In its first match back on home soil following a disappointing Women’s World Cup, Canada gave a packed stadium something to cheer.
The Canadian women’s soccer team officially booked its ticket to the 2024 Paris Olympics Tuesday night by beating Jamaica 2-1 before a sold-out crowd in Toronto.
Behind goals from Cloe Lacasse and Jordyn Huitema, Canada triumphed in the final leg of its two-game home-and-away play-in series with the Reggae Girlz, and won the series 4-1 on aggregate, earning the second and final CONCACAF spot in next summer’s Games.
The Olympic champions will get to defend their gold medal.
It will be a fifth consecutive Olympic appearance for the Canadian women, who earned gold in Tokyo (2021), and bronze in Rio (2016) and London (2012), after finishing eighth at the 2008 Beijing Games. Since winning those Olympic medals the women have been in the headlines for something else – fighting their federation for more equitable resources.
Canadian fans arrived to BMO Field in droves to support the women on Tuesday, many decked in red to match the team, others waving Canadian flags. Canada Soccer announced the match inside as a sellout – 29,212 were on hand to see a rare meaningful match on home soil. It was a new attendance record for a Canada Soccer match held in Ontario.
“The atmophere tonight was absolutely unreal,” said Canadian forward Adriana Leon. “It’s such a priviledge to play at home and everyone enjoyed playing in front of the 29,000 who came out. It was lovely to see the support and hopefully we get to do it a little bit more often.”
Entering Tuesday’s match, Canada had won its last four meetings with Jamaica, dating back to 2018, outscoring the Reggae Girlz 16-0.
After winning the first leg last Friday in Kingston 2-0, the Canadians had a comfortable lead in the series coming to Toronto. Even a 1-0 loss on Tuesday would have qualified the reigning Olympic champs for Paris.
Canadian goals in the road game had come from Leon and from Nichelle Prince, the latter back in the starting lineup after an injury before the World Cup limited her to one short substitute appearance in Australia.
This qualifying series marked Canada’s first matches since its disastrous finish at the FIFA Women’s World Cup in July, where it failed to make it out of the group stage.
The team’s showing at the biggest tournament in women’s football – a scoreless tie with Nigeria, a 2-1 win over the Republic of Ireland, and a lacklustre 4-0 loss to Australia – caused Canada to slide from No. 7 to No. 10 in the world rankings. The Canadians recorded just two goals in three matches, and one of those was an own-goal gift from the Irish.
But against the No. 37-ranked Jamaica in this play-in series, Canada showed an intensity it had lacked at the World Cup.
Canadian head coach Bev Priestman opted for most of the same starting 11 on Tuesday that she had chosen for Friday, only replacing Quinn with Julia Grosso in the midfield. Priestman gave a second international start to 24-year-old Sydney Collins along the left side, an Oregon native whose mother was born in Scarborough.
The Canadians had some scoring chances early in Tuesday’s first half, including a shot by Lacasse that sent Jamaica’s keeper Rebecca Spencer diving, plus a ball that Prince bombed over the crossbar.
Even with Canada dominating possession, it was the Reggae Girlz who scored first, off their first shot of the game. In the 33rd minute, Jamaica’s Drew Spence sailed a free kick into the top corner, just past the outstretched glove of a leaping Kailen Sheridan. Pockets of yellow-and-green flag-waving fans hollered in celebration.
Collins had a chance for Canada one minute later, but sailed it high. The Canadians quickly earned a corner, and the ball bounced off a few red-shirted players, but stayed out of Jamaica’s net. Ashley Lawrence blasted one that Spence sent high with a fingertip.
Finally, Lacasse put Canada on the board in the 39th minute, when she headed in a corner kick delivered by Leon. Red fireworks erupted in the stadium.
At halftime, Priestman made two substitutions, bringing in Shelina Zadorsky for Jade Rose, and Jordyn Huitema for Prince.
Huitema quickly made her mark, heading in Canada’s second goal, off a cross from Lawrence. More fireworks.
Christine Sinclair drew a standing ovation when she checked into the game for Leon in the 59th minute. The 40-year-old three-time Olympic medalist brought the crowd back to its feet just minutes later when she dribbled between two defenders and launched a shot at the Jamaican net.
The veteran had another chance later in the half, absorbing a pass from Huitema, but sailing her shot wide.
Olivia Smith entered the game late as well – for Lacasse – giving Canadians another look at the 18-year-old they’d glimpsed just briefly on the field in Australia. The youngest member of Canada’s squad, who has since signed with Portugal’s Sporting CP, also had a scoring chance Tuesday. Another of Canada’s rising youngsters saw time too – Simi Awujo. Both are key in Canada’s future.
“We’re more unified now. You have to go through the lows in football to really appreciate how much work it takes to get to the highs,” said the veteran centre back Zadorsky. “We got back to some of our Canadian DNA…that gritty part of the game, which we may have lost a little bit along the way.”
There will be 12 teams in the women’s soccer tournament in Paris from the six continental federations. Five nations have already qualified: the host France, CONCACAF champion USA, South America’s top-two nations, Brazil and Colombia, and now Canada.
When the final whistle sounded inside BMO Field – the word QUALIFIED flashed on the video board. The players circled around Priestman for a postmatch speech and celebrated.