Canada's women's soccer team earns spot in Rio Olympics
Canada's Christine Sinclair (12) celebrates after scoring a goal against Costa Rica during the first half of a CONCACAF Olympic women's soccer qualifying championship semifinal Friday, Feb. 19, 2016, in Houston. (AP / David J. Phillip)
Neil Davidson, The Canadian Press
Published Friday, February 19, 2016 7:33PM EST
Last Updated Friday, February 19, 2016 9:46PM EST
HOUSTON -- Christine Sinclair turned and ran out of the penalty box, arms outstretched and tongue sticking out, after scoring a sumptuous winning goal.
The hero of Canada's bronze-medal march four years ago in London, Sinclair led the Canadian women back into the Olympics with a pair of highlight-reel goals Friday in a 3-1 win over Costa Rica in the CONCACAF Women's Olympic Qualifying Championship semifinal.
With two teams going to the Games from North and Central America and the Caribbean, Friday's contest was the one that mattered for Canada. And its limping leader stepped up.
"She's our leader, she's our captain," veteran goalkeeper Erin McLeod said of Sinclair. "And she does it time and time again.
"It reminds me of that game against the U.S. (four year ago when Canada lost an epic 4-3 Olympic semifinal after extra time despite a Sinclair hat-trick) when she just decided to take the game into her own hands. And she did it again tonight. It was a team effort but she definitely got us started."
Four games, four wins and a 24-1 goals edge at the tournament. It was mission accomplished for 11th-ranked Canada who will play Sunday for CONCACAF bragging rights.
The top-ranked U.S. faced No. 48 Trinidad & Tobago in the later semifinal.
Add two more jewels to Sinclair's Canadian scoring crown. Goals No. 160 and 161 were pure class. A third Sinclair goal was whistled offside in the 78th minute.
And she did it despite a nagging calf injury.
The Canadian breakthrough came in the 17th minute after a long cross from the right from fullback Josee Belanger eluded 16-year-old Deanne Rose but found Sinclair, who chested it down and scored on the half-volley with her right foot.
Sinclair went one better in the 52nd minute. With her back to goal just inside the penalty box, she pulled down a Costa Rican clearance, popped it into the air with her right foot -- like a setter in volleyball -- before swivelling and firing a left-footed looping shot into the goal.
Canadian coach John Herdman was anything but PG when asked about his take on Sinclair's second.
"Oh my God, you'll just have to see my reaction -- it went WTF," said the English native.
Sinclair called it a dream goal that she'd have to review on replay to see exactly what she had done.
Sinclair left to applause in the 82nd minute after upping her goals total to three at the tournament and a record 18 in career CONCACAF Olympic qualifying.
While the scoreline was close, Canada controlled the game before a small crowd at BBVA Compass Stadium. Although things got interesting when Costa Rican star forward Raquel Rodriguez cut the lead to 2-1 on a 72nd-minute penalty after Desiree Scott was called for bringing down Diana Saenz on the edge of the box.
Rose added an insurance goal in the 86th minute off a Nichelle Prince feed.
The 34th-ranked Costa Ricans, who made their World Cup debut last summer on Canadian soil, have never made it to the Olympics. But they lived up to their reputation as a team on the rise. Runner-up to the Americans in Group A, they were well-organized and poised under a sunny late-afternoon sky.
"Canada has some great players," Costa Rica coach Amelia Valverde said through an interpreter. "We left it all on the field. I'm proud of the girls this evening."
Herdman, Sinclair and others stressed their job is not yet done. But they clearly savoured the moment, with the team mobbing McLeod as the final whistle blew.
"It was a great moment for our country to be going to Rio, to be going back to the Olympics," said Herdman. "It gives us a chance at achieving that back-to-back podium goal."
"It never gets old. It's an honour to represent your country at the Olympics," said Sinclair, who was Canada's flag-bearer in the closing ceremonies in London, her second Olympics. "I hope we can do Canada proud again."
The 32-year-old from Burnaby, B.C., has made career doing just that.
Sinclair is 23 goals behind retired American Abby Wambach (184) in all-time women's scoring.
In the eight months since a disappointing exit at the World Cup, Herdman has reshaped his roster -- blending in youth with key veterans like Sinclair, McLeod, Diana Matheson, Sophie Schmidt and Desiree Scott.
The result is a squad that has greater depth and firepower -- 11 different players have scored at this tournament. It is also an inclusive group that seems comfortable in its own skin.
Herdman has a good off-the-field team behind him and a bag of motivational tricks that included the inspirational words of President John F. Kennedy on doing the "unthinkable and the unachievable."
"We said there was one group that was going to put us on the moon and there's a group in two days time (that is) going to take us home safely," Herdman said, referring to Sunday's final.
The Canadian women had been dominant en route to the semifinal, outscoring the opposition 21-0.
The U.S. also won all three of its pool matches, outscoring its opposition 16-0.
With Olympic qualification on the line, Herdman went to his strongest lineup -- the same as the tournament opener against Guyana -- starting nine World Cup veterans plus Rose and 23-year-old Shelina Zadorsky.
That included Sinclair and McLeod, who both have gone through modified training routines at the tournament to ensure they were ready when it counted.
Costa Rica had skill but not enough of it.
"Today we lost to the Olympic bronze medallists," said Valverde. "There is no shame in that."
Rodriguez, who led Penn State to the U.S. national collegiate title last season and was chosen second overall in the NWSL draft, got minimal service. Captain and playmaker Shirley Cruz, who plays for Paris Saint-Germain, was well-marshalled.
Still Costa Rica refused to lie down, showing more than a little grit.