Wendy Acosta of Costa Rica celebrates her second goal against Haiti on January 21, 2012. (Rich Lam/Getty Images)
The big teams in CONCACAF women's Olympic qualifying continue to dominate the minnows, as both Costa Rica and Canada claimed shutout victories over Haiti and Cuba Saturday night and guaranteed their berths in the semi-final.
We say that soccer is a sport in which anything can happen, but so far, nothing has. The favourites ran their record to 6-0 through the third day of the tournament as both Costa Rica and Canada again overcame lower-ranked opposition without conceding a goal. Both games were tenaciously played by the underdogs but, ultimately, there were no surprises. The results eliminated both Haiti and Cuba, while Costa Rica and Canada will play Monday to determine the winner of Group A.
To give the dogs their due, Haiti enjoyed a great start against Costa Rica and became the first underdog to even make it to half with a game tied. The Haitians were playing without starting goalkeeper Ednie Limage, likely out for the tournament, but still pushed the pace early. Stiff tackling and a highly tenacious midfield allowed Haiti to overcome their skill deficit and own the possession for the first twenty minutes.
The pace was eventually slowed down by both teams, as both Costa Rica and Haiti played the game of having players lay down on the ground, call out the physios, and pop back up. Not to say there weren't injuries: after what seemed to be a time-wasting dive in the 40th minute star Costa Rican midfielder Shirley Cruz left the game at half. Daniela Cruz took a couple of challenges to the ankles that could be heard from the pressbox but that she persevered through.
Although Haiti had the possession, they lacked finish or aggression in the final third and it was Costa Rica who had the better chances. Forward Carolina Venegas missed some glorious opportunities; heading a couple open chances just over the bar, or having one shot saved, getting the rebound to fall right to her right foot, and scuffing the shot wide. At half in a tie game, Costa Rica looked the better team but there was no reason to believe Haiti was out of it.
In the second half, however, skill told. Despite the neutrals in the crowd cheering hard for Haiti, Costa Rica's Wendy Acosta took the game into her own hands. Her first goal was a beautiful finish, as in the 49th minute Carolina Vagenas knocked a slow pass to Acosta near the top of the box. Acosta curled a fantastic left-footed shot past Julieth Arias and just inside the far post to make it 1-0. On 57 minutes, Acosta got an uglier one, heading in a misplayed clearance by Haitian captain Kencia Marseille that saw Arias well out-of-position.
With Costa Rica up in front Haiti opened up the game and managed a few good chances. Most came courtesy Sophie Batard, who was a talented force demonstrating everything but finishing. On sixty-seven minutes, Batard managed to corral a bad Costa Rican clearance and advanced alone on Costa Rican keeper Geralda Saintilus. Saintilus charged Batard, who got the shot over the goalkeeper but also just over the crossbar. Fifteen minutes later, a good Batard header off a corner was just barely within Saintilus's range as she dove to keep it out.
With the game decided in the dying minutes both teams got sloppy, misplaying passes and leaving their feet repeatedly to tarnish the ending to what had been a good game. The chippiness wasn't helped by the refereeing: the crew of American Margaret Domka and El Salvadorans Emperatriz Ayala and Patricia Pacheco was extremely poor in all areas of the field.
Canada was never under threat against Cuba but their game had its difficulties. The Canadians ground out a 2-0 win on the strength of a penalty by captain Christine Sinclair and a goal in the run of play by Melissa Tancredi, and there was never any chance Cuba would spring an upset, but both players and fans still left frustrated.
With Cuba putting ten women behind the ball, Canada struggled for space. They still had their share of scoring chances but there were too many glancing side-foots, too many headers straight into Cuban keeper Lucylena Martinez's chest, and too little banging and crashing in the area. For the second straight game, Canada's set pieces were unspectacular. But there was little need for anything heroic, as Canada was focused on staying healthy and avoiding injury. Captain Sinclair substituted out at the 45th minute, while regulars such as Karina Leblanc, Candace Chapman, and Rhian Wilkinson all remained on the bench.
The best chance that was missed belonged to midfielder Kaylyn Kyle. Taking the ball in the corner of the box against Cuban fullback Anay Bombu, Kyle had her back to goal with little support and seemed to be out of tricks when she deftly flicked the ball behind her, over Bombu, and charged into position. At close range and with the keeper out of it, Kyle swung for a half-volley but fanned on it, sending her shot skittering harmlessly wide. That aside, Kyle, Tancredi, and second-half substitute Sophie Schmidt all had a bevy of quality opportunities.
There were few incidents of note in the ninety minutes. The game was distinguished only by the bunkering of the Cubans, who seemed satisfied to go gently into that good night. After losing 2-0 to eliminate themselves from the tournament, Cuban coach Luis Elejalde found himself in the absurd position of restraining his bench players from running onto the pitch to celebrate with their teammates. Cuba finds themselves ahead of Haiti in the standings but all 12,417 fans at BC Place on Saturday — the largest crowd for a senior women's game in Canadian history — know who's been playing the better soccer.
Both Canada and Costa Rica have guaranteed themselves berths in the semi-finals, but their opponents are not clear. With the United States heavy favourites to win Group B, the Canada - Costa Rican match on Monday will still be significant as both teams try to avoid finishing second and facing a semi-final against the World Cup finalists.