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The Week in Women's Football: United States, Canada qualify for Olympics; Matildas edge China on goal difference;

This week we present some coaches' and players' quotes and our thoughts on the recently completed CONCACAF 2020 Olympic Games Qualifying Tournament. We also have the final results for Group B of the Asian Football Confederation Olympic Qualifying Tournament.


CONCACAF 2020 Olympic Games Qualifying Wrap-up

The United States and Canada both qualified for the 2020 Tokyo Olympic Games from the CONCACAF region, with the Americans advancing as regional champions after dispatching the Maple Leafs 3-0 in the final in Los Angeles on February 9. The key games were the semifinals two nights earlier in which Canada narrowly defeated Costa Rica 1-0 and the U.S. had a relatively easy time of it against Mexico, winning 4-0.


Costa Rica

Costa Rican head coach Amelia Valverde summed up the tournament afterwards when she said: "We reached our first goal which was the qualification to the semifinals. It hurts [to lose] but we need to keep believing in our work and our team."

When she was asked what needs to be done to help the country win such a game against a big regional rival such as Canada, she said, "We need to remember that women's football in the country is going through a big change. In past three months, we had good results: we played at home with a huge crowd and won a medal in Lima [at the Pan American Games, though some countries sent second sides], but we need to keep having these types of games. We need to keep competing against big teams and keep building."

At the Pan American Games last summer, in the group stage, Costa Rica defeat Panama 3-1, host Peru by the same score and tied Argentina 0-0. In the semifinals, Costa Rica fell to eventual champions Columbia 4-3 in extra time. They then defeated Paraguay 1-0 in the third place match to take the bronze medal.

Valverde continued discussing what she could use from her Federation, "For U-15 level they have two preseason tournaments coming up but for the senior team we hope to have 2-3 FIFA friendly matches a year, which is a big difference that all the big teams have; we don't have the opportunity. It will make a big difference for us to have 6-7 games a year with rivals like what we had today."

The 2014 FIFA U-17 Women's World Cup that was held in Costa Rica was a huge success in building local awareness for the team, and Valverde later led the senior squad to their first World Cup tournament in 2015 in Canada. They slipped up in qualifying for 2019, not making it out of the group stage of the regional finals, while Jamaica qualified for France and Panama fell to Argentina in the inter-confederations play-in spot. Costa Rica and Panama will co-host the U-20 FIFA Women's World Cup this year, which will further help advance the game not only in Costa Rica and Panama but throughout Central America. Though Costa Rica failed to advance to Tokyo, they and Mexico—who also failed to advance out of the group stage at the World Cup regional finals tournament ahead of France—have realigned the traditional balance of power in the region as they are again seen, with the Americans and Canadians, as the top quartet in the region.


Canada

Canada coach Kenneth Heiner-Moller said after the Costa Rica win, which came via a late Jordan Huitema (PSG in France) goal from substitute's Deanne Rose (University of Florida) cross, "They [Costa Rica] sat very, very deep and we didn't get the room we had to fall between the two lines and when we got it in there, we didn't have space enough to turn and we were a little too slow so that the center back was stepping onto us and we needed someone to break a line and there isn't anyone better than Deanne Rose to make sure that we do break a line. When she came on, the game was a little more stretched; we had room to play behind and found some of these players turning on the inside; she definitely had a significant impact on the result at the end."

Heiner-Moller definitely feels that his team is among the top sides in the world and will be competitive in Tokyo, "The team is looking for right now to make the next step. Ever since we came out of the World Cup [where they fell short of expectations by losing in the Round of 16 stage] we have been setting new goals and we looked a little beyond the qualifying because we want to be at the podium again [Canada has finished with the Bronze Medal in the last two Olympic Games]; I do think we have the team for it….It's a short tournament this summer, when we play anyone in the world we have the chance to win, that's how good the team is, but small things can have a big impact—[we have to]make sure we are ready for taking care of small things and continue on the path we are on."

Sophie Schmidt, who played with Frankfurt of Germany for three season before returning to the NWSL (where she played two years for Sky Blue FC) by signing with the Houston Dash ahead of the 2019 season, told this reporter after the Costa Rica match about their tactical approach against a side that played very defensively, "We were playing a three back and I'm part of the three and it's part of my skill set that I'm really good on the ball and they [coaching staff] thought it was good for me to be there and allowed us to change formations as well and for me to step into midfield if we needed it… From midfield I had little moments that I could go forward [into attack]."

Qualifying for her fourth Olympics, Schmidt said that she was, "super-excited, the Olympics are so special and this group comes alive and thrives in the Olympics. This is the best team we have ever had and I'm really excited to see what we can do."

