After a pair of easy victories at the CONCACAF Olympic women's soccer qualifying tournament, Canada showed it had the mental toughness to win when it mattered.
The Canadians finished the preliminary round with a resounding 5-1 victory over Costa Rica on Monday, giving them first place in the Pool A standings and sending them into the semifinals on a high note.
“It was about taking it to another level tonight,” said Canada coach John Herdman. “We knew the opposition were at another level. We had to step it up, and we wanted to show an intensity that we would take into the semi-finals.”
Canada had already secured a semi-final berth prior to the game with one-sided wins over Haiti and Cuba, but still delivered a strong performance while keeping an eye on the goal of 2012 Summer Games berth.
Striker Christine Sinclair kept up her strong play with two goals and an assist.
“Tonight's game was sort of a precursor to our next game,” said Sinclair, adding Canada coasted in the second half. “It was a must-win game tonight, and we came out on fire.”
The goals were her sixth and seventh of the tournament. Sophie Schmidt and Kaylyn Kyle also scored for Canada, which led 4-0 at halftime. Canada's other goal came on a Costa Rican own goal early in the second half.
Canada will meet the second-place team from Pool B in a semifinal game Friday. The opponent will be determined after the U.S. plays Mexico on Tuesday, with the loser drawing the Canadians. The winner of the U.S.-Mexico match will face Costa Rica, which finished the preliminary round with a 2-1 record.
The two semifinal winners will earn the right to represent the North and Central American and Caribbean zone at the London Games this summer.
Fernanda Barrantes replied for Costa Rica with a minute left in the game. It was the only goal Canada allowed in the preliminary round while outscoring opponents 13-1.
“I think that the team was unaware of some situations in the game,” said Costa Rica coach Karla Aleman. “We paid a high price due to all the goals that they scored. The second half was better, and that's what it's all about.”
Herdman started a lineup close to the one expected to suit up in the semifinal. Sinclair returned to a traditional striker role after playing the previous two games as a withdrawn forward, while striker Melissa Tancredi was rested.
“I've got to keep that a bit close to my chest,” said Herdman about his potential semifinal lineup. “We're following a plan. ... They did what they had to do. They destroyed Costa Rica in the first half and then in the second half, they did something a little bit different, which was about conserving and just making sure that we got through the game.”
Herdman made a number of substitutions at half-time and late in the second half. He also switched from a 4-4-2 formation in the first half to a 4-3-3 setup in the second 45 minutes.
“We tried a combination in the second half there just to prep for the semi, get a feel for something a bit different,” he said. “So that was some good learning for us.”
Sinclair opened scoring in the sixth minute. She bounced a deflected ball off her thigh and then kicked it over goalkeeper Julieth Arias. Schmidt put Canada ahead by two just four minutes later as Ariath failed to hold on to Kelly Parker's cross.
“Going into the game, our plan was to never stop running, and just to do the things that we've almost done for all week and just progressively get better throughout the tournament,” said Parker. “I think we accomplished that.”
In the 20th minute, Kyle headed in a Sinclair cross to give Canada a 3-0 lead. Seconds before halftime, Sinclair buried her second of the night as she chested down Rhian Wilkinson's pass and booted a low shot just inside the post.
Canada went up 5-0 on an own goal in the 50th minute. Arias failed to stop defender Marianne Ugalde's soft pass back to the goalkeeper. She tried to one-time the ball, but missed and it rolled into the net.
Barrantes spoiled Karina Leblanc's shutout bid in the 89th minute. She fielded a long Raquel Rodriguez cross from the right flank and put home a high shot.
“Whoever we match up with in the semi-final, we're looking forward to it, and we're really excited about it,” said Kyle.
Notes: Christina Julien returned to Canada's lineup and played a full 90 minutes after suffering a concussion in late in Thursday's victory over Haiti. Herdman said medical staff confirmed the injury was a concussion, but she passed all tests to enable her to resume playing. ... Canadian defender Lauren Sesselmann remained out with a knee injury suffered in the opening game against Haiti. ... Costa Rica had never allowed more than four goals in an Olympic qualifying game prior to Monday.