Women’s Olympic Qualifying: Will Houston’s pitch hold up to rugby, then a slew of soccer matches?

19751305885_9d8373a3dc_zIn 2014 and 2015, the Canadian Soccer Association took heat for hosting a Women’s World Cup on artificial surfaces. Several players, led by a cadre of prominent Americans, took their case to the Ontario Human Rights Tribunal — a pursuit which was later abandoned.

Now, should the Americans also be subject to criticism for the 2016 Olympic qualifying tournament?

The United States is hosting the women’s CONCACAF qualifying tournament for the 2016 Olympics. And Group B — which includes Canada — will be played at Houston’s BBVA Compass Stadium, on a grass field that will be subjected to international rugby just days before the soccer tourney kicks off. Remember that in late January of 2013, the Canadian men’s national team played the United States in Houston. And, many of the Canadian players mentioned the poor quality of the pitch in Houston — which is really a multipurpose facility that is also the home of the MLS’s Houston Dynamo and the NWSL’s Houston Dash. The stadium also played host to Gold Cup matches in 2015.

As well, that field is going to need to hold up over the course of five matchdays — including doubleheaders — played over the 11-day tournament. Playing all the Group B games, semifinal and final in one venue may make logistic/financial sense, but in sporting terms, that field is gonna take a beating.

But there’s no crying foul from the Canadians.

Canadian women’s national-team coach John Herdman said his team can’t control the playing conditions. “But the one thing we can control is how we adapt to it,” he added.

Herdman said his staff has looked at long-range weather forecasts for Houston, and the forecast is for mild temperatures and good playing conditions.

“We’ll take whatever pitch comes,” he said.

Canada will begin Group B play on Feb. 11 at BBVA Compass Stadium in Houston; but the tournament kicks off only days after the grass field will be subjected to the pounding of an international rugby match between the United States and Argentina. That match goes the evening of Feb 6, so ground crews will have less than five full days to get the pitch up to a class playing level for the women.

A photo from Canada's 2013 men's friendly against the United States in Houston. Note the sorry state of the pitch.

A photo from Canada’s 2013 men’s friendly against the United States in Houston. Note the sorry state of the pitch.

Herdman spoke to journalists Tuesday after Canada announced its roster for the qualifiers. Most interesting is that the veteran forward duo of Christine Sinclair and Melissa Tancredi will be joined by Janine Beckie (21), Nichelle Prince (20) and Gabrielle Carle (17). As well, 16-year-old Deanne Rose could also support the attack.

“We’re adding speed and technical efficiency to the front line,” Herdman said, noting that Beckie, Rose and Prince offer “world-class speed” to the roster. He said bringing in those players to stretch defences is vital, because it allows Sinclair, Canada’s all-time leading scorer, the benefit of more space in which to play.

As well, Herdman noted that he’s long wanted Canada to produce true wing players; for too long, the women’s team has had to move players who were more comfortable in the middle of the park to the wings. Herdman said that Carle, Beckie, Rose and Prince can all take those wide roles, and be these kinds of players; “the wide-out who relishes the one-v-one battles.”

Of course, with so many games coming so fast and furious, we can expect to see some squad rotation through the tourney. Canada’s group includes Guyana, Trinidad and Tobago, and Guatemala.

But Herdman said that it’s not secret that Canada needs to be fresh for “game four, whether it’s [against the] U.S., Costa Rica or Mexico.” That fourth game represents the semifinal; and it’s vital in determining if Canada punches its ticket to Rio or not. Only two teams — the ones who make it to the CONCACAF tournament final — will qualify.

CANADA ROSTER
GK – Erin McLeod, February 26, 1983 (age 32). From: St. Albert, AB
GK – Stephanie Labbé, October 10, 1986 (age 29). From: Edmonton, AB
GK – Sabrina D’Angelo, August 24, 1992 (age 23). From: Welland, ON
D – Kadeisha Buchanan, November 5, 1995 (age 20). From: Brampton, ON
D – Rebecca Quinn, August 11, 1995 (age 20). From: Toronto, ON
D – Shelina Zadorsky, October 24, 1992 (age 23). From: London, ON
D – Josée Bélanger, May 14, 1986 (age 29). From: Coaticook, QC
D – Allysha Chapman, January 25, 1989 (age 27). From: Courtice, ON
D – Rhian Wilkinson, May 12, 1982 (age 33). From: Baie-d’Urfé, QC
M – Jessie Fleming, March 11, 1998 (age 17). From: London, ON
M – Ashley Lawrence, June 11, 1995 (age 20). From: Caledon, ON
M – Diana Matheson, April 6, 1984 (age 31). From: Oakville, ON
M – Deanne Rose, March 3, 1999 (age 16). From Alliston, ON
M – Sophie Schmidt, June 28, 1988 (age 27). From: Abbotsford, BC
M – Desiree Scott, July 31, 1987 (age 28). From: Winnipeg, MB
F – Janine Beckie, August 20, 1994 (age 21). From: Highlands Ranch, CO
F – Gabrielle Carle, October 12, 1998 (17). From: Lévis, QC
F – Nichelle Prince, February 19, 1995 (age 20). From: Ajax, ON
F – Christine Sinclair, June 12, 1983 (age 32). From: Burnaby, BC
F – Melissa Tancredi, December 27, 1981 (age 34). From: Ancaster, ON

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About Steven Sandor

I'm currently the colour commentator for FC Edmonton broadcasts on Sportsnet, NASL.com and TEAM 1260. I've covered the Toronto FC beat for four years, worked for the Edmonton Aviators of the USL for a season, covered the Edmonton Drillers of the NPSL and started covering Canadian World Cup qualifiers in 1996. I've covered the CONCACAF Champions League and the U-20 World Cup. I'm passionate about soccer in North America.