VANCOUVER, B.C.—Necessity. It was the overarching word bouncing around the brain following Canada's 2-0 win over Cuba in the CONCACAF women's soccer Olympic qualifying tournament Saturday night. The Canadians' performance wasn't joyful, exuberant or particularly memorable, but they accomplished the needed goal, knocking off the overmatched Cubans and clinching a berth in the semifinal stage. This wasn't as solid of a showing as Canada's 6-0 win over Haiti in their first game or the Americans' 14-0 thumping of the Dominican Republic Friday, but it produced the desired result. For Canadian head coach John Herdman, that was more than enough.
"I think generally job done," he said. "That's two games. We managed to rest a few players tonight, and we only need a draw to qualify for the top of the group with the goal differential that we're carrying. It's in a good space for Canada now and I think we can take Costa Rica in a different light and make sure that we've absolutely got everyone ready to go for game four."
This was a mismatch before it ever kicked off, as evident from the teams' disparate rankings: Canada came in ranked seventh by FIFA, second-best in CONCACAF, while Cuba was ranked 96th, 10th in the confederation and last amongst the eight teams at this tournament. Still, the game's presence on the schedule necessitated it being played, and the Cubans didn't make it easy for Canada. Perhaps afraid of another blowout of the sort that have become common in this event, Cuba held their players close to their own goal and rarely ventured forwards. That made it difficult for Canada to crack their defences, and although the Canadians had plenty of chances on the night, they only converted two.
First blood went to Canada when winger Kaylyn Kyle made a run into the box in the 17th minute and was brought down by a Cuban defender, earning a necessary penalty that Canadian star Christine Sinclair easily converted. Midfielder Alyscha Mottershead then played Sinclair through perfectly in the 24th minute, and Sinclair delivered a superb cross that Melissa Tancredi headed home. Those were the only times the Canadians could capitalize on their scoring chances, but Herdman said the low goal tally was more thanks to the Cuban system than Canadian mistakes.
"You've got to accept that in football when a team camps that deep, it's a rarity," he said. "You don't get that very often. When they put 11 players or 10 players in a certain part of the pitch and it becomes very different to break down, it takes patience."
Kyle said Cuba's defensive strategy and the Canadians' inability to score more proved frustrating, but the team isn't down on themselves.
"Obviously, it's a little bit frustrating, but we can't be too hard on ourselves," she said.
Herdman said his team's play was far from perfect, but he attributed much of that to the dramatically-changed starting lineup.
"I mean, I think we could have moved the ball wider quicker, there was something about the pace of the ball tonight, but you know, we had players out there that were new," he said. "For some of them, that was their first experience of a crowd like that at home and they were giving it their best shot."
Yes, there was a bit of a need for Canada to get more players involved as well, from a couple of different standpoints. For one thing, this is a tournament with a very condensed schedule; teams play three matches in six days during the group stage, so that doesn't leave a lot of time for rest and recovery. For another, Herdman is still acclimatizing to his roster; this tournament marks the first real test of his reign as coach, and he has to get a sense of what the different players can do and how they fit together. There were plenty of promising signs from many of the new starters Herdman ran out there, particularly wingback Robin Gayle, midfielder Alyscha Mottershead and striker Chelsea Buckland, but on the whole, this looked like a group that was still getting used to each other. Their task was made more difficult by the Cubans' sitting behind the ball, but they weren't dissatisfied with the outcome, as Buckland said after.
"It's frustrating at times, but we think we did well to find ways to break them down and find ways to get after the backline," she said.
Midfielder Sophie Schmidt said the Cuban approach necessitated a more cautious Canadian attack.
"We had to be patient and keep switching the ball and try to break them down slowly," she said.
Schmidt said although it wasn't pretty, this game provided valuable experience for the team.
"It's a good opportunity to practice putting chances away, because against good teams those chances are few and far between, but we've come away with a win and a shutout, and we're happy with that," she said.
Their superior goal differential necessitates that the Canadians now only need a draw in their final group-stage game with Costa Rica Monday to clinch top spot in the group. Schmidt said that won't be easy given the strength of the Costa Rican team, but her team will be ready to do what's required.
"They'll be the toughest team so far in terms of competition, but we'll just keep building on what we've done and make sure we leave the group stage sharp," she said.
Canada is sure to make the semifinals regardless of how they do against Costa Rica, but that top seeding could be vital; the first-place finisher in Group A plays the second-place team in Group B in the semifinals, while the second-place team in Group A draws the first-place team in Group B. The top Group B slots seem likely at the moment to go to the U.S. and Mexico, and neither will be an easy opponent, but the Americans are the world's top-ranked team and have been ridiculously dominant so far, while the 21st-ranked Mexicans have been more solid than awe-inspiring. The Canadians aren't talking about who they want as opponents yet, but Schmidt said they have emphasized the importance of finishing first in their group.
"We know what we have to do and what it means in terms of setting us up for that semifinal game, which is the one that counts," Schmidt said.
Knowing what needs to be done and then doing it was the hallmark of the team Saturday, and Herdman said that's likely to continue.
"Goal number one was finishing top of the group while preserving our players," he said. "To finish top of the group was goal one, to qualify for the Olympics was goal two, and we're in control of our destiny."
Indeed they are. Saturday's game may not have had the aesthetic flourishes or dominating performances many of the 12,417 in attendance would have liked to have seen, but it delivered the result the Canadian team needed and the one their fans wanted. Everyone on the Canadian side undoubtedly wanted more, but necessity only dictated a victory by any means necessary, and that's what they achieved. For now, that's all that's needed.