Canada to play for Olympic berth in deciding match against Ireland
Canadians must win Sunday’s 2nd match by at least 3 goals to secure Tokyo berth
The Canadian men's field hockey journey to the Olympics became a little more challenging Saturday afternoon after a 5-3 defeat to Ireland.
It means the Canadians now have to win Sunday's Game 2 by three goals if they hope to qualify for Tokyo 2020.
"No panic," said team captain, Scott Tupper. "It's halftime right now and we're down two. But we're one goal away from being back in this thing."
WATCH | Captain scott Tupper says Canada needs a better start:
With the sun blasting down on Rutledge Field and nearly 2,000 red and white-clad fans going crazy, the Canadian side weathered an early Irish push. The pressure couldn't have been greater for both sides with a ticket to the Olympics dangling in the balance.
Despite having home-field advantage and Canada's higher ranking (Canada is ranked 10th in the world, Ireland 13th) the team appeared affected by nerves – something head coach Paul Bundy thought played a factor in the game.
"I think they were nervous," he said. "We play the majority of games away. I think the occasion got to us but not everyone pitched-up today. We needed to be present and I don't think everyone was today."
WATCH | Coach Paul Bundy admits team looked nervous:
There were tense moments early for the Canadians who faced key scoring chances from the Irish on back-to-back penalty corners. But two strong blocks by Canada kept Ireland off the scoresheet and allowed the home side to settle into the game.
But the Irish kept coming, controlling the play and keeping the action in the Canadian's side of half for the first seven minutes of the first quarter.
Back and forth battle
The constant pressure from the Irish led to the game's opening goal – Chris Cargo ripped a shot past Canadian goalkeeper Antoni Kindler to put Ireland up 1-0. But shortly after that Canada's Gordon Johnston tied the game late in the first quarter on a penalty corner. He took the ball and ripped it high, ricocheting the ball off the Irish goalkeeper and into the back of the net. That made it 1-1 as the two teams headed into the second frame.
With nine minutes left before halftime Ireland nearly took the lead, sailing a shot just above the Canadian net. Shortly after that Canada took their first lead of the game – Keegan Pereira fired a wicked shot at the 23rd minute into the back of the net, putting the Canadians up 2-1 midway through the second quarter.
"There were nerves for sure. All these fans," Pereira said. "I think we just to be mentally switched on for all sixty minutes."
WATCH | Pereira believes Team Canada can rally:
Canada took a 2-1 lead into halftime but the game shifted in the third quarter. The Irish kept coming, wave after wave, tying the game on an accurate shot by Ireland's Shane O'Donoghue. That made it 2-2. The Irish then took the lead back on an aggressive counter-attack in the 39th minute. Canada misplayed the ball and Ireland's Sean Murray made no mistake. That made it 3-2 for the Irish.
With the sun slowly setting on the west coast and the crowd chanting wildly, the Canadians tied the game 3-3 on Pereira's second goal of the game. He danced around the circle and struck the ball past Ireland's goalkeeper. It seemed as though the Canadians had all the momentum.
But that's when Ireland scored twice in a hurry late in the game to take a 5-3 lead they wouldn't relinquish.
Everything to play for
"I think we just had a couple instances in the final quarter we weren't sharp enough," Tupper said. "Ireland has some world-class players and they made us pay."
Tupper says they'll approach game two as if they're starting it down 2-0 and chip away at the Irish lead. He says the team needs a strong start if they hope to earn an Olympic spot.
"Dig deep. Stick to what we do well. If we can put one up early, it'll change everything," Tupper said. "Try and dictate the play. If we can do that, we'll be fine."
WATCH | Canada continues pursuit of 2020 Tokyo Olympics berth:
Never before have the stakes been higher for the Canadian team playing on home soil. There have been massive matches in the past for the Red Caribou internationally, but with an Olympic berth on the line, home-field advantage has never meant more to the team.
Should the Canadians win tomorrow by three, it'll mark only the second time in their history they've qualified for back-to-back Olympics having played in Rio. The only other time they've competed in consecutive Games was in 1984 and 1988.
"Everybody has to be present tomorrow," coach Bundy said. "I don't think everyone was today and the moment got to us. Be present. If we do that, we can turn the screws on Ireland."