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The Week in Women's Football: CONCACAF Olympic Qualifying playoffs; Mexico and T&T futures clouded

This week we review the final Group matches and the semifinals and final for the CONCACAF's Olympic Qualifying in Frisco and Houston, Texas and reflect on the future of the national team programs for Mexico--a favorite for the semifinals who failed to advance out of their group--and Trinidad and Tobago, who lost badly in their semifinal versus the United States and has to build a stable structure for the women's game to advance at home. We also present Canada's reaction to the Zika virus concerns in Rio this summer.


SEMIFINALS AND FINAL

Canada defeated Costa Rica 3-1 and the U.S. beat Trinidad and Tobago 5-0 in the semifinals on Friday, February 19, with the winners advancing to the 2016 Olympic Games in Rio de Janeiro in August. Christine Sinclair (Portland Thorns) scored twice and 16-year old Deanna Rose added a late goal for the Maple Leafs while Raquel Rodriguez (Sky Blue FC) scored a consolation goal from the penalty spot. In the nightcap in front of a crowd of 5,561, Alex Morgan scored a hat trick, while Carli Lloyd and Christen Press added goals.

On Sunday, February 21, the Americans defeated Canada 2-0 for the tournament title on goals by Lindsey Horan (53') and Tobin Heath (61') who will both be teammates for the Portland Thorns this summer. The game in Houston attracted 10,119 fans. Both teams were excited for the match; Canadian head coach calling it a “derby" while U.S. head coach Jill Ellis saw it as a game against another top side, along with games in March against England, France and Germany.

Canada and the U.S. were unbeaten and largely unchallenged in their group games, except for a 1-0 U.S. victory over Mexico when Mexico presented a defensive bunker and rarely attacked. Richard Hood, the Trinidad and Tobago coach, did say the night before the semifinal that this particular approach was one option: “We will try to frustrate them and create something on the offensive end."

Trinidad and Tobago—Federation Support and Structure is Badly Needed

A continued theme throughout the press conference with coach Hood and midfielder Maylee Attin-Johnson the night before was their inadequate preparation in the run up to the tournament—which really has been going on for over a year, since the team was attempting to qualify for the Women's World Cup in late 2014. The Federation consistently is late in paying the players, bungles practice games and training camp arrangements, to the extent that the Haitian players even gave them money during the Gold Cup in 2014 to help pay for their meals.

Attin-Johnson said: “The preparation [for this tournament] is not what we wanted but doesn't justify the way we compete."

Hood added: “We need to invest in the ladies, pay them properly in tournaments…it's always about finances."

The declining global oil prices have hurt Trinidad's economy in recent times but the federation, trying to rebuild from the chaos brought by former CONCACAF President Jack Warner—a T&T native—is also struggling with financial difficulties as is the national Ministry of Sport.

Hood explained that he had been hired on the 16th of last month [January] and had no international games to help prepare the team before the tournament. The side was scheduled to travel to Costa Rica for friendly internationals on January 25 and 27 before then flying to Houston for their pre-tournament camp but the T&T Federation cancelled the trip. The Costa Rica Football Federation (CRFF) rightly was surprised and disappointed with the loss of two practice games ahead of their trip to Texas. (Costa Rica women defeated Trinidad and Tobago on penalties at the 2014 CONCACAF Championship to qualify for the Canada 2015 World Cup while T&T just missed out in finishing fourth in the Gold Cup and then losing a two-leg play-in to Ecuador in the last second of the second match at home in Port of Spain.)

Costa Rican Federation official Diego Brenes explained the situation: “Last Saturday, we were advised by T&T officials that they were likely to arrive here as late as Tuesday because some members of the team were still without American visas. However, around midday, we got word from them that money problems had made it impossible for the team to come to Costa Rica for the two games scheduled for Wednesday and Friday of this week."

Local Trinidadian reporters found out later that the visa situation had nothing to do with the cancellation—it was solely due to a lack of funds. T&T's turmoil is never in a vacuum and unfortunately affects other teams as well.

