MONTERREY, Mexico — It wasn't pretty but Canada got the job done Friday in downing a stubborn Panama side 1-0 at the CONCACAF W Championship to qualify for the 2023 World Cup.
Costa Rica's 4-0 win over Trinidad and Tobago earlier in the day meant beating Panama would secure qualification for the Canadian women with one group game remaining at the eight-team tournament.
No. 57 Panama did not make it easy for sixth-ranked Canada on a windy night at Estadio Universitario.
Canada dominated play with Panama looking to frustrate, relying on fouls to break up the action — often delaying the ensuing free kicks by not retreating from the ball.
Panama players also went down often with the team's trainers getting a workout, trundling onto the field with regularity.
"It's a great learning experience," said Canada coach Bev Priestman. "Was it good enough? No. And everybody knows that. But we won . . . and we move on."
Friday's result assured Olympic champion Canada (2-0-0) of a top-two finish in Pool B and a berth in the semifinals, which means making the World Cup in Australia and New Zealand.
No. 37 Costa Rica (2-0-0) has also qualified from Canada's group.
The third-placed team in each group moves on to a World Cup intercontinental playoff.
Canada's breakthrough came in the 64th minute via Julia Grosso, who opened her senior scoring account with two goals off the bench in Tuesday's 6-0 win over No. 76 Trinidad and Tobago.
A Panama defender attempted to clear a Jessie Fleming cross only to see the ball go right to Grosso.
The 21-year-old Juventus midfielder neatly shifted the ball to evade a defender and poked it home.
"Credit Julia. She stepped up and she put the ball in the net again," said Priestman.
Canada had 69 per cent possession and outshot Panama 12-4 (7-2 in shots on target). Panama opted for a low block, stringing defenders across the field.
Priestman gave Panama credit for its negative, time-wasting tactics, saying "I mean it worked."
Canada's coach also saw it as a sign of respect for her team. Priestman's message at halftime was one of disappointment.
"I thought the first-half performance, we weren't good enough," she said.
"Our standards dropped and I think the players would agree with that. But second half, I was happy with how they came out, to get back to our level."
The Canadians wrap up pool play Monday against Costa Rica to decide who tops Pool B.
That likely means avoiding the top-ranked U.S. who has also qualified for the World Cup, in the semifinals.
The CONCACAF tournament doubles as a qualifier for both the 2023 World Cup and 2024 Olympics.
Only the CONCACAF winner is assured of an Olympic berth, as well as a ticket to the inaugural CONCACAF W Gold Cup, to be held in 2024.
The runner-up and third-place teams will meet in a CONCACAF Olympic play-in series, scheduled for September 2023, with the winner also qualifying for the Paris Olympics and CONCACAF W Gold Cup.
The World Cup features a 32-team field, compared to just 12 in the Olympic Games.
Canada qualified for seven of the eight previous World Cups, missing out in the inaugural 1991 event in China when the U.S. was the lone CONCACAF representative in the then-12-country field.
Canada, which hosted the event in 2015, had its best showing in 2003 when it finished fourth.
After playing in the 53,500-capacity Estadio BBVA — home to CF Monterrey — in suburban Guadalupe on Tuesday, Canada moved to Estadio Universitario on Friday.
Known as El Volcan (The Volcano), the 41,600-capacity stadium in Monterrey is home to Tigres UANL.
Priestman made five changes to her starting lineup, slotting in goalkeeper Sabrina D'Angelo, Grosso, Shelina Zadorsky, Adriana Leon and Nichelle Prince. Janine Beckie shifted back to fullback from forward.
Captain Christine Sinclair, who scored her world-record 190th international goal in the tournament opener, made her 313th appearance for Canada — and her 306th start.
Canada had 71 per cent possession in a scoreless first half, but that did not translate in gilt-edged scoring chances.
The Canadians had a 6-2 edge in shots (2-1 on target) as Panama defended in numbers and tried to slow down play whenever it could.
Canada came close in the 19th minute when Leon's header flashed high. Two minutes later, Panama captain Laurie Batista saw her long-range effort fly just over the Canadian crossbar.
Sandwiched by two Panama defenders, Prince was taken down just inside the penalty box in the 27th minute but the potential penalty call was negated by an offside flag.
The game paused as it went to video review, but nothing came out of it.
D'Angelo made her first save in the 38th minute, a comfortable stop of a Marta Cox free kick from well outside the penalty box.
At the other end, Prince poked the ball just wide in the 42nd after Panama failed to clear a free kick.
Priestman sent on striker Cloe Lacasse and fullback Jayde Riviere in place of Sinclair and Prince at the half.
And Leon forced a acrobatic diving save from Yenith Bailey in the 46th minute.
Jordyn Huitema and Quinn, who goes by one name, came on for Canada in the 57th.
Panama's Rosario Vargas came close with another long-range shot in the 80th that sailed just over the crossbar.
The Canadian women have never lost to Panama, outscoring the 57th-ranked team 13-0 in their two previous meetings.
Sinclair scored twice the last time Canada faced Panama — a 7-0 win in October 2018 at the CONCACAF Women’s Championship that earned Canada a berth in the 2019 World Cup in France.
This report by The Canadian Press was first published July 8, 2022
The Canadian Press