EDINBURG, TEXAS – Back to business.
That’s been the message from Christine Sinclair ever since the iconic Canadian captain scored her 185th goal earlier this week at the Concacaf Olympic qualifying tournament to become the all-time leading scorer (for both men and women) in international soccer.
With that history-making moment now out of the way, Sinclair and her Canadian teammates can focus squarely on the task at hand: Qualifying for this summer’s Tokyo Olympics.
After thrashing lowly Saint Kitts and Nevis 11-0 on Wednesday, Canada turns its attention to Saturday evening’s encounter with Jamaica. The hoopla surrounding Sinclair’s record-breaking achievement is now firmly in the rear-view mirror for this Canadian side.
“It’s a great achievement and I hope we celebrated it as much as we could, but (Sinclair) was the first to say this, ‘that this is not about me,’ and that we need to make sure to win the next one and the next one,” Canadian coach Kenneth Heiner-Møller told reporters after Friday’s practice.
Games come fast and furious in this competition – Canada will play five times in a 12-day span if it goes all the way to the finals on Feb. 9. Heiner-Møller rotated his squad for Canada’s opening contest, resting a number of veteran starters, and injecting a number of youngsters into the starting lineup.
And as unfathomable as it might be to believe, Sinclair could be given the evening off against Jamaica, against whom she’s scored 11 times in her career. The Canadian captain didn’t participate in the first 15 minutes of Friday’s training session, and instead watched from the sidelines.
Maybe that’s a sign that Heiner-Møller is saving her for the group stage finale against Mexico next Tuesday? If so, Heiner-Møller isn’t tipping his hand, explaining that Sinclair was enjoying a recuperation day on Friday. He added that all 20 players on his roster are fit and ready to play if needed vs. Jamaica.
“We need to make sure everybody is ready throughout the entire tournament. We do that with Sincy (give her a day off from full training) often… It’s individual rests during these quick turnarounds so that everybody is ready to play,” Heiner-Møller affirmed.
Even if Sinclair does feature on Saturday, Heiner-Møller could still give his captain a bit of rest and use her coming off the bench. Should Sinclair not start vs. Jamaica, it’ll be the first time she isn’t named to Canada’s starting 11 since April 8, 2019 in a friendly against Nigeria held in Spain.
If history is any indication, this Canadian team should be able to easily brush aside Jamaica, ranked 51st in the world, even without Sinclair. Canada has won all seven of its previous meetings vs. the Reggae Girlz, by a combined score of 48-1.
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Canada currently tops Group B with three points (and a plus-11 goal difference, the first tiebreaker). Mexico is also on three points (plus-one). Winless Jamaica and Saint Kitts sit at the bottom of the group, in that order.
Canada could clinch a spot in the semifinals with a win over Jamaica, provided that Saint Kitts doesn’t beat Mexico in Wednesday’s other Group B game. The top two nations in Group A and B advance to the semifinals of this Concacaf tournament. Only the two finalists qualify for this summer’s Olympics in Tokyo.
Winning Group B would likely give Canada an easier path towards earning an Olympic berth. It’s fair to assume the top-ranked United States will win Group A, so Canada will want to avoid a semifinal showdown with their neighbours to the south – a semifinal vs. Costa Rica, Haiti or Panama, the other teams in Group A, would pose a far easier challenge for the Canadian side. Canada has lost to the U.S. in the finals at the last three Concacaf Olympic qualifying tournaments.
“We need to win both our (remaining) matches in this group to be safe to win (the group). We said coming into this tournament that we needed nine points, and that’s what we’re going for. We’re not looking for a draw in this match or the next one. We’re going for the win,” Heiner-Møller stated.
Canada, eighth in the current FIFA world rankings, had its way with Saint Kitts and Nevis in its opening match of the group stage, slipping 11 goals past the Sugar Girlz. Ranked No. 127 in the world, Saint Kitts is making its debut in this tournament.
Jamaica is a country on the rise in the Concacaf region, though. They are coming off their first World Cup appearance last summer in France, and in Khadija Shaw they have a striker who is “world class,” according to Heiner-Møller.
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But Shaw, who plays professionally in the French first division with Girondins de Bordeaux, clashed heads with a Mexican defender in Jamaica’s 1-0 loss on Tuesday. The incident occurred in injury time, and even though Shaw walked away from it, she was taken to a local hospital for tests.
A Concacaf official confirmed that Shaw attended Jamaica’s practice on Friday, but that she worked out on her own, rather than participating fully in the team training sessions. In an interview with the Jamaica Observer newspaper, Jamaican team doctor Gillian Lawrence was reluctant to say whether or not Shaw would be cleared for Saturday’s encounter vs. Canada.
“It’ll be too bad if she’s not playing. I hope that she’ll be on the pitch. You never hope that your opposition isn’t playing because of an injury, so I hope she’ll be fine,” Heiner-Møller offered.
Jamaica is not as skilled or experienced as Canada, but Heiner-Møller expects an intense and attack-minded approach from the Caribbean team
“They have the taste for it, to play international football, after being in a World Cup. They know what it’s like, so they want more. I expect a very committed, very determined Jamaican team on the pitch,” Heiner-Møller said.
NOTES: Group A consists of two-time reigning World Cup champions United States (ranked No. 1 in the world), Costa Rica (37), Panama (53) and Haiti (68). Costa Rica and the U.S. currently lead Group A with six points each… The semifinals and finals are scheduled for Feb. 7 to 9 in Carson, California.