Her teammate and now all-time international goal-scorer Christine Sinclair said, "Costa Rica made it difficult, but we dominated, we finally got one, and we were so solid defensively that we weren't going to give one up after that. Going to the Olympic Games never gets old and every one brings a different story and different experience. We can now look forward to getting back on that podium."

Jordan Huitema, who led the tournament with seven goals, said about her goal which sent Canada to their fourth consecutive Olympic Games Finals, "Of all the goals I have scored, this one definitely has the most meaning. I was just ecstatic at first, but we refocused after the goal to make sure we kept pushing and that they don't get one back on us."


Mexico

Mexico's head coach Chris Cuellar, who's side lost to the U.S. 4-0 in their February 7 semifinal, said that the Americans are so good because of their competitive environment, "When you train at that level and have that competition, the game comes a little easier with that competition [within the U.S. squad and deep bench]. It's tough to handle that." Cuellar was then asked an interesting question about his squad composition after the match—"Charlyn Corral is a leading scorer in [the] Spanish League There's been a lot of speculation why she wasn't here. Given this elimination, are there second thoughts about her not being here?" Cueller quickly responded, "No." He went onto add, "Charlyn's a good player. Charlyn's a great player. She's playing in Spain. She's had a successful career. The decision to not have Charlyn here comes from the idea that in past experiences, when we have this type of competition, it's tough when players come in at the end [of pre-tournament training camps] because you work weeks for the final camp and players arrive just before the completion. I'm happy with the players, their dedication and how they have trained for coming up into this completion. After this competition there will be an evaluation and we will see where are options are going forward."

There is history here with the Corral issue. In 2015, she was vocal in expressing her displeasure after the team's disappointing Group Stage exit at the Women's World Cup in Canada, saying that Chris Cuellar's father—former Mexican national team playing legend Leonardo Cuellar—should be terminated after almost two decades in the job, for his reported dictatorial way of managing the team. Cuellar did leave the national team post the next year, after 18 seasons in charge. Corral is playing for Atletico Madrid this season in Spain where she has 6 goals in 17 matches, after scoring 20 in 2018-19 with Levante to finish second in the league—she lead the Spanish Women's League in scoring in 2017-18 with 25 goals, again at Levante. Atletico Madrid is in the Quarterfinals of the 2019-20 UEFA Women's Champions League and Corral is a high profile scorer in the league. She did play earlier this year for Mexico in the Cyprus Cup, friendlies and at the Pan American Games in Peru. Corral reacted strongly on social media when she was not called in for this tournament, "I don't know the reasons for my absence. I haven't had contact with people from @miselectionmx [Mexican Football Federation] for several months. I'm on pace with @AtletiFemenino [Atletico Madrid Women] and 100% available. @AtlecFemenino would have supported my call without problem. I was excited and I was very motivated to face the Pre-Olympic [tournament] with my teammates. It hurts. Clear….If playing in one of the most important clubs in the world @AtletiFemenio, competing @UCWL [UEFA Women's Champions League] and carrying 94 goals in Europe is NOT enough to respect us, one thing is clear: we need a lot as a country to support all Mexican athletes as they deserve. If I have to raise my voice for the development of women's football, I will do it as I did at the time [after the 2015 World Cup]."

Corral makes clear that she harbors no ill will towards her teammates, "I wish all my partners best of luck in the Pre Olympic @miseleccionmx deserves to be in these international competitions, hopefully they can get…to Tokyo."

This doesn't seem to be the same situation as what happened to former Spanish international forward Vero Boquete, who we talked to last year just after she signed with the Utah Royals [https://www.tribalfootball.com/articles/the-week-in-women-s-football-exclusive-with-vero-boquete-schmidt-makes-nwsl-return-india-claim-saff-title-4275134]

situation, when also after the 2015 WWC, she called for their long-time head coach Ignacio Quereda—who directed the team for almost three decades—to be switched out, which ultimately happened but she has not been called back into the national team since then. Corral is part of the Mexican team pool and Cuellar's point made sense about shuttling in players who missed camp—this is a continual issue for any national team coach—but clearly some think that Corral is being ignored in key games because of her past complaints. Only time and future event squad lists will tell.


United States

Vlatko Andonovski concluded his seventh consecutive game in charge of the U.S. women with his seventh win in the 3-0 defeat of Canada in the CONCACAF Final on February 9, but the win over Mexico in the semifinal guaranteed his team a spot in Tokyo and he talked about his approach with every game after that win over Mexico, "We have [the] same attitude [that] in every game we go into is the most important game, whether it is a qualifying tournament or friendly or any game or opponent we have in front of us; it is the most important game and that is how we will treat the game on Sunday [ultimately a 3-0 win]. I was very happy how we performed." He discussed midfielder Rose Lavelle [the 2019 WWC Bronze Ball Winner] who scored the first goal of the game against Mexico after only five minutes, "She is a special player; I enjoy coaching her and watching her. Some of the things she comes up with surprises me too and I'm just glad that most of the time they are good for the team and she scores some valuable goals. She has so much potential and I think she will get better and better."

