VANCOUVER, B.C.—The Canadians did what they had to in order to clinch top spot in their group at the CONCACAF women's Olympic soccer qualifying tournament, coming away with a 5-1 victory over Costa Rica Monday night, but they did so in two remarkably different styles. In specific contrast to Saturday's 2-0 win over Cuba where the Canadians did just what was necessary, head coach John Herdman let slip the dogs of war from the opening kickoff Monday, and his team responded with a ferocious attacking effort that netted two goals in the first 10 minutes and four in the first half. The second half saw a more conservative possession-focused style, though, and it resulted in a goal for each team. Herdman said the shift was partly about resting players for the crucial semifinal Friday, but also about showing that the team has more than one approach.
"They did what they had to do to destroy Costa Rica in the first half," he said. "The second half, they could do something a little bit different, which was about conserving, going through the game."
Herdman said the team was fired up to get out of the starting gate.
"We had to step it up," he said. "We had to show an intensity that we could take into the semifinals."
They certainly did that. The scoring started only six minutes in with one of the most spectacular goals of the tournament. Rhian Wilkinson fired what looked like a shot on goal from the right flank, just outside the top of the penalty box, but superstar forward Christine Sinclair intercepted it midway, then juggled it over stunned Dominican keeper Julieth Arias and fired it into the net in one smooth motion. The Canadians kept the pressure up and more scoring came quickly, as Arias couldn't hang onto Kelly Parker's sharp-angle shot in the 10th minute and Sophie Schmidt banged the rebound home.
Sinclair pulled off another superb move in the 19th minute, working her way into the right side of the box against two defenders, then stopping in her tracks, swinging the ball back to her left foot and delivering a picturesque cross to Kaylyn Kyle, who headed home in impressive fashion. Sinclair then added another one of her own in the 45th minute off a cross from Wilkinson, and by that point, the Canadians were firmly in control of the match.
Parker said the up-tempo game the Canadians delivered right from the start was exactly what they'd hoped to do.
"Going into the game, our plan was to never stop running," she said.
Kyle said the opening minutes of soccer were some of the team's best all tournament.
"We just came out on fire today," she said.
From a simplistic standpoint, the second half was less impressive. As Costa Rica head coach Karla Aleman pointed out afterwards, her team improved and both teams only notched one goal in the frame.
"In the first half, we had lapses of concentration," Aleman said. "We were able to correct a lot of things in the second half, play the way we know how to play and play to our strengths."
Yes, the second half was partly the Costa Rican team coming on, and they deserve full credit for their goal in the 89th minute, the lone goal scored by a losing team through 10 matches at this tournament. It came from a superb cross delivered by Raquel Rodriguez, which Fernanda Barrentes trapped and quickly drilled home, and it was much prettier than Canada's goal in the frame, which came from an ugly own goal. Marianne Ugalde sent a slow pass backwards for Arias, but Arias somehow swung and missed and the ball trickled into the Costa Rican net. Still, the Canadians managed to dominate play in the second half despite dialing their attacking intensity down, and they had plenty of chances to score. Schmidt said afterwards that the game as a whole was a solid showing for Canada.
"I think we did well," she said. "Our confidence is growing, and we tried some different things."
Sinclair said the second half may have looked less impressive on the scoresheet, but the Canadian team wasn't displeased with it.
"I think the first half, that's as well as I've seen us play," she said. "We definitely weren't coasting in that first half. The second half, it's hard to keep it going when you're up four or five-nothing, but i thought we did a good job."
If anything, the disparate nature of the two halves may say more about this Canadian team; they can play hellbent for leather when they need to and score plenty of goals in the process, but they're also capable of a slower, more cautious buildup that may prevent other talented teams from capitalizing against them. Herdman said he plans to use elements of both approaches in Canada's semifinal clash Friday against either the U.S. or Mexico, a one-shot game that will dictate which team advances to the London Olympics this summer and which team's run ends here. He said combining attacking gusto and meticulous possession will keep opponents off-balance and give Canada the edge.
"I just think there's a balance of both," he said. "There's no way we can keep that going for 90 minutes. ... The perfomance tonight, the girls kept the ball when they needed, they gave certain players a rest. It helps to get their breath back and get the tempo to go again. It's about controlling the tempo and picking your moments to really inject pace. The problem if you try and do that for 90 minutes, you won't have much left in the last 20. ... Yeah, we'll have some plans about controlling the tempo, controlling these players."
Herdman said the semifinals' win-and-you're-in-the-Olympics nature means Canada won't be holding back Friday, though. They may not go full-out for 90 minutes, but they plan to incorporate both styles, play with maximum effort and use the combination to their advantage.
"The approach in this next game, to be honest, it will be gloves off," he said. "Both teams have got their Olympic dreams on the line. I'm expecting it to be everything a semifinal's meant to be."