Does Olympic Qualifying format need changing?

Harjeet Johal February 19, 2016 11
The U.S. women are one win from the Olympics. Is the system of jamming five games into 11 days really the best way to hold qualification? (AP Photo)

The U.S. women are one win from the Olympics. Is the system of jamming five games into 11 days really the best way to hold qualification? (AP Photo)

HOUSTON, Texas — Women’s Olympic Qualifying action is about to get a lot more competitive with both semifinal matches kicking off at BBVA Compass Stadium on Friday.

The U.S. women are heavy favorites against Trinidad and Tobago, and John Herdman’s high scoring Canada squad is also favored to defeat Amelia’s Valverde’s Costa Rica side. Thus far in the tournament, the U.S., Canada, Costa Rica, and an eliminated Mexico team batter the likes of Puerto Rico, Guyana, Guatemala, and Trinidad and Tobago.

Scores lines of 10-0, 9-0, 6-0 and 5-0 have become commonplace as non-2015 World Cup teams have struggled to defend and get forward with any kind of potent attack. It can be tough for teams to remain switched on when facing opposition that doesn’t match up at an even level.

Carli Lloyd, the 2015 FIFA Women’s Player of the Year, is hoping some of the teams in CONCACAF will be able to earn more support from their football federations to help continue growing and developing the game in their respective countries. Puerto Rico was never going to challenge the U.S., but for Lloyd, they seemed glad to have been in the position to gain experience against the World Cup champions.

“I think it’s been great we’re seeing the evolution of the game change each and every year which is a great thing,” Lloyd said. “We saw it in the World Cup. You take a team like Puerto Rico, who hasn’t qualified for a CONCACAF qualifying tournament ever. Just the amount of class and admiration that they had, they were just super excited to be here. I hope with support from their federation that they can continue their quest to be back here next time, it’s just great to see. Trinidad has done well, Mexico played well against us, very organized, sat in a bit. Costa Rica, good showing. I think the teams are definitely getting a lot better and that’s what we want for the game.”

[PREVIEWS: T&T looks to upset USWNT  |  Canada knows Costa Rica poses dangers]

Perhaps teams like the U.S., Canada, Costa Rica and Mexico could use a bye into the knockout round with other teams fighting it out to join them for a spot at the next Olympics. If a format change is in the cards, Lloyd isn’t sure if that’s really a good thing.

“I’m not really sure, maybe the World Cup winners won’t have to qualify next time,” she said, jokingly. “It’s good to play a round of games, though, I enjoy it.”

U.S. coach Jill Ellis is confident her squad will be ready for Trinidad and Tobago and she knows that nothing is ever certain.

“When you get to this level and you’ve played as many games as a lot of these players have you know that there aren’t any guarantees,” Ellis said. “You’ve been on the end of games where you’ve been the better team and lost and you’ve been the lesser team and you’ve won. I think sometimes that’s just the nature of our sport. I think these players are experienced enough to know that it’s really about executing our performance. There’s no gimme in this game and it’s about respecting the game and obviously our opponent and being focused on what we need to do. It terms of taking the foot off the gas, this is actually where the pedal goes down.”

Throughout the tournament, U.S. and Canadian players have stayed focused and on point when discussing some of the less-talented opposition. Anything can happen; bounces may go the wrong way and controversial call could put a new spin on the match. U.S. center back Becky Sauerbrunn will be prepared for whatever takes places against Trinidad and Tobago.

“Fortunately for us we’ve played Trinidad quite a few times and if you look at World Cup qualifiers, we only won that game, 1-0,” Sauerbrunn said. “You never know on any given day what’s going to happen. If the ball’s just not bouncing our away or Trinidad’s playing the game of their lives, and maybe we just don’t have enough players that show up…. you just never know. We’re all very mentally prepared. We all know this is a very serious game. We’re really preparing hard, and we’re going to take it to them.”

[MORE: Lloyd, Solo highlight first-ever Women’s World XI  |  Why was Sauerbrunn snubbed?]

Veteran fullback Rhian Wilkinson has seen her fair share of CONCACAF tournaments. The overall talent and skill level is getting better, but it’s a slow process. The opportunity of matches for the likes of Guyana, Guatemala, and Puerto Rico goes a long way in the development of theses nations who are still working to grow and develop soccer. Does Wilkinson think the format for Olympic qualifying needs to change?

“No, because I think by playing teams that are stronger we have to be honest,” she said. “The teams you’ve mentioned are teams that take women’s soccer very seriously and treat it professionally. The Trinidads are coming up and so are the other teams. They’re starting to become more and more professional and that’s what it takes. To get depth you need more and more players playing professionally and treating the game professionally and that will come.”

Midfielder Desiree Scott was a big factor for Canada in securing qualification and a spot at the 2012 London Olympics. She has seen the overall quality of opposition grow, and she expects an intense battle against Costa Rica.

