The Texas Triple: Canada sweeps group in Olympic Qualifiers, setting up ‘win and you’re in’ semi-final in LA

They weren’t as bombastic as they were in their first two victories, as they only beat Mexico by a score of 2-0, but it was enough to push Canada to the top of Group B at Olympic Qualifying, setting them up with a date against Costa Rica on Friday, with Olympic dreams on the line in that one. 

It wasn’t a stack of carefully broiled barbeque, but Canada completed its ‘Texas Triple’ on Tuesday, sweeping Group B play to set up a matchup with Costa Rica on Friday.

They scored two first-half goals, one by the freshly minted top international goal scorer of all time, Christine Sinclair, and a rare goal from their centre back, Shelina Zadorsky, riding that lead all the way to the finish line. 

After winning their first two games by a combined score of 20-0, it wasn’t quite the dominant offensive performance they’ve become accustomed to in Texas, but it was enough to get them to where they want to be, as the tournament now shifts over to LA for the knockout rounds.

“I think we pride ourselves in being a tight team,” Zadorsky said to OneSoccer after the game. “Having that Canadian DNA of just going hard and being really gritty, and I think we’ve shown that so far, but we know there’ll be a lot of dangerous forwards we’ll come up against in these next couple of games, so we really got to keep it tight, and keep this momentum.”

Mexico started the game out strongly, bringing the action to Canada, who seemed a bit tentative to start this hugely important matchup. They were nearly made to pay for that mentality early, as Mexico pushed forward with intent, coming closest off an unmarked Renae Cuellar header that whizzed harmlessly past the far post. 

That would serve as a bit of a wake-up call for Canada, who looked static in possession to start the game. But after failing to break down Mexico across the first 25 minutes of play, they finally found their breakthrough just after the halfway point of the first half, as they found some joy down the flanks. 

With Jayde Riviere and Janine Beckie combining nicely down the right side of the pitch, it opened up space for Riviere slam a beautiful cross for Christine Sinclair to volley home first-time for her 186th goal for Canada, as she slowly widens her lead atop the all-time international top scorers list. 

Yet despite that opening marker, the floodgates were unable to fully push open for Canada, who were just unable to break down the Mexican defence. They were just too immobile in possession, seeming uninspired when they pushed the ball towards the final third, which is surprising to see from a team with so much offensive punch. 

But despite struggling to create chances throughout most of the first half, they found another glimpse of light in the 41st minute, with Canada’s midfielders combining nicely to tee up Janine Beckie, who sent the ball off the crossbar from 25 yards out to give Mexico a scare. While she didn’t score, it showed the quality Canada can have when they took the time to fizz a couple of passes around, without mentioning the individual quality of players like Beckie. 

Pushed on by the close call, it would give them the confidence to double their lead right at the stroke of half time, as they found their second off of a set-piece. It wasn’t the prettiest of goals, as centre back Shelina Zadorsky looped a left-footed shot towards the back post, set up after a nice pass from fellow centre back Kadeisha Buchanan, with the shot slipping it’s way into the back of the net, aided by a nice screen of the Mexican goalkeeper, Emily Alvarado, by Nichelle Prince.

“I bring it back to our team, and how dangerous offensively we’ve been throughout the tournament,” Zadorsky said after the game. “There’s been so many goalscorers, so I feel lucky to be one of them now.”

Heading into the break, it wasn’t a bad half for Canada, who did well enough to mostly contain the Mexican offensive threat, but it just wasn’t enough, especially going forward, as they seemed devoid of ideas at times. After looking so confident in front of goal to start this tournament, they weren’t even able to get the ball there much, as Mexico did well to stem the red Canadian attacking wave that many expected to take over the match, as it did in the previous outings over this past week. 

And once the second half kicked off, Mexico wouldn’t completely go away, either, as they remained persistent in their pursuit of an opening goal. Second-half substitute Kiana Palacios found herself open to the right of Stephanie Labbe’s goal in the 54th minute, and she put a laser bolt of a strike on goal, but Canada’s goalkeeper stood strong to the shot, making a great save to keep her clean sheet intact.

That wouldn’t be the last we would hear of Labbe, as well, with Mexico continuing to fervently chase an opener. Daniela Espinosa came close in the 76th minute, opening up space to strike with her left foot from outside the box, but Labbe was equal to the task, getting low in a hurry to push the danger away. 

Not to be outdone, Canada would then generate a few chances of their own, as they looked to finish the match off strongly. Second-half substitute Rebecca Quinn sent a strong right-footed strike just over the bar in the 77th, before Nichelle Prince sent the ball just wide at the near post, after being played into space by Jessie Fleming. 