The Americans finished the tournament with 25 goals for and 0 against and again emphasized that they are the class of the region, with Canada in second, and Mexico and Costa Rica chasing behind. After the upsets of the latter two in the 2019 World Cup qualification finals, it seems that balance has been restored, but what of the future? It's good to see Mexico competitive again and their Liga MX Femenil has been a tremendous boost to women's football development across the country. Men's top division sides now must have a women's side and that model may be the approach in other countries trying to advance their women's program, though the concern always is, if the men's side has a poor season on the field or is even relegated, then will they reduce the women's team budget disproportionately or even dispand the women's team, as we saw so often in England in the past before the launch of the FA Super League?

So what about the Caribbean prospects moving ahead? Haiti and Jamaica both finished third in their respective groups, beating up on Panama and St. Kitts and Nevis respectively. Haiti seems like the best prospect to push the top 4 teams in the region for a 2023 WWC berth. Currently CONCACAF had 3.5 spots in France (which was three after Panama couldn't get by Argentina) while they had 4.5 in Canada (or finally four with the Canadians as hosts and Trinidad and Tobago falling to Ecuador in the intercontinental play-in). That number should increase to at least 4.5 or even 5.5 with the planned expansion from 24 to 32 teams in 2023, so a Caribbean team should have a strong chance to advance. Whether it is Jamaica again depends on their federation's support of the team and program, but having gone through three coaches in approximately four month's time over pay disputes is not a good sign and they could be following Trinidad and Tobago's problems, which again had money at their root, and have fallen far in the region since 2015. We will keep the reader informed on issues around the CONCACAF nations in the future.



Australia Wins Group B on Goal Difference over China after late 1-1 Draw in Asian 2020 Olympic Games Third Round Qualifiers

The 2020 Asian Football Confederation's (AFC) Women's Olympic Games Qualifying Football Tournament Third Round was completed this month in two groups, with Group A's Korea Republic (first) and Vietnam (second) advancing to the Final Round of qualifying next month, in two leg finals, with the winners gaining a spot in Tokyo this summer.

In Group B, original scheduled for Wuhan, China but held in Sydney because of the Coronavirus epidemic, on February 3 Chinese Taipei upset Thailand 1-0, with a 19th minute goal by Ting Chi (24). Chinese Taipei was brought back down to earth on February 7 when Australia pounced for 7 goals—3 from Arsenal's Caitlin Foord—in suburban Sydney. The day before, the People's Republic of China opened their tournament with a 6-1 thrashing of Thailand, with braces from Li Ying (along with 1 assist) and Tang Jiali (24 of Shanghai Ladies). Ying currently plays with Shandong Ladies and at 27, has over 100 caps for her country, and played for a short time in the Korea Republic with Suwon. On February 9, China blasted Chinese Taipei 5-0, eliminating the latter side with 30-year-old Wang Shanshan (Tianjin Huisen) scoring a brace and, if she plays in this summer's Olympics, should surpass 150 caps for her country by the end of the year.

The next day, Australia eliminated Thailand in a 6-0 win, with Emily Van Egmond (Melbourne City) scoring a hat-trick along with one assist, with her City teammate Ellie Carpenter and Sam Kerr (Chelsea in England) each recording two assists, and Kyah Simon (Sydney FC) scored a brace. The Matiladas had 74% possession to only 26% for Thailand and had healthy advantages in shots (38-1), shots on target (13-0) and corner kicks (13-1). On February 13, in the last group game, the two undefeated sides met and Emily Van Egmond was again the hero as she rescued her side with a 92nd minute goal from a Kyah Simon assist to tie China 1-1 in Parramatta (suburban Sydney) but won Group B on goal difference (+13 to +10). Tang Jiali (Shanghai Ladies) gave her side the lead in the 86th minute before Van Egmond's heroics. Both Jiali and Van Egmond finished with 4 goals to lead all scorers in both groups. Australia led in possession (70% to 30%) but China had more shots (19 to 15) and shots on target (7 to 3).

Australia by far has the easier opponent in the two leg finals, facing Vietnam with the first leg at home in Newcastle on March 6th, while China and Korea Republic will be a close-run affair, with the two sides drawing 0-0 the last time they met in December at the East Asia Football Championships in Busan, Korea Republic. In January of 2019, China defeated Korea Republic 1-0 in Wuhua in the Four Nations Tournament.



Tim Grainey is a contributor to Tribal Football. His latest book Beyond Bend it Like Beckham on the global game of women's football. Get your copy today.

Follow Tim on Twitter: @TimGrainey

Tim Grainey
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Tim Grainey

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