Olympic champion Canada is a step closer to the Paris Games after a 2-0 win over Jamaica on Friday in the opening game of a two-legged Olympic qualifier.
And a little farther away from the memory of a dismal World Cup.
The Canadian women had the upper hand for most of the evening and had chances to add to the lead after Nichelle Prince opened the scoring in the 18th minute. Adriana Leon made it 2-0 three minutes into stoppage time, celebrating her 100th cap with a cheeky flick of a Gabby Carle feed for her 30th career goal as Jamaica pressed for an equalizer.
The ball is in Canada’s court now.
The second leg goes Tuesday at a sold out BMO Field in Toronto. Away goals score double in the event of a tie, with extra time and a penalty shootout available if needed to decide the outcome.
For Canada coach Bev Priestman, the performance was a welcome bounceback.
“We put a lot of attention on the mindset because I felt that was lacking and affected in the World Cup,” Priestman said after the game. “I told them to go out there today and, first and foremost, show that this team’s character back. The football will take care of itself. We’ve been working hard on the pitch on that domain.
“But I felt the most important thing – to come to Jamaica, home crowd, they’re the team that’s been riding a high – is our character had to shine through. And I’m over the moon because I feel like it did.”
Some savvy roster moves and a shift in formation helped.
Priestman fielded a 3-4-3 formation, that at times flowed into a 4-4-2 or 3-5-2 depending on the situation.
Prince and Leon worked well up front and the formation gave Canada some welcome width with Ashley Lawrence and Cloe Lacasse causing Jamaica real problems down the flanks.
Sydney Collins was a surprise starter, adding to that width in the first start and second cap for the North Carolina Courage rookie.
While celebrating the win, Priestman sounded a note of caution.
“The job’s only half-done and I think that’s been the message to the players,” she said. “I know this Jamaican group is going to come (north) and do everything, throw the kitchen sink (at us) because the Olympic Games are on the line. And (the) Olympic Games, not a lot of people get a chance to go to that.”
The game was the first for the Canadians since a disastrous World Cup campaign that saw the team fail to survive the group stage. The Jamaicans, meanwhile, became the first Caribbean country to qualify for a Women’s World Cup knockout round, reaching the round of 16 where they were edged 1-0 by No. 22 Colombia.
Canada tied No. 32 Nigeria 0-0 and beat No. 24 Ireland 2-1 before being eliminated in a lopsided 4-0 loss to No. 11 Australia.
The Canadians subsequently fell to 10th from seventh in the world rankings. Jamaica rose six places to No. 37 after beating No. 55 Panama 1-0 and tying No. 5 France and No. 9 Brazil 0-0 to finish runner-up in its World Cup group.
Priestman used seven of the same starters that lined up in Canada’s final World Cup game, the loss to Australia, on July 31.
Midfielder Jessie Fleming captained Canada with 40-year-old Christine Sinclair on the bench. The Canadian starting 11 went into the game with a combined 752 caps.
Jamaica was led by captain Khadija (Bunny) Shaw, a Manchester City forward and nominee for the Ballon d’Or who was kept largely in check.
It was 27 degrees Celsius, feeling like 33, and humid for the evening kickoff at National Stadium.
Canada went ahead in the 18th minute when, after a nifty feed from Leon, Lawrence outpaced Deneisha Blackwood down the right flank and sent in a perfectly weighted cross that Prince knocked home with a glancing header for her 14th goal in 92 international appearances.
A valuable away goal secured, the Canadians started stroking the ball around the pitch after going ahead.
The Reggae Girlz had a chance to tie it in the 34th minute after a turnover by Jade Rose. But Cheyna Williams’ shot was deflected off target by a lunging Vanessa Gilles. It wasn’t the first loose pass from a Canadian on the night.
Canada came out blazing to open the second half and Leon almost made it 2-0 in the first minute after the break, only to see her shot hit a body. The Aston Villa forward then hit the crossbar off the ensuing corner.
Jamaica goalkeeper Becky Spencer, a teammate of Canada’s Shelina Zadorsky at England’s Tottenham, got a leg to a Leon shot in the 57th minute after Quinn, who goes by one name, won the ball off a Jamaican.
Jamaica substitute Tiffany Cameron threatened in the 66th minute but her shot went just high after Canada struggled to clear the ball.
Canada sent on Jordyn Huitema, Julia Grosso, Carle and Zadorsky as the clock wound down.
Canada outshot Jamaica 16-11 (7-2 in shots in target) and had 57 per cent possession.
The clean sheet will be welcome after being outscored 12-5 in the team’s seven previous outings this year. Canada ‘keeper Kailen Sheridan had little to do in posting her 20th shutout in her 39th appearance, other than a save in the 79th minute on a ball that may have been heading wide.
Canada and Jamaica were paired in the Olympic playoff after finishing second and third, respectively, at the CONCACAF W Championship in Mexico in July 2022.
The U.S. qualified directly for the Olympics by defeating Canada 1-0 in the CONCACAF W Championship final. Jamaica, which lost 3-0 to Canada in the semi-final, defeated Costa Rica 1-0 after extra time in the third-place playoff.
The Canadian women have taken part in the last four Olympics, winning gold, bronze and bronze after finishing eighth at the 2008 Games in Beijing.
The Canadians were without the injured Jayde Riviere, Deanne Rose and Janine Beckie. Veteran midfielder Desiree Scott is working her way back from injury while Allysha Chapman was unavailable for personal reasons.
Canada had won all nine previous meetings with Jamaica, outscoring the Reggae Girlz 60-1. But Priestman, noting Jamaica’s World Cup performance, said this is a far different Jamaica from past editions.
The winner of the Olympic qualifying series also books their ticket to the 2024 CONCACAF W Gold Cup. The loser has to qualify.
Brazil and Colombia have already qualified for the 12-country Olympic field, along with the U.S. and host France.