Hood replaced current Houston Dash Coach Randy Waldrum, who had volunteered with the team through the 2014 Women's World Cup qualification and then coached the team in the two game series against the U.S. last December in the Victory Tour.

Waldrum wrote last month about his termination by Football Federation President David John-Williams: “It's very disappointing personally, as I had a four-year plan to continue the growth and development of women's football for the next cycle building on all we accomplished during the last World Cup qualifiers. I have volunteered my time and was willing to continue to do so in order to see the players get the opportunity they [the players] so dearly deserve."

Some in Trinidad felt that Waldrum—sharing time with his Houston Dash NWSL job—was always a short term solution.

The Ministry of Sport funded a tournament for women last summer—the Women's Premier League—which this author discussed last October . Hood, who is also the coach of the TT Pro League outfit Police FC on the men's side, guided Fuego to the inaugural 2015 WPL crown last summer.

Though the tournament was viewed controversially at home, importing some players who played strictly amateur club ball on an occasional basis at home—even in North America--Hood wants to see it continue: “To get quality players coming in to Trinidad and Tobago, competing against our top players; it would be great to see our top players stay at home. A league and tournament of that caliber allows us to evolves the standard of play because our main league[federation run league] is poor….It was a cultural shock for some of our players last summer to be treated as a professional player for two months. We need that [for them]." Hood added that the regular league run by the federation needs better coaching, more facilities and that the level of play is “way too low to prepare us to play against the U.S., Canada or even Costa Rica."

Sources in Trinidad say that—because the previous Minister of Sport was a former professional player and keenly interested in the Sport—Brent Sancho--but lost his job in a change of government after the election, the return of the league is unlikely.


CONCACAF OLYMPIC QUALIFYING REVIEW - FINAL GROUP ROUND

Group A

On Monday, February 15, Costa Rica shocked Mexico 2-1 in the final Group A match to advance to the semifinals. Though both sides were World Cup Finalists in 2015, Costa Rica had fallen by a 5-0 score line to the U.S. while Mexico lost 1-0 to the World Champions in earlier group games. In addition, Mexico held a one goal advantage (+5 to +4) so all they needed was a tie to advance. In an enthralling match, Mexico played primarily a long ball game, utilizing their height advantage, while Costa Rica kept the ball on the ground through intricate passing, even out of their own defense. Raquel Rodriguez, who won the NCAA College Cup with Penn State last fall and scored a goal in last summer's World Cup, scored twice for the Las Ticas, in the 9th minute and in the 57th minute.

Her second goal came from the penalty spot when she was bundled over by Karla Nieto (Leonas Morelos of Mexico) in the box; Nieto had a difficult match against the mobile Tica midfielders and forwards. Rodriguez had scored five goals in three group matches. Nineteen year old Melissa Herrera (Moravia of Costa Rica) had a marvelous game on the wing until having to leave in the 70th minute with a leg injury. Mexican forward Maribel Dominguez scored a tremendous goal in the 79th minute from a penalty kick. The goal energized Mexico and they had a couple of good scoring attempts towards the end of the match, including a one-on-one breakaway from Dominguez against Costa Rican goalkeeper Dinnia Diaz (Moravia), but the all-time leading goal scorer for Mexico didn't bend her cross quite enough and it went just wide of the far post.

Mexico Needs A Coaching Regime Change After 18 Years

Costa Rica deserved their win and has been building their women's national team program for the past few years, including hosting the FIFA U-17 Women's World Cup in 2014. However, a lot of focus has shifted to the losing side, particularly what the Mexican National Team will do next. Head Coach Leonardo Cuellar has coached the team since 1998, essentially being the architect of the team after some years in dormancy. The good news is that the team has improved over the years to be competitive with the CONCACAF giants the U.S. and Canada. Cuellar has led the Mexican women to World Cup Finals in 1999, 2011 and 2015, though they never advanced from the group stage.

