HOUSTON – Captain Christine Sinclair, the hero of Canada’s bronze-medal match four years ago in London, led the Canadian women back into the Olympics with a pair of highlight reels goals in a 3-1 win over Costa Rica in the CONCACAF Women’s Olympic Qualifying Championship semifinal Friday.
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.
“It was a great moment for our country to be going to Rio, to be going back to the Olympics,” said head coach John Herdman,
Canada’s goal is to have back-to-back podium finishes at the Olympics, he said.
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.
Teenager Deanne Rose added an insurance goal in the 86th minute off a Nichelle Prince feed.
Four games, four wins at the tournament. It was mission accomplished for 11th-ranked Canada who will play Sunday for CONCACAF bragging rights.
The Canadians mobbed goalie Erin McLeod as the final whistle blew.
The top-ranked U.S. faced No. 48 Trinidad & Tobago in the later semifinal. The top two teams from North and Central America and the Caribbean make it to Rio.
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,” said Costa Rica coach Amelia Valverde through an interpreter. “We left it all on the field. I’m proud of the girls this evening.”
The Canadian breakthrough came in the 17th minute after a long cross from the right from fullback Josee Belanger eluded 16-year-old Rose but found Sinclair, who chested it down and scored on the half-volley with her right foot.
Sinclair said after the game that she has been playing with a nagging calf injury.
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 with her right foot and popped into the air before swivelling and firing a left-footed looping shot into the goal.
The 32-year-old from Burnaby, B.C., who has scored 18 goals in CONCACAF Olympic qualifying play alone, is 23 goals behind retired American Abby Wambach (184) in all time women’s scoring.
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.
The Canadian women had been dominant en route to the semifinal, outscoring the opposition 21-0 with 11 different players getting goals.
The U.S. also won all three of its pool matches, outscoring its opposition 16-0.
With Olympic qualification on the line, Canadian coach John 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.
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That included Sinclair and McLeod, who both have gone through modified training routines at the tournament to ensure they were ready when it counted.
Canada started pressing with the long ball trying to open up Costa Rica. But the Central Americans, a cut above Canada’s previous opposition at the tournament, remained compact.
And there was danger in the Canadian end in the 14th minute when Melissa Herrera just missed getting to a long through ball as a sliding McLeod beat her to it.
The Canadians began to stroke the ball around after the goal and Costa Rica was pinned back in its own end for most of the half. But scoring chances were hard to come by, other than a Diana Matheson shot saved in the 34th minute and free kicks from Sophie Schmidt and Sinclair that were saved by Dinnia Diaz.
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.
Canada raised its career record against Costa Rica to 10-0-0, outscoring the Ticas 33-4 in the process.
In CONCACAF Olympic qualifying play, Canada is 15-2-1 while Costa Rica fell to 6-10-1.
Host Brazil, Colombia, France, Germany, New Zealand, South Africa and Zimbabwe have already qualified for Rio. The 12-team field will be completed by two teams from Asia and one of Netherlands, Norway, Sweden and Switzerland.
© 2016 The Canadian Press