Win and they're in: Canada's women's soccer team meets Costa Rica with spot on Olympics on the line
Canada perfect 13-0-0 vs. Central American team, but Canadian coach taking nothing for granted
For the Canadian women's soccer team, only Costa Rica stands in the way of a fourth straight Olympic appearance.
Canada plays the Central American nation in the semifinals of the CONCACAF Olympic qualifying tournament Friday at 7 p.m. ET in Carson, Calif. The world champion United States play Mexico in the other semifinal (10 p.m. ET).
The scenario is simple: win and you've punched your ticket to Tokyo. Lose and … well, let's not dwell on that possibility. Canada, the two-time defending Olympic bronze medallists, have every intention of being one of the 12 teams in Japan this July.
How they got here:
Canada, ranked No. 8 in the world, stomped through their group with three breezy clean-sheet victories. Along the way, they scored an eye-popping 22 goals, Canada's highest total in a CONCACAF group stage since scoring 23 goals in 2002.
Captain Christine Sinclair scored three of those goals, including the 185th of her legendary career to become international soccer's all-time leading scorer — check out her sweet new boots to commemorate the milestone.
It's also worth noting the 36-year-old played in just two of the games in order to rest her legs for the crucial semifinal match on the horizon.
Goal scoring was not an issue for Canada in the group stage. Nine different goal scorers featured on the scoresheets, including teenager Jordyn Huitema's tournament-leading six, Adriana Leon's four and Janine Beckie's three.
Canada has yet to face a real challenge in the tournament. While the Mexicans, ranked No. 26, had them on their toes in the opening 25 minutes of their final group-stage game, they never posed a real threat with the Canadians winning 2-0.
If you trust history, it would appear Canada has the Olympic berth locked up. After all, Canada holds a perfect 13-0-0 record against Costa Rica.
But sport doesn't always follow history, something head coach Kenneth Heiner-Møller is aware of.
"Every match has its own story, and the match we're playing against them (in the semis) is totally different," Heiner-Møller said after the Mexico win.
"We know what's at stake," he said. "Ninety minutes, I know we'll have butterflies in our stomachs, all of us. But that's what we live for."
Next up: Costa Rica, Friday, 7 pm ET
Costa Rica, ranked No. 37, finished second in their group to the Americans, winning two games over Panama (6-1) and Haiti (2-0) before falling to U.S. 6-0.
Costa Rica has never qualified for the Olympics. They qualified for one FIFA Women's World Cup back in 2015 when Canada hosted. They had a respectable tournament, drawing Spain 1-1 and South Korea 2-2 before losing to Brazil 1-0 and not advancing out of the group stage.
After the devastation of failing to qualify for last year's FIFA Women's World Cup in France, they've put all their energy into this tournament, hoping to play spoiler.
Costa Rica plays a similar style to Mexico. A physical team, comfortable with the ball and willing to press and push players forward. However, they don't come close to having the experience or the depth of the Canadian side.
Heiner-Møller has used different systems of play over the course of the tournament, 4-3-3 and variations of the traditional 4-4-2, for example. In a winner-takes-all game, every detail counts. They know Costa Rica's strengths — and stars — inhabit the middle of the pitch.
Speaking of, captain Shirley Cruz has been Costa Rica's best player for the past 15 years. The 34-year-old midfielder honed her craft battling against her seven brothers in the capital of San Jose before enjoying a 12-year career playing for the top professional clubs in France, Olympique Lyonnais and Paris Saint-Germain. She now plays domestically. She wears No. 10, often reserved for the best players and is a threat anywhere on the pitch. Check out this goal from earlier in the tournament:
¡Pero qué golazo de Shirley Cruz! <a href="https://twitter.com/fedefutbolcrc?ref_src=twsrc%5Etfw">@fedefutbolcrc</a> 🇨🇷 gana 3-1 a <a href="https://twitter.com/fepafut?ref_src=twsrc%5Etfw">@fepafut</a> 🇵🇦 al 67' <a href="https://t.co/rUTmBsqM5v">pic.twitter.com/rUTmBsqM5v</a>—@Concacaf
Raquel "Rocky" Rodriguez has three goals so far in the tournament. She's the only member of the Costa Rican team playing in the NWSL. The midfielder was dealt to the Portland Thorns (Sinclair's pro team) in January from Sky Blue FC. She's been a fixture on the international scene since she was a teenager and is a former winner of the Mac Hermann Trophy, awarded to the top female player in the NCAA.
Other notable players include midfielder Katherine Alvarado (Espanyol, Spain) and striker Melissa Herrera (Reims, France).