CARSON, Calif. — Canada qualified for the Tokyo Olympics with a hard-fought 1-0 win over Costa Rica on Friday, thanks to a 72nd-minute goal by teenager Jordyn Huitema in the semifinals of the CONCACAF Women’s Olympic Qualifying Championship.
The victory means the eighth-ranked Canadian women can now work towards a third straight podium finish at the Games, following bronze-medal performances in London in 2012 and Rio in 2016.
Friday’s win did not come easy. No. 37 Costa Rica was well-organized and physical in defence.
"Costa Rica made it difficult for us all game," said captain Christine Sinclair. "I thought we dominated but we just couldn’t put the ball in the back of the net."
The breakthrough came late when the 18-year-old Huitema capped off a pretty passing play involving Ashley Lawrence, Janine Beckie and substitute Deanne Rose, whose cross found an unmarked Huitema in front after a 10-pass Canadian sequence.
The teen’s left-footed shot hit the post and rolled right back, allowing her to slot it in with her right foot. Huitema, who plays her club football for Paris Saint-Germain, almost looked embarrassed as she scored her seventh goal of the tournament.
"I think the first thing I said to my team was ‘That’s my luck for 2020. I said ‘That’s all of it right there,"’ she said in her post-game interview.
The soccer women are the seventh Canadian team to qualify for Tokyo, joining the women’s rugby sevens, softball and water polo squads and the men’s field hockey, rugby sevens and volleyball sides.
The Canadian women’s basketball team can join them with a win over Sweden on Saturday.
Canada’s previous high at a non-boycotted Games was five — excluding the 1976 Olympics in Montreal when the country sent nine teams as host.
Canada advances to Sunday’s final against the top-ranked Americans, who beat No. 26 Mexico 4-0 in the late game Friday at Dignity Health Sports Park.
Both semifinal winners in the eight-country CONCACAF tournament book their ticket to Tokyo, representing the region that covers North and Central America and the Caribbean.
Canada has finished runner-up to the U.S. in the last three CONCACAF Olympic qualifiers and won bronze at the last two Olympics after exiting in the quarterfinals in Beijing in 2008. Mexico defeated Canada in the 2004 CONCACAF qualifier semifinals, denying the Canadians a trip to the Athens Games.
The Canadian women did not play in the 1996 or 2000 Olympics, when the U.S. was the lone CONCACAF representative in a then-eight-team field.
Coach Kenneth Heiner-Moller started Stephanie Labbe in goal behind a backline of Shelina Zadorsky, Kadeisha Buchanan and Sophie Schmidt. Desiree Scott shielded the back three with Allysha Chapman, Jessie Fleming, Lawrence and Beckie joining her in midfield. Huitema joined Sinclair up front.
Sinclair, the world’s all-time leading goal-scorer, came into the game on goal No. 186 with 11 of those having come against Costa Rica. The 36-year-old from Burnaby, B.C., was honoured before Friday’s game at a ceremony with CONCACAF president Victor Montagliani, a fellow Canadian.
After scoring 22 goals in three round-robin games, Canada’s offence looked anything but sharp to start.
Sinclair was booked in the fourth minute for leading with an arm in an aerial clash with defender Mariana Benavides that left both players temporarily dazed.
Canada dominated possession early but was unable to turn that advantage into goal-scoring chances. The first shot on goal didn’t come until the 28th minute, a long-range Costa Rican attempt in an unsuccessful bid to catch Labbe out of position.
Heiner-Moller changed formation, moving Schmidt up into the midfield as the first half wore on. At the other end, goalkeeper Noelia Bermudez needed treatment after taking a Chapman knee to the head.
Canada’s first shot — a Beckie effort easily stopped by Bermudez — came in injury time in a choppy first half.
Canada came on in the second half.
Freed up by a fine pass from Sinclair, Huitema beat several defenders in the 58th minute but her shot deflected wide. An unmarked Beckie came close in the 61st minute but Chapman’s fine cross bounced a little high making for an awkward shot that skewed off-target.
Huitema just failed to get to a Beckie cross in the 67th minute.
The Canadian women have never lost to Costa Rica, winning all 14 encounters with a 46-6 edge in goal.
Brazil, Britain, the Netherlands, New Zealand and Sweden have already qualified for the Olympics, joining host Japan in the 12-country field.