CONCACAF Women's Olympic Qualification: Favourites Face a Challenge

Sophie Schmidt of the Canadian national team heads a goal past Costa Rican goalkeeper Julieth Arias (Jeff Vinnick/Getty Images)

While the favourites ran their record to 10-0-0 in CONCACAF women's Olympic qualifying, Canada and Haiti did at least face challenges from Costa Rica and Cuba to close out Group A.

While the higher-ranked Canadian and Haitian teams both emerged victorious on the last day of Group A, predictions of a more competitive final set came true as both sides endured at least a token fight from Cuba and Costa Rica.

The biggest news came off the field, as Cuban players Yezenia Gallardo and Yisel Rodriguez apparently defected. Scuttlebutt began when both players were listed as absent on the Cuban roster and it was learned that neither had been seen with the Cuban team since Saturday. CONCACAF released a statement confirming that the players had defected, reportedly at the American border: no further comments were forthcoming. However, it was the story of the game as well as a sore loss for the Cuban team, who got little from Rodriguez but relied upon Gallardo as one of their best players.

Both Haiti and Cuba showed some will to attack. Cuba played a 4-3-3 that was fairly passive but willing to snatch at chances, while the Haitians tried an unconventional 4-4-2 that leaned upon winger Kimberly Boulos and left back Fiorda Charles in free roles to generate offense. As a result, the ball moved on both sides of the pitch in a way we've not been accustomed to with these two teams, but woeful passing accuracy and a tendency to waste possession with outside shots prevented scoring.

On only seven minutes the Cubans managed to split Haiti's defense, with Rachel Pelaez eluding most of the Haitian midfield on a weaving run towards the right-hand side of Haiti's area. Pelaez got overlap through the middle from Maria Isabel Perez who drove in on goal with space and a great opportunity but released a dribbling low shot to Haitian goalkeeper Geralda Saintilus.

The quality of play was not excellent as both teams played chippily and missed too many passes. However, the game kept up a decent pace and a good see-saw back and forth which at least promised entertainment. Haiti had their first good chance on twelve minutes when Manoucheka Pierre-Louis stripped the ball smartly from Dayanay Baro, took a couple quick steps, and unleashed a shot from distance which only just flew over the bar. On twenty-four minutes Sophia Batard, probably Haiti's most consistent danger-woman, caught a good pass from Pierre-Louis and turned around defender Sucel Maceo on the edge of the box to make space. Batard had a right-footed shot at a tight angle which Lucylena Martinez saved well.

Cuba had a good chance in stoppage time, as Rachel Pelaez started a break down the left and suddenly found herself with plenty of time. Jogging in on the Haitian goal as the defenders closed, Pelaez fired a left-footed shot that didn't go far wide. Not long after the half Cuba almost struck again, when an exceptional winding run by Pelaez kept the ball away before beating Carmela Aristilde and, with seemingly nothing but a goal in front of her, muffed a shot which somehow hit goalkeeper Saintilus on the toe of her left boot.

Not long after the hour, Cuba squandered what would prove to be their best opportunity. After a night of errant passing Cuban midfielder Yaremis Fuentes finally found her mark, springing Maria Isabel Perez on a full-blown breakaway. Perez had Haitian defender Roselord Borgella dead to rights but, rather than charge on goal, held up at the top of the box and stopped to change feet, allowing Borgella to catch up and block the ensuing shot.

At last, after two and two-thirds games of frustration, Haiti broke the goose egg. In the seventy-first minute Kimberly Boulos clashed hard with Cuban defender Anay Bombu going for a header in the area: Bombu had nothing in mind but knocking Boulos down and it could have been a penalty. Instead, Haiti got a corner: Manoucheka Pierre-Louis struck a corner low that Wisline Dolce awkwardly headed. The ball bounced straight to the aggrieved Boulos who hammered it into the top of the goal to give Haiti their first of the tournament.

The neutral crowd, getting behind a sentimental favourite, roared its approval and the Haitians kept coming. Five minutes later, Batard went for a run through the centre of the park, beating Cuban defenders Jessica Pupo and Rachel Pelaez before placing a pin-point pass onto the foot of Manoucheka who finished delicately but accurately. Then, in the eighty-third minute, with the crowd still cheering, Nadia Valentin corralled a magnificent through pass down the middle from Dolce and put a light shot just inside the right post, making a heart gesture to the cheering fans.

The match was for nothing more than pride but the convincing and well-earned win will allow Haiti to leave with their heads held high. Haiti was playing in donated equipment and their program was in such difficulty that Canadian fans held fundraisers for the team around Vancouver. They were beaten badly by Canada and then had the most unfair of times against Costa Rica, but in the stereotype of the plucky underdog they were always ready to fight again in the next match. Cuba, whose passivity and failure to finish cost them dearly, is not the most glamorous opponent but, for the Haitians, a win is a win - their first ever in the final round of Olympic qualifying.

Canada, meanwhile, didn't exactly have a hard time against Costa Rica but at least made the game interesting. The Costa Ricans, like every other favoured team in this tournament, had hereto not conceded a goal but that didn't last long. Canada came out thundering, with wide midfielders Sophie Schmidt and Kaylyn Kyle causing 45 minutes of chaos, Kelly Parker traumatizing the Costa Rican defenders, and of course striker Christine Sinclair living up to her billing.

It took only six minutes for Canada to get on the board: a blue-collar effort in the box caused the ball to fall to Sinclair who simply piled it in. Schmidt added her first of the tournament with an accurate close-range header within the game's opening fifteen minutes and the pattern of the first half was set.

Costa Rica, to their credit, did not entirely sit back. Shirley Cruz had one of her better games of the tournament although she was kept tightly in check by defensive midfielder Desiree Scott and central defenders Shannon Woeller and Candace Chapman were under at least sporadic pressure. This just opened up more avenues for Canada's own attack. In the twentieth minute, Sinclair drooped a pass over the Costa Rican defense to Kaylyn Kyle sitting virtually on Julieth Arias's doorstep: Kyle has been jinxed a bit through the first two games but made no mistake and Canada was running away. Sinclair's fourth put another one away just before the half-time whistle to make the game a laugher.

Sadly, the Costa Ricans would not be laughing at the fifth goal: central defender Marianne Ugalde drifted a harmless backpass under no pressure that goalkeeper Arias should have had. Be she traumatized, distracted, or just unlucky, the ball passed between her feet and into the back of the goal for one of the more embarrassing own goals you'd ever see.

With the game won and three substitutes used before the hour Canada sat on their laurels, conserved energy, and waited for the win. This led to what, remarkably, would be a historic moment: with Canada's central defenders dilly-dallying on the ball their time-wasting passes grew careless and Costa Rica intercepted. The ball fell to substitute Fernanda Barrantes who, running with a mission, hammered a splendid half-volley through Karina LeBlanc that silenced the home crowd. It was a meaningless final goal in a 5-1 loss, but it was also the first time the favoured team had conceded through ten games of this tournament.

The results left, as expected, Canada on top of Group A with a 3-0-0 record while Costa Rica finishes second with two wins and one loss. Canada will play the loser and Costa Rica the winner of Tuesday's United States - Mexico match on Friday to determine who advances to the 2012 London Olympics.

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