HOUSTON — Midway through the first half of an Olympic qualifying match against Trinidad and Tobago earlier this week, the Canadian women were looking tense. Pre-tournament criticism over a lack of prowess in front of the net was clearly in the back of the team’s mind. Canada needed something to turn the tide.
Up stepped midfielder Diana Matheson.
The 31-year-old bellowed at Josee Belanger to play a ball down the right side of the field, directing the defender with her right arm. With one touch, the ball was in the back of the net. Canada could breathe.
“You put an experienced player like Matheson in front of (the) net and she delivers,” Canada’s coach John Herdman said after his team went on to win 6-0, part of a three-game, 21-goal outburst in the round robin.
“I think that (goal) was really important at that time because we had had a few crosses, a couple of shots, a couple of chances. Big players come up in big moments and scoring then, I thought, just changed the game.”
It’s not the first time Matheson has changed a game for Canada — it was her 92nd minute goal against France at the London 2012 Olympic that secured the team’s bronze medal — but its the first time in a long while fans have seen the five-foot-nothing dynamo do so for Canada in a tournament setting.
Matheson only managed 28 minutes at the Women’s World Cup, after multiple injuries kept her sidelined for more than eight month, and it was easy to forget what an impact the Oakville native has on the field for her country. Those around her didn’t, though, said longtime teammate Rhian Wilkinson.
“I think people forget she’s a lynchpin for us and has been for years. We obviously have a fantastic midfield so, in her absence, it’s not like there’s not a huge gap on the team, but when she’s on the field she’s excellent.”
Matheson, who also missed the last round of Olympic qualifiers in 2012 through injury, is happy to finally put those woes behind her.
“It’s nice to be in a tournament. Playing every day and training every day is what we do it for. It’s fun and it’s refreshing to be doing that rather than sitting on the sidelines,” she said.
The midfielder put in two 90-minute performances in the group stage and, though she was rested during Canada’s 10-0 thrashing of Guatemala, is expected to return to the starting lineup for the team’s do-or-die match against Costa Rica on Friday (5:30 p.m. ET).
Win and the team will secure a berth at Rio; lose and Canada’s time defending its bronze medal comes to a premature end.
Matheson will likely be surrounded by the team’s most veteran lineup, with the likes of Christine Sinclair and Erin McLeod as well as 20-year-old Kadeisha Buchanan, who was the only Canadian player to be named to the inaugural Women’s World XI announced by FIFPro, the world players’ union, on Thursday.
Herdman knows the Costa Rica team that Canada will face Friday isn’t the same team it beat 5-1 in qualifying four years ago.
And Canada has the challenge of shifting quickly to a higher tempo and intensity after spending much of its tournament so far in third or fourth gear.
But the Canadian coach said he is confident his team is up to the task.
“It’ll be a tough match but I think we’re more than ready,” he said.