Canadian women's Olympic dream: What you need to know | Soccer | CBC Sports

Canadian women's Olympic dream: What you need to know

Posted: Thursday, January 19, 2012 | 11:45 AM

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Members of the Canadian women's soccer team pose for a pre-game photo before an exhibition game against the United States in September. Canada and the U.S. are the favourites to earn Olympic berths at the CONCACAF qualifying tournament Jan. 19-29 in Vancouver. (Jonathan Ferrey/Getty Images) Members of the Canadian women's soccer team pose for a pre-game photo before an exhibition game against the United States in September. Canada and the U.S. are the favourites to earn Olympic berths at the CONCACAF qualifying tournament Jan. 19-29 in Vancouver. (Jonathan Ferrey/Getty Images)

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The quest for one of two Olympic berths begins Thursday night in Vancouver for the Canadian women's soccer team. Here's a look at Canada's route, the players to watch and what might stand in their way.

The quest for one of two Olympic berths begins Thursday night in Vancouver for the Canadian women's soccer team.

Led by captain Christine Sinclair and new coach John Herdman, Canada plays Haiti at BC Place in their tournament opener before finishing group play against Cuba on Saturday and Costa Rica on Monday.

The top two teams from each group in the eight-team North American, Central American and Caribbean (CONCACAF) event will advance to the semifinals on Jan. 27.

For Olympic qualifying, there is no bronze medal game. Only the finalists qualify for the London Games.

Canada's biggest challengers for the two coveted Olympic spots figure to come from Group B, which features powerhouse United States - runners-up at last summer's FIFA Women's World Cup - and Mexico.

This will be Canada's first time playing in front of a home crowd at a major tournament in almost a decade.

Remember the 2002 FIFA Under-19 World Cup in Edmonton? A handful of Canada's players were on that team and have fond memories of the support they got from a packed Commonwealth Stadium in Edmonton. Playing in front of a home crowd will be a boost but also a testing ground, as Canada hosts the next FIFA Women's World Cup in 2015.

What are Canada's chances of making the Olympics?

Excellent, but that's too easy. Let's put it another way: If they don't earn one of the two Olympic berths available from this tournament, it would be an unqualified failure.

Canada, ranked No. 7 in the world, should sail through the group stage. Only No. 41 Costa Rica is a main challenger for top spot in Group A, while Haiti (62) and Cuba (96) are just happy to be there.

The crucial test comes in the semifinal, where they'll play the second-place team in Group B, which will be either the U.S. or Mexico, likely the latter.

Canada has looked impressive since Herdman took over the squad at the beginning of September and have beaten Mexico in the past, but upsets can happen.

Just ask the United States. Going into the CONCACAF qualifiers for the 2011 FIFA Women's World Cup, the Americans and Canadians were the odds-on favourites to snap up the two automatic berths to Germany. But Mexico pulled off a stunning upset over the Americans in the semifinals, forcing the two-time World Cup champions to play Italy in a playoff for the final spot in Germany.

There is no such luxury this time around. Only the finalists can book their flights to jolly old England.

The obstacles

Self-confidence

The team is currently riding high. They beat a decent Brazil squad en route to gold at the Pan American Games, defeated Sweden in an exhibition, and were very competitive in a two-game set with the U.S. But it wasn't long ago that the Canadian team was licking very public wounds.

A winless World Cup followed by their coach Carolina Morace's resignation left the team reeling. Herdman and his staff, including renowned New Zealand sports psychologist Ceri Evans (who has worked with the All Blacks rugby team) have helped rebuild the players physically and mentally. Forgetting mistakes and moving on will be crucial to keep those unwanted memories of World Cup disappointment at bay.

Frustration

Playing against some of the lower-ranked CONCACAF teams is enough to pull your ponytail out. Stacking 10 players in front of goal is common practice and can lead stronger teams, like Canada and the U.S., to steer away from their style of play. 

"I think that's what's expected at these CONCACAF tournaments. They'll do anything they can to try and get a result," Sinclair said on a Wednesday media conference call. "For some of these teams, it means bunkering down and trying to catch us on the break. In the past, we've gotten frustrated with that and panicked a bit, and that's something John's been trying to work on with us."

Mexico

Presumably Las Tricolores will finish second in Group B, putting them in line for a semifinal date with Team Canada. Mexico boasts some experienced talent in striker Maribel Dominguez and is well coached by Leonardo Cuellar.

Key Canadian players

You can't mention the Canadian women's national team without breathing the name Christine Sinclair. The team's all-time leader in caps (168) and goals (120) has been a fixture with the senior side since she was a teenager. Now 28, she says she'd love to stand on top of the Olympic podium.

Goaltending is a definite strength. The team has what Herdman calls two 'world-class goalkeepers' in Karina LeBlanc and Erin McLeod. Calm and confident defender Candace Chapman (97 caps) will play her 100th game for Canada during the tournament.

Herdman also isn't afraid to bring in new players in the mix. Striker Christina Julien and defenders Shannon Woeller and Lauren Sesselman have all seen regular minutes under the former Kiwi manager. 

Veteran Diana Matheson is with the team, but not in a playing capacity. The midfield maestro hasn't recovered from off-season knee surgery in time for the tournament and was replaced by former U-17 team member Alyscha Mottershead.

Matheson's leadership and experience (third all-time in appearances with 130) will be missed. Look to Sophie Schmidt, arguably Canada's best player at the 2011 World Cup, and Saskatchewan natives Kelly Parker and Kaylyn Kyle to pick up the slack in midfield.

The favourites

American star striker Abby Wambach and goalkeeper Hope Solo headline the U.S. team. Nineteen of the team's 20 players on the Olympic roster were members of the 2011 FIFA Women's World Cup team in Germany.

The only player who wasn't part of the team that lost to Japan in penalty kicks in that memorable final last summer is a Canadian. Striker Sydney Leroux was born in Surrey, B.C., but left home at 15 to pursue her dream of playing for the U.S. (her father is American). Since then, she's become a prolific scorer with the Under-20 program and just this month, she was drafted first overall by Women's Professional Soccer's Atlanta Beat.

Now 21, she's ready to make her mark with the senior team. The only question is whether she'll receive a warm or rude welcome in her home province. 

For more on the tournament's key players to watch, check out our photo gallery.

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