VANCOUVER, B.C.—Through the first two days of the CONCACAF Olympic women's soccer qualifying tournament, we've seen a remarkable 27 goals in just four matches, an average of almost seven goals per game. However, all of those goals have been scored by only half of the teams involved. Every match Thursday and Friday was a shutout, including Costa Rica's 2-0 win over Cuba, Canada's 6-0 thumping of Haiti, Mexico's 5-0 win over Guatemala and the Americans' incredible 14-0 destruction of the Dominican Republic. The lopsided games have drawn some criticism, including Canadian television commentators' complaints about the Americans' goal celebrations Friday, and they aren't likely to stop any time soon; Saturday's action includes one that could be close (41st-ranked Costa Rica and 62nd-ranked Haiti), but also a clash between the conference's second-highest ranked team (seventh-ranked Canada) and the lowest-ranked team here (96th-ranked Cuba). That leads to questions about why these disparities are so prominent, if players should be holding back to prevent them and if the format of qualifying should be changed to prevent this.
It's not particularly difficult to see where the mismatches come from.The biggest part of it is infrastructure; the U.S., Canada and, to a lesser degree, Mexico, all have substantial resources invested in developing top-quality women's soccer players. That starts with solid development and training at a young age and further growth through various club and high-school systems, and it extends on to the college level; Title IX legislation means that American schools have to balance the amounts they spend on men's and women's sports, so there are plenty of extremely well-funded women's soccer programs out there that can further mould elite talent for the U.S. national program (and to an extent, the Canadian one as well; most of the top Canadian players have come through the NCAA ranks).
Meanwhile, no comparable development facilities exist for women's soccer in most of the CONCACAF countries, and teams like Haiti are so underfunded that donations bring in a crucial part of their revenue. History also matters; top-tier women's international soccer is still a remarkably new phenomenon, and the first Women's World Cup was only held in 1991. The U.S. has fielded a strong team since those early days, while Canada followed reasonably soon after and Mexico has been coming on lately. Many of the other CONCACAF countries are a long ways behind in their women's soccer development, and catching up isn't easy.
If the mismatches are going to be there, the question then becomes what should the players and coaches on dominant teams do about it? Some would argue that they should get a couple of goals and then just pass the ball around for the rest of the 90 minutes, but players like American striker Amy Rodriguez (who scored five goals in 30 minutes Friday night) say that's more disrespectful to their opponents than continuing to play hard. Rodriguez said Friday's game wasn't too easy.
"I would say no, because as I was telling one of my teammates when I came off the field, I was tired," she said. "We definitely had to work hard against these girls. They put up a good fight. At the end of the day, we worked really hard too and that's why we were able to come away with 14 goals."
Rodriguez said the U.S. team is focused on playing to their best regardless of the level of the competition, and that means they don't disregard any opponent and are constantly working to improve their own game.
"The American mentality is that we're not going to give up," Rodriguez said. "We're going to keep pushing. We're going to keep trying. No matter what the score is, we're still striving to do our best."
Canada's Christine Sinclair, who scored four goals herself Thursday night in a 6-0 win over Haiti, expressed similar sentiments. She said the Haitian team put up a great fight.
"They were tremendous," Sinclair said. "Down quite a few goals, they never stopped trying."
American keeper Hope Solo pointed out that goal differential is a potential tiebreaker, too, but the key focus for the U.S. was maintaining a solid level of play and not treating their opponents like they weren't worth of being on the same field.
"If there is a tie between two teams in our group, then it comes down to goal differential," Solo said. "I'm really proud of our team respecting our opponents so much that to the point we never let up."
Canadian coach John Herdman said the only way to succeed against better teams is to push players hard even in the easy games and focus on what they need to improve.
"They know it's never good enough," he said. "We don't rest. The players know they have to step up."
American coach Pia Sundhage said games, even one-sided games, provide a level of experience players can't get in practice.
"I do believe playing games is really important," she said. "This is important. We care every single game and every single goal."
Sundhage was blasted by the Canadian broadcast crew (Sportsnet's Gerry Dobson and Craig Forrest) for celebrating American goals after the game was well in hand Friday, and that stirred up a Twitter debate over the criticism. When asked about her celebrations afterwards, she said they were primarily a way of encouraging her own players, but she also felt it would be disrespectful to the other team to start acting like goals against them weren't worth celebrating.
"When we score a goal, I'm happy," Sundhage said. "I use my body language to tell our team I'm happy and I'm proud. ... I really want to show respect to our opponents."
Debates over the appropriate way to act in blowouts are likely to continue as long as there are one-sided matches, so some will argue the numbers of teams in tournaments like this should be lowered to reduce the blowouts. However, that reduces the opportunities and incentives for weaker teams to improve. Sundhage said she's not in favour of reducing the size of the field.
"No, I don't think so," she said. "I think it's a wonderful experience for all of us to be here. On the contrary, the more chances teams have to travel and play games, that really matters in tournaments."