And, despite a late push for their 3rd, as Jordyn Huitema and Nichelle Prince were both denied at point-blank range by Alvarado deep into stoppage time, they would escape without any further worry, leaving with a comfortable 2-0 result.

It now leaves them with a date in Los Angeles on Friday, where their Olympic hopes will be on the line against the 2nd place team in Group A, a plucky Costa Rica side. Canada did what they needed to do to escape with all 9 points, while still learning several important lessons for the bigger games to come, because positive scoreline aside, they showed signs of rust that have yet to be worked out of their game. 

If they can find a way to be more cohesive offensively, while still remaining defensively stout, it’s a game that they should win rather handily, but as we’ve seen so far, finding that balance hasn’t been easy, as Kenneth Heiner Moller now takes the next 2 days to ponder over the best ways to do that. Against Costa Rica, they’ll be expected to win, but as we’ve seen over the years at this tournament, nothing’s ever a guarantee, so Canada will need to bring their A-game.

“It means everything,” Zadorsky said of the possibility of making the Olympics. “We came here to get 9 points in the group stage, and now we want to go and qualify (for the Olympics), and we want to win the tournament. We’ve set the bar high for ourselves, and we know the competition keeps getting harder and harder, so we got to reflect, and keep perfecting our performances.”

Concacaf Women’s Olympic Qualifying Championship 4 February 2020 – Edinburg, TX, USA Canada Soccer by Mexsport Christine Sinclair goal celebration (with Nichelle Prince, Desiree Scott, Gabrielle Carle)

In the Mixer:

  • Lots of questions up front for Canada. Nichelle Prince was quiet in her return to the lineup in this one, while Sinclair and Beckie were reliable as usual in their posts. From what we’ve seen so far, Beckie and Sinclair look to be the only guaranteed starters on Friday, while the 3rd spot will likely be up for grabs between Adriana Leon and Jordy Huitema, who both looked good in the first two games. Maybe Canada will shift to a 4-4-2 to accommodate them both, but even if they don’t, just having that firepower off the bench is a positive asset to have in the back pocket. 
  • The midfield remains a question mark for Canada, as they still try to figure out their best alignment. In a midfield 3, they were solid with Jessie Fleming, Desiree Scott and Sophie Schmidt, but were unable to progress the ball forward as much as you would have liked, which hurt Canada at times. Plugging Ashley Lawrence helps, but the only question would be for who, as all 3 bring something different to the midfield. Figuring out which of the 3 drops out won’t be easy for Heiner Moller, but it will be a necessary move to make, as Canada figures out how to best use the players at their disposal. 
  • Defensively, Canada has actually been solid for the most part, as the Kadeisha Buchanan-Shelina Zadorsky pair has worked well. They seem comfortable with each other, they’ve kept the mistakes to a minimum and they play with the ball well, giving Canada a solid centre back pairing. It looks like they’ll be in to stay for the rest of the tournament, along with Jayde Riviere at right back, so if Canada can just figure out who to consistently put in at left back, they have a solid back 4 to rely upon if needed. 
  • Overall, the main thing to take away from this one from a tactical standpoint will be that Canada needs to shore up the midfield. There are several solutions, from switching to a 4-5-1 or 4-2-2-2 to get more bodies in there, to switching up the personnel, with each having different positive and negative aspects. I think a 4-3-3 can work, especially with Beckie-Sinclair-Huitema/Leon as the 3, with Riviere filling in for the lack of winger on that right side with her overlapping play. In the middle, a trio of Fleming, Lawrence and Scott could give Canada the mix of grit and offensive play, and Schmidt could even slot back into a left back role, giving Canada an extra veteran body on the park. Either way, there’s no perfect solution for Heiner Moller, but one thing he’s not short of is options, which is always positive for a coach to have.

Looking Forward

With the group stages now wrapped up, it will be a short turnaround for this team, as they have two rest days before the big game on Friday. Along with the travel to LA, it will be a busy couple of days, as they prepare to take on a tough Costa Rican side, with their Olympic dreams on the line. 

After what was an overall dominant group stage performance, they can head into that game confident, knowing that they can take care of business with their best performance, but also cautious, as they look to implement the lessons they’ve so far learned over these few weeks. 

But what is clear now is that the time for formalities is over, which for Canada, they’ll be aiming to be ready to take on that jump up in intensity, with everything now officially on the line for them. 

Up Next: Canada vs Costa Rica, February 7th, 2020, 16:00 PST, 19:00 EST (Dignity Health Sports Park, Carson)

Cover Photo by: Canada Soccer/MexSport

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