Canada faces do-or-die for Olympic soccer berth
It's all or nothing now for Canada at the CONCACAF Olympic women's soccer qualifying tournament.
After coasting through the preliminary round, the hosts are in a do-or-die situation as they meet Mexico in a semifinal game Friday night in Vancouver. With a win, Canada will clinch a berth in this summer's London Games.
A loss means all the work the Canadian team has put in to rebound from last summer's early exit from the World Cup will count for little. There are no second chances at a Games berth, and only the two semifinal winners qualify for a trip to London.
"To be honest, it'll be gloves off," said Canada coach John Herdman. "Both teams have got their Olympic dreams on the line. I'm just expecting it to be everything a semifinal is meant to be when two teams want to go to the Olympic Games."
The U.S. (3-0) will meet Costa Rica (2-1) in Friday's other semifinal.
Canada finished first in Pool A with a 3-0 record while Mexico placed second in the B pool with a 2-1 mark. Herdman's crew outscored its opposition 13-1, but the rosy stats now mean little with an Olympic berth on the line.
Mexico was relegated to second place in Pool B after losing 4-0 to the powerhouse Americans on Monday night. But the Mexicans, ranked 21st in the world, have demonstrated they can be a formidable side.
Mexico drubbed Guatemala 5-0 in its opening game and thumped the Dominican Republic 7-0. Coach Leonardo Cuellar's squad also upset the U.S. during World Cup qualifying in November 2010, forcing the Americans to go in through a back door. At the World Cup, Mexico earned two draws and one loss to eventual champion Japan.
"I'm just hoping now these girls can bring it through for the next game," Herdman said. "That's the key game. All their dreams are pinned on that."
This matchup was widely anticipated given Mexico's pairing with U.S. in Pool B. As a result, Herdman and his staff have scouted the Mexicans extensively during the tournament. Players have also made an extra effort to catch Mexico's games on television between their own. Herdman has reviewed Canada-Mexico games as far as two years back.
Canada has history on its side. The Canadians boast a 16-1-1 all-time record against Mexico, but the lone loss kept Canada out of the 2004 Athens Olympics.
Captain Christine Sinclair said that loss still rankles her and other veterans still with the team. The premature World Cup exit also bothered many players. Soccer Canada officials were not that happy, either, and replaced former coach Carolina Morace with Herdman.
Sinclair said the disappointing World Cup experience has made her team stronger, and Canada can use the lessons learned against the Mexicans.
"A situation like the World Cup can either tear your team apart or bring you together, and I think we've shown over the past few months that it's brought us together," Sinclair said. "With [Herdman] as our new head coach, the passion's back for everyone, and we have very high expectations."
Canada has the luxury of one more day off than Mexico before the semifinal. Herdman, who has strived to make sure that players are well rested throughout the tournament, said the extra day is a "massive" advantage.
He is not worried that a three-day break between games will leave his club, especially Sinclair, rusty. He expects Sinclair, who has seven goals in the tournament and sits fifth all-time on the international stage with 127, to benefit from the extra rest.
"She's the type of player that'll play through broken noses," said Herdman, referring to her injury in the 2010 World Cup. "She'll run through brick walls for these girls. There's no problem with Sinky."
Throughout the week, Canadian players have expressed confidence in their familiarity with Mexico, a side Sinclair says is "closing the gap on the top teams."
The Canadian star acknowledges her club will get less time and space than it did against Haiti, Cuba and Costa Rica. But she still expects Canada to be well prepared for battle after posting the three easy preliminary-round wins.
"Yes, our first three games in the tournament weren't the most difficult," said Sinclair. "But when the time comes, we know how to play."