They qualified for their lone Olympics in 2004 in Greece, shocking Canada in the semifinals—Canada had finished fourth in the 2003 Women's World Cup—and then made the Quarterfinals in Greece. At the youth level, Mexico has three qualifications to the U-17 Women's World Cup in 2010, 2012 and 2014, with a quarterfinal berth in Costa Rica in 2014. At the U-20 level, Mexico has qualified for 7 of the 8 FIFA tournaments, including this year's event in Papua New Guinea. Their best U-20 finishes have been reaching the quarterfinals in 2010 in Germany and 2012 in Japan. The downside is that Cuellar has not consistently built the game within Mexico, focusing on the country's vast diaspora in the United States for about half of his players at the senior level and for the youth teams. In 1998 and 1999, it was a necessity as women players in Mexico struggle against prejudice from a macho culture that feels that women should not be playing such an aggressive game. Cuellar was coaching at Cal State-Los Angeles at the time—on the men's and women's side--and quickly built a team of Mexican-Americans who had more skill and experience.

Cuellar explained his philosophy at the time when he said: “American women are very athletic, very competitive…because of the culture, they have the right to imitate what men do. In Mexico, it's almost against our culture to give women that flexibility. The United State has that gift that in the society that we live, the women have [access] to anything….Machismo in Mexico is nearly impossible to remove. It's part of the culture. There will always be detractors for women participating in the sport."

Cuellar, a World Cup star in his own right in 1978 in the Argentina Finals, was idolized in the country when he played for UNAM in Mexico; he also played abroad in Spain and with the San Diego Sockers in the North American Soccer League—a rarity at that time for Mexican players to pursue careers outside of the country. He is a very bright coach and has done a lot for the women's game but his failure to sufficiently promote the growth of the game in Mexico has been a lost opportunity, not leveraging his incredibly high name recognition at home. Cuellar has also faced allegations by players of dissatisfaction with tactics and restrictions during training camps. The team underperformed in Canada, losing two points late in their first game when they seemingly were in control as Colombia tied them 1-1 on a late goal; Colombia made the Round of 16 and Mexico limped out of the first round losing to England 2-1 and France 5-0.

After England's FA ended Hope Powell's 15 year controversial time in charge of England's National Team from 1998-2013--which included not meeting expectations in FIFA World Cups and similar discontent from some players--the decision to bring in Mark Sampson had astounding success, including a World Cup 3rd Place finish in 2015 and positive attention at home and abroad.

The NWSL started in 2013 with Mexico, U.S. and Canada paying for national team player's salaries during the league season. After the first season in which most Mexican players didn't crack the starting lineup--primarily because of fitness issues--Leo effectively wrote off the agreement and Mexico has formally agreed not to continue it for 2016, providing an estimated savings to the Federation of $400,000-$500,000. Hopefully they will use those funds to develop their national league, which has shown some improvement but still is not seen as a quality structure for player development.

Cuellar said he was under pressure to keep his job before the tournament from the public but he has been in that position before in his long tenure and survived. Mexico's Federation needs a regime change for the women's program and now has the perfect opportunity to do so; Cuellar must either step aside or he and has staff be let go promptly. The time for change is now. Some possible candidates include experienced Latin American women's coaches such as the charismatic Tony Simeos (Brazil 2004 Olympic Women and Jamaica Men 1998 World Cup team) or Jorge Barcellos (who guided Brazil to a runner-up finish in the 2007 Women's World Cup and coached in Women's Professional Soccer with St; Louis Athletica).

Let's focus on Costa Rica now, who were such a delight to watch during the tournament, with their positive and savvy young coach in 29-year-old Amelia Valverde. Perhaps Costa Rica could work with NWSL to develop a similar agreement, stepping into Mexico's spot, providing 3-6 players annually such as forward Melissa Herrera, goalkeeper Dinnia Diaz (Moravia) and midfielder Cristin Granados (who played for the University of South Florida and Virginia Commonwealth University) who are all with Costa Rican side Moravia and would add a bid of class if allowed to display their skills. College coaches should look for the next Raquel Rodriguez who was college soccer's player of the year when she guided Penn State to its first national championship in women's soccer in the fall of 2015.

