Canadian soccer team a win away from Olympics

Sportsnet's James Sharman reports from Houston about Friday's CONCACAF qualifying semifinal match between Canada and Costa Rica with a berth at the 2016 Rio Olympics at stake.

HOUSTON, TEXAS – When Canada was qualifying for the 2012 Olympics in Vancouver four years ago, midfielder Ashley Lawrence was a 16-year-old playing at the under-17 level in the Canadian program.

Four years on, she’s become a virtual lock in the Canadian midfield as they look to qualify for the 2016 Rio Olympics on Friday night against Costa Rica. But it was watching that event in Vancouver that really solidified her vision and that path that she wanted to follow in the game.

“It’s always an unbelievable feeling. I watched those games and that’s where I was inspired originally,” Lawrence told Sportsnet on Thursday. “Just to be a part of it is a huge honour and now having a goal I’m super excited and it’s going to be a great game.”

Friday programming alert: Watch Canada vs. Costa Rica in Friday’s semifinals of the CONCACAF Women’s Olympic Qualifying Championship live on Sportsnet ONE. Coverage starts at 5:15 pm ET/2:15 pm ET. (Canada will qualify for the 2016 Rio Olympics with a win. If Canada loses, it will be eliminated from contention.) || Broadcast schedule

The youth of the roster was what jumped out first when coach John Herdman named his squad for this tournament. So far they have been up to the challenge as they more than complement the veterans in the team, but they also aren’t afraid to lead themselves.

This is really the first full four-year cycle where Canada is displaying the program Herdman has established since taking over after the disastrous 2011 Women’s World Cup. With the integration from the youth levels up to the senior team now in place, the fruits of that program are starting to yield results.

At just 20-years-old, Lawrence is on the older end of the youth movement in the Canadian team with a handful of teenagers in this squad as well. While the revolution may be underway within the program, this is by no means what the finished product will look like.

“It’ll take a couple of more years before we actually get the full graduates coming through. So the pipeline’s not thick and bubbling yet but it’s certainly on the way,” Herdman said in his pre-match press conference ahead of Friday’s winner-take-all semifinal.

“If we get it right, we can go consistent top-four [in the world]. I’m absolutely sure of that. We can do that if we get our system right.”

Four years ago, Canada easily took care of Costa Rica 5-1 in the group stage in Vancouver but since then the Central American side has been making some tentative steps forward. They qualified for last year’s Women’s World Cup and performed admirably in picking up three draws including one against Brazil.

In this competition, they opened up losing a 5-0 game to the United States before rolling off a 9-0 win over Puerto Rico and a 2-1 win over Mexico.

It’s hard to know what to expect from the Costa Ricans and whether their win over Mexico was a sign of the growing Costa Rican program or rather spoke about the decline of the Mexico’s.

“They play a solid defensive game with great transition,” Herdman said. “They commit a lot to their transition but everything centres through [Shirley] Cruz and [Lixy] Rodriguez. We know we have to take care of that business.

“There are players around them that are good but they’re not good if those two players aren’t demanding the ball and getting access to it.”

Canada has remained remarkably healthy through the first three games of the tournament. In a situation like this with matches coming fast and furious, one would expect an injury or two to crop up. The ease at which Canada has cruised through the group stage with three wins has allowed for rotation and rest.

MORE ON CANADA: Video: James Sharman goes 1-on-1 with Christine Sinclair || Video: James Sharman goes 1-on-1 with Kadeisha Buchanan || Video: Sportsnet’s Gerry Dobson and Karina LeBlanc preview Canada vs. Costa Rica || Video: Canadian youth break out on CONCACAF stage || Video: Costa Rica toughest task so far for Canada

Forward Christine Sinclair and goalkeeper Erin McLeod didn’t take part in training on Thursday but it wasn’t for any pressing medical need.

About the worst thing to happen to the Canadian team thus far was when Lawrence took a knock to the head in the first half of the game against Trinidad and Tobago, but she’s no worse for wear heading into Friday.

“The staff has done a tremendous job in balancing the recovery with training,” Lawrence said. “Everyone’s healthy and we’re in a great space and this is great prep for any Olympics. But [Friday is] a huge game and to have everyone ready to go no matter what is huge for us.”

A win would likely mean a playing the United States in Sunday’s tournament final. The Americans are going up against Trinidad in the other semi but there will be no real pressure in that final game as the Olympic berths will have already been decided.

Canada hasn’t failed to qualify for an Olympics since 2004 when they lost a decisive game against Mexico.

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