A berth in the 2012 London Olympic Games. That's what the Canadian women's soccer set out to accomplish at the CONCACAF Women's Olympic Qualifying Tournament, and mission accomplished.
It came in a convincing 3-1 victory over Mexico in front of over 20,000 fans at BC Place in Vancouver. It was a memorable, total team effort and one the group needed following their disastrous campaign at the FIFA Women's World Cup last summer in Germany.
You could sense the euphoria the players felt as they smiled, hugged, danced and waved their way around BC Place in celebration.
If redemption was what they were looking for, they got it, albeit temporarily.
Then came a thud. A 4-0 loss in the final against an American team Sunday brought them back to earth, and exposed how wide the gap is between the No. 1 team in the world and the No. 7 Canadians.
Give the Americans credit. Like Canada, the U.S. was on a mission this tournament: To earn a berth to the Olympics and the right to go for a third consecutive gold medal.
But there was added mustard, too. Coach Pia Sundhage's side put the world on notice that they're back. They're not the same team Mexico upset in World Cup qualifying. Not the same team that was forced to win a backdoor playoff to get into the World Cup. Not the same team that lost in the penalty kicks to Japan at the World Cup.
What they are is THE No. 1 team in the world. They played at turbo speed this tournament and didn't let up on anyone, hurting opponents in multiple ways whether it was attacking from back to front, through the midfield, on set pieces, from the wings, in the air.
And that was the main lesson for Canada at this tournament. How do they stack up against top flight competition? And what do they need to do climb to that level?
Canada's depth, skill, speed and conditioning isn't up to the world's best yet, but the positive halo around the team is that they believe they can get close.
So forget that final loss for a minute or two, and have a look back at a few of the storylines in this tournament.
1. Christine Sinclair is a beast
You can't breathe Canadian soccer without saying her name. The sheer statistics only show one side of the 28-year-old captain. Her nine goals topped the Olympic tournament, sure, but her passing ability and vision, deceptive speed and versatility prove why she's considered one of the best players in the world.
Her best performances at this tournament came playing the tip of the diamond midfield, just tucked behind Canada's two strikers. The more she gets the ball, the more things happen for every player on the team.
Critics of Canada would say they only have one weapon in Sinclair. Shut her down and you have nothing. Fair comment. Sinclair does need a supporting cast to shoulder some of that responsibility.
But for much of her career she hasn't had those complimentary players and yet she sits fourth on FIFA's all-time goals list (behind juggernaut Americans Mia Hamm's 158, Abby Wambach's 131 and Kristine Lilly's 130). Sinclair's 129 goals in 173 appearances is world class.
2. Canada stayed calm under pressure
Much has been made about how fragile this team was after crashing out at last summer's World Cup in Germany, and for good reason. When John Herdman took over this side in September, job No. 1 was clearing his players' psyche and establishing a mental framework to help move forward. He brought in Dr. Ceri Evans, the sports psychologist who worked with the legendary All Blacks rugby team, to put the plan into place.
That, along with Herdman's own upbeat attitude, has created a positive aura around the team. The players say the squad's confidence and chemistry has never been better.
3. Improved depth
Improved being the operative word. It was obvious by tournament's end that Canada has nowhere near the enviable depth as the Americans, but who does?
Canada did expose players to new roles and responsibilities. Every player on the roster saw time on the pitch in the tournament and though the competition level wasn't Olympic or World Cup quality (in five games, the U.S. outscored its opponents 38-0, while Canada clocked a 16-5 margin), it's important to expose players to that competition.
The midfield in particular was an eye opener. With veteran Diana Matheson recovering from knee surgery and unavailable for the tournament, Desiree Scott. Kelly Parker and Sophie Schmidt, along with Kaylyn Kyle, stepped in admirably.
4. Identifying areas for improvement
There's nothing like a 4-nil loss to the world's top team to learn a few football lessons.
Herdman said before the tournament that fitness and conditioning were among his focuses. If you watched the final game, you'll know why. The Canadians looked knackered from kickoff and Herdman was forced to make lineup adjustments because certain players didn't have "enough legs."
"There's certain world standards that we've set for the team to achieve by the Olympics. It's a constant journey. We've got to pace the team through to the Olympic Games," Herdman said of his plan.
"Are they at the world standard now, no? Will they be by the Olympics, yes."
The Olympic tournament, with a match every three days and the potential of six over 16, will be gruelling, especially against world-class competition from the likes of the U.S., Japan, Brazil, France and Sweden.
Keeping up with a top-flight team for 90 minutes is one thing, but being able to run and battle at an optimal level for that time frame is another. If you're able to do the latter, you're also in a better mental state, which means better decisions and fewer mistakes.
By all accounts, the Canadian players are working hard to reach that world standard. For example, recently the players were outfitted with heart-rate monitors with GPS units attached, so they can upload their fitness data for the coaches to monitor their progress.
Canada's backline will need some tweaking. The back four took a beating in Sunday's 4-0 loss. They weren't as focused as they were against Mexico and allowed the speedy Americans to get behind them on several occasions. Without a ton of quickness and straight-out speed to work with, Herdman will have to find ways to mask that weakness. Making sure fullbacks are in supporting positions, assertive communication and keeping opposing players in front will be key.
One last thing learned: Canadians love soccer. The crowd of 25,427 for the final was a new record for CONCACAF Women's Olympic Qualifying tournament. Overall, the 10-day, 15-match tournament featured a combined attendance of 162,223. It bodes well for 2015 when Canada hosts the FIFA Women's World Cup.
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