The United States had no difficulty in dispatching Puerto Rico 10-0 (a Territory of the U.S. where players qualify for international duty with a U.S. passport) in the second game on Monday, February 15 in front of 7,658 fans in Frisco, Texas score. Crystal Dunn (Washington Spirit) scored five goals and matched the total scored by World Cup winners Brandi Chastian, Michelle Akers, Tiffeny Milbrett, Abby Wambach, Amy Rodriguez and Sydney Leroux—all of who are retired except for Rodriguez and Leroux, who are not on the Olympic Qualifying squad as they are pregnant and on leave. The other goals came from Kelly O'Hara, Sam Mewis, Christen Press, an own goal and a penalty by Carli Lloyd.

The Puerto Rican women have primarily used P.R. natives, along with a few American-based diaspora, whereas the men's side in the past has capped players with absolutely no connection to the nation. The Americans won the Group with a 3-0-0 record for 9 points and 16 goals for against 0 allowed. Puerto Rico lost all three matches and had no goals and surrendered 25.

Group B

On Tuesday February 16 in Houston, Trinidad and Tobago defeated Guyana 5-1 to advance to the Olympic Qualifying Tournament semifinals for the first time, where they faced the World Champions. Kennya Cordner (ex-NWSL and W-League in Australia) scored twice for the Women Soca Warriors, with single tallies from Mariah Shade (Rouvroy of France), Ahkeela Mollon (La Brea Angeles of Trinidad) and an own-goal from Justine Rodrigues (Unattached). Bria Williams (Vaughn Soccer Club in Canada) was the scorer for Guyana.

In the second game on February 16, Canada defeated Guatemala 10-0. Head Coach John Herdman rested some of his regular starters, having assured their spot in the semifinals after wins in their first two games. Herdman explained: “We've made sure everyone is focused and on task. Every game we play for Canada is important to us and we wanted to go out there with the same sort of intensity and attitude we've brought to every game. We've had a tournament plan coming in and we've been able to stick to that plan in terms of players and rotations and rests, so when we get to game four, and game five, we are in the best space possible." Rebecca Quinn (Duke University) scored three goals—her first for the national team—as did Nichelle Prince (Ohio State University). Melissa Tancredi (KIF Orebro in 2016) added a brace and Janine Beckie (Houston Dash in 2016) and Gabrielle Carle (Quebec Dyanamos) scored once each, with Carle scoring her first full international goal.

Canada played Costa Rica in their semifinal. One disadvantage for Canada is that the Group B semifinalists have one less day off than do the two Group A sides. Herdman said: “That was always going to be the challenge. The other group is going to get a day's extra rest and we had to put that in place for our planning. We looked at the accumulated minutes (of players) and what people can actually really recover with. The goal has always been to make sure that players were fresh for game four--players that we felt were going to have a big impact on that game--so that they are feeling fresh and ready to go. And then there will be a group ready for game five [the championship final]." Note: The Zika Virus was a not a salient topic of concern among the teams competing in the CONCACAF Olympic Qualifiers. The United States Olympic Committee has told its various sports federations that their staff and athletes are not obligated to go to Rio de Janeiro for the Olympic Games and Hope Solo has said that—if she had to make the decision now—she would not take the risk. At this point, it seems highly unlikely to envision the U.S. women's team bypassing the Olympic Games short of the U.S. Olympic Committee baring all athletes from Rio.

It's more likely that individual players may choose not to go—perhaps including Solo. When asked about their concerns about the Zika virus after their qualifying win in the semifinals, Canadian National Team Coach John Herdman looked bemused and said he had no concerns, while his veteran team captain Christina Sinclair said that the players have not talked about it at all; she seemed equally nonplussed about the topic.

Tim Grainey
About the author

Tim Grainey

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