Four takeaways from the CONCACAF Women’s Olympic Qualifying Championship

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By Tim Grainey

HOUSTON, TEXAS — With the conclusion of the CONCACAF Women’s Olympic Qualifiers this past weekend in Texas, we present four takeaways from the 2012 tournament.

1. U.S. and Canada carry CONCACAF banner to the Olympics again
CONCACAF’s two medalists from the London 2012 Games will return in 2016, as the U.S. beat Trinidad and Tobago 5–0 and Canada bested Costa Rica 3–1 in the all-important qualifying tournament semifinals on Friday. The U.S. then went on to beat Canada 2–0 with second half goals by Lindsey Horan and Tobin Heath in Houston on Sunday.

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The U.S. will be heavy favorites to win their fourth Olympic title in a row and are trying to be the first side ever to win back-to-back Women’s World Cup and Olympic crowns. For Canada, the team members and coaching staff emphasized that they want to medal in Rio. Canadian and Houston Dash defender Allysha Chapman explained: “We don’t want people to say the last Olympics [where Canada won bronze] was a fluke. We’re going into this next Olympics and we want to medal. We want to medal back-to-back so that people know it wasn’t a fluke.”

In Group A, the U.S. won all three of their matches against Costa Rica, Mexico and Puerto Rico, scoring 16 goals and allowing none. In Group B, Canada was also undefeated in defeating Guatemala, Guyana and Trinidad and Tobago, with 21 goals for and none surrendered.

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Both sides have utilized youth since the 2015 World Cup. The U.S. had exceptional performances from 21-year-old midfielder Lindsey Horan (ex-PSG and Portland Thorns in 2016), who scored the winner in the final against Canada, 23-year-old Crystal Dunn (the NWSL MVP and Leading Scorer last season with the Washington Spirit), who scored five times against Puerto Rico in a 10–0 win, and 17-year-old Mallory Pugh, who, after talk of her bypassing college to play with the NWSL Thorns, is now set to play at UCLA in the fall.

For Canada, 16-year-old forward Deanna Rose, who scored twice against Guyana, 23-year-old defender Shelina Zadorsky (Washington Spirit in 2016), and 20-year old defender Rebecca Quinn (Duke University), who scored a hat trick in the victory over Guatemala all had solid tournaments. These talented youngsters represent the high hopes for the next generation of both programs.

2. Mexico bombs out of the group stage — does Leo Cuellar’s 18-year reign finally end?
Costa Rica shocked Mexico 2–1 in their last Group A match to advance to the semifinals. Though both sides were World Cup finalists in 2015, Costa Rica had lost 5–0 to the U.S., while Mexico lost only by a 1–0 scoreline to the world champions in earlier group games. In addition, Mexico held a one goal advantage (+5 to +4) so that 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 and largely controlled the game. 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 Ticas in the 9th minute and in the 57th minute. Mexican forward Maribel Dominguez, who played in WUSA with the Atlanta Beat and the Chicago Red Stars in the NWSL in 2013, replied with a tremendous goal in the 79th minute from an overhead kick.

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Head coach Leonardo Cuellar has led the team since 1998, always building his senior and youth teams with about 50% American diaspora. The good news is that the team has improved over the years to be competitive with 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 performed particularly poorly last summer, losing control of a match to surprising Colombia and dropping two crucial points in a 1–1 tie and then losing to England 2–1 and France 5–0. Not making the semifinals of this tournament really calls out a need to change the overall program’s coaching and strategic direction.

Players have been critical of Cuellar’s tactics and management style, plus Mexico announced recently that they will no longer pay for their national team players to participate in NWSL. England showed how positive changing a long-standing national team coach can be. Hope Powell was in charge of England for 15 years and some of the same complaints were heard from players and fans. Mark Sampson — a native of Wales — took over and in a year and a half they won the spring Cyprus Cup and finished third in the World Cup in Canada to large acclaim at home and around the world.

The Mexican federation needs a regime change with a direction to the new head coach to focus on growing the game within Mexico, particularly at the top league and youth levels. The federation needs to make this move quickly in order to send a message that the women’s game in Mexico is important.

3. Costa Rica Continues to Impress
Costa Rica added to their reputation, building off a fine initial World Cup performance last summer, with a tremendous run to the semifinals. Even in their 3–1 quarterfinal loss to Canada, they never gave up and were a well skilled team that liked the ball at their feet.

Their 29-year-old coach, Amelia Valverde, is a clever leader and the program is bubbling over with confidence. Costa Rica has some talented players who could help an NWSL side, such as forward Melissa Herrera, defender Carol Sanchez and goalkeeper Dinnia Diaz, who all play at home with Moravia. College coaches should look to the country for impact-making prospects, following in the shoes of aforementioned forward Raquel Rodriguez, who won the Hermann Trophy as college soccer’s best player and will play in NWSL with Sky Blue FC this season.

4. Zika virus is not a primary concern at this point
Despite Hope Solo’s recent comments, the Zika virus was not a 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 due to the outbreak of the Zika virus. The virus is carried via mosquitos and is linked to microcephaly, which can result in the birth of malformed babies. Particularly at risk are pregnant women or women considering pregnancy.

It is highly unlikely the U.S. women’s team will bypass the Olympics short of the U.S. Olympic Committee barring all athletes from Rio. It’s more likely that individual players may choose not to go. Hope Solo — who was rated the best goalkeeper at last summer’s World Cup — said just before the CONCACAF Tournament that if she had to make a decision today: “I would never take the risk of having an unhealthy child. I don’t know when that day will come for [husband] Jerramy [Stevens] and me, but I personally reserve my right to have a healthy baby. No athlete competing in Rio should be faced with this dilemma. Female professional athletes already face many different considerations and have to make choices that male professional athletes don’t.”

When asked about their concerns about the Zika virus, Canadian head coach John Herdman looked bemused and said he had no concerns, while his veteran captain Christine Sinclair said that the players have not talked about it at all. She seemed equally nonplussed about the topic.

Tim Grainey’s latest book Beyond Bend it Like Beckham on the global game of women’s football. Follow Tim on Twitter @TimGrainey.