the year they do end up reaching it, so we’ll be keeping a close eye on them to see how they do in that quest. 

But until then, there is still a lot of football to be played, starting with Sunday. As of the time of this article being published, their opponent is yet to be confirmed, but when it is, it’s sure to be a tough test, be it the favoured US or a plucky Mexico, so they’ll have to be sharp if they want to bring home more than just Christine Sinclair’s recent record and the Tokyo Qualification back to Canada.

Cover Photo by: Canada Soccer/Mexsport

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