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When the Canadian women’s soccer team lost to the United States in the final of the CONCACAF W Championship in Mexico in July 2022, it didn’t seem like a big deal.
Yes, it would have been nice to beat the Americans for the regional title and take the one Olympic berth up for grabs in the tournament. But, surely, the reigning Olympic champions would have little trouble securing a ticket to the 2024 Games in Paris when they faced Jamaica in a second-chance, winner-take-all qualifier.
After all, Canada, ranked eighth in the world at the time, had just trounced the 51st-ranked Jamaicans 3-0 in the semifinals of the CONCACAF championship tournament before dropping a hard-fought 1-0 decision to the top-ranked Americans in the final. The Canadians were simply on a different level.
But, now that the Canada-Jamaica qualifier has finally arrived, that may no longer be the case. And Canada must confront the real possibility of losing the chance to defend its Olympic title.
The two-leg playoff for CONCACAF’s final Olympic spot begins Friday at 8 p.m. ET in Kingston, Jamaica and concludes Tuesday at 7 p.m. ET at a sold-out BMO Field in Toronto. The aggregate score of the two matches determines the winner. If it’s tied, the team with more away goals wins. If that doesn’t solve it, 30 minutes of extra time will be played, followed by a penalty shootout if necessary. The winner goes to the Olympics. The loser misses out, and there are no more chances to qualify.
The Canadians were one of the most disappointing teams in the tournament, failing to get out of the group stage after getting trounced 4-0 by 10th-ranked Australia when they needed only a draw to advance. The quick flameout dropped the Olympic champs from seventh to 10th in the world rankings.
Jamaica, on the other hand, was one of the World Cup’s most pleasant surprises. After giving up an astonishing 12 goals (and scoring only one) in their tournament debut four years earlier, the world’s 43rd-ranked team shut out all three of its group opponents to advance to the knockout stage. The Reggae Girlz earned the Caribbean’s first-ever Women’s World Cup victory when they beat Panama 1-0, and they battled No. 5 France and No. 8 Brazil to surprising scoreless draws before falling 1-0 to a very good Colombian team in the Round of 16. As a result, Jamaica climbed six spots to No. 37 in the world rankings.
Rocky road for Canada
To be fair to the Canadians, they endured a rough road to the World Cup. A great deal of their energy was sapped by a bitter (and still ongoing) labour dispute with Canada Soccer over what the players describe as inadequate resources and support from the inept national governing body.
But the Jamaicans overcame probably even worse treatment from an even more threadbare federation. Tired of the lack of support, the team turned to crowdfunding to help defray its World Cup expenses and raised nearly $100,000 US for its trip to Australia. The Reggae Girlz then repaid their donors with sweat equity, masking their shortage of scoring talent with airtight defensive play and a fierce team spirit that made them more than the sum of their parts.
Sound familiar? That’s essentially the formula that carried Canada to its stunning Olympic gold medal in 2021. But coach Bev Priestman’s squad’s once-impenetrable defence looks a bit leaky these days, while 40-year-old Christine Sinclair’s decline has exposed the dearth of reliable scorers on the roster. In their seven matches so far in 2023, the Canadians have surrendered 12 goals while scoring just five.
Given those concerns, and with Jamaica so successfully emulating Canada’s blueprint, the Olympic champs could have their hands full in this high-pressure playoff matchup. It can no longer be treated as a formality. If the Canadians want the chance to defend their gold medal, they’re going to have to work for it.
Read more about the Canada vs. Jamaica playoff in this preview by CBC Sports’ Signa Butler.