“When we hosted the tournament in Vancouver [in 2012], we came out and saw the opposition and built on what they could do,” she said. “And now I think the growth and turnover of players, competition is getting more fierce and I think Costa Rica will be one of those competitions tomorrow.”

The two winners of Friday’s semifinals advance to the 2016 Rio Olympics. There are no do-overs or playoffs. Either Costa Rica or Canada is going to the Olympics, and either the U.S. or Trinidad and Tobago is going to the Olympics. The U.S. women are three-time defending Olympic gold-medalists.

  • AlexH

    I didn’t get from reading the article that anybody is coming out for a format change nor why anybody would want the format to change and to what should it be changed to.

    I personally think that the hexagonal tournament that determines how the men qualify for the WC is the best way to go, but if there isn’t enough time/resources for that to occur I’m fine with what we got now.

    • kernel_thai

      Ur not getting the small federations to throw money in for numerous matches. What u might do is a single site round robin. That would mean bringing fewer teams to the final round tho.

      For me Im less disappointed with the format than them not playing the extra matches. If Im CONCACAF and realize some of these teams from small countries cant mount friendlies or a full year of training, Id try and take advantage of an occasion like this. For pretty much the cost of hotel rooms for three more nights They could have played this tournament out to eight places. While the fans wouldnt care, it would have been great for the teams who didnt get out of group to have two more matches against each other. U could put them on a training field and have free admission but at least these players would get some more games.

      • Lorehead

        I think a hex would be a fine solution. Ideally, CONCACAF would pay to stage five home legs for each finalist, It would do a lot to build the sport. But failing that, a single-site round-robin would require five games per team, the same number the U.S. and Canada will end up playing as is.

        The participants could be the U.S., Canada, Mexico, the Caribbean champion, the Central American champion, and then a World Cup qualifier like Costa Rica last year, or the winner of a playoff between the Caribbean and Central American runners-up.

  • Kevin

    The only two teams that should want a format change are the US and Canada. They’re both much better than the 3rd best team in CONCACAF and this format with only one game that counts (semifinals) is just begging for an upset.

    Somehow, the US got MEX and CRC in their group, so they get a relative cake-walk into the Olympic games. CRC beating CAN would be a major upset, but hopefully if it happens, it won’t be anything controversial. We’ve seen some pretty poor officiating in this tournament, especially with some of the PK calls.

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  • Miami66

    Not to do with CONCACAF, but I hope they boost the Olympic Women’s tourney to 16 teams from 12. Asia needs another spot, Europe needs 2 more (With an actual tournament for qualification instead of using WWC results) and maybe a CONCACAF-Asia playoff for the other.

    • mockmook

      And, if they are worried about the number of games, just go straight to a Sweet 16 bracket knock out stage, 1 vs 16, 2 vs 15, etc.

    • STT

      Even if UEFA gets more Olympic spots, I doubt they have a separate OGQ campaign. UEFA qualifying campaigns for EURO and WWC already pack each cycle pretty well, and there’s no way they cram an entire other qualifying campaign in the two years after a WWC and before a EURO.

  • STT

    The problem is that there really aren’t any challengers in CONCACAF yet to the top two teams. If you have a qualifying campaign of any merit, it’s going to give the potential for an upset in the semifinal round. Granted, if you had three OG spots instead of two, then you necessitate a thrid-place match, which would even things out greatly. But I agree, the group stages are a bit of a joke right now for USA & CAN, which the notion that MEX&CRC had to knock each other out this time was criminal.

    I guess what I’d do (in case of three spots) is have two qualifying groups of four, have the two winners of those join #3 and #4 in the region for a play-in round, then those winners join #1 and #2 in the semis.

    In case of two spots, I would suggest switching the knockout phase of the tournament (however teams get there) to a double-elimination format, where the semifinal losers play each other, and that winner plays the final’s loser for the second OG spot.

  • dw

    The hex is marginally better, and it would be a much bigger issue if there were 3 good teams in CONCACAF, or the US failed to qualify.

    • You never know what could happen in a game on any given day. The U.S. barely beat T&T in WCQ. And it’s conceivable that Costa Rica or Mexico could beat the U.S. or Canada. Both of those teams play tough. And there are always those random games where the U.S. takes 40 shots, but nothing it hitting the back of the net.

      In CONCACAF, if there was an upset and another country beat U.S. or Canada, it’s not likely they would make it to the podium in the Olympics, whereas Europe is more competitive, and if the 4th best team in Europe makes the Olympics over the 1st or 2nd best team, that team would still have a shot at a medal.

      So, yeah, this format works. Until the first time the U.S. is on the outside looking in, for a match they win 99 times out of 100, but in this one match in a Qualifying Tournament, they lost.