Canadian women confident ahead of Olympic soccer qualifiers

Women's soccer coach John Herdman said the disappointment of Canada's performance at last summer's FIFA Women's World Cup is all but forgotten as the team prepares to qualify for the 2012 Summer Olympics.

2 berths available for London 2012

New Zealand's coach John Herdman reacts during his team's Women's World Cup Group B soccer match against Japan. (Wolfgang Rattay/Reuters)

Women's soccer coach John Herdman said the disappointment of Canada's performance at last summer's FIFA Women's World Cup is all but forgotten as the team prepares to qualify for the 2012 Summer Olympics. 

He said his players are in a good frame of mind as Canada gets ready to host the North American, Central American and Caribbean (CONCACAF) zone clubs seeking only two berths in the London Games. 

"There was quite a bit of soul-searching during that period," said Herdman following a news conference Monday. "That was the first step, and the players were quite clear on what needed to happen." 

He said Canada is a closer, more confident side than the one that failed to live up to high expectations in Germany as it lost three group stage games. Herdman, an Englishman who led New Zealand's women's team to a pair of World Cup appearances, replaced Carolina Morace, who had a tumultuous relationship with the Canadian Soccer Association at times and challenged her players' loyalty after the World Cup disappointment. 

Building on Pan Am momentum

Starting Thursday in the opening game against Haiti, Herdman is looking to build on the momentum established when Canada earned its first-ever Pan American Games gold medal last fall with a shootout win over powerhouse Brazil. 

"That game was absolutely crucial to us," Herdman said. "It wasn't something about proving something to the public. It was more about [the Canadian players] being connected again as a team and knowing we can play. We can perform. We can win big games. 

"So I think this tournament now is probably not about redemption. That's creating negative focus. It's just about looking forward to the opportunity of performing in London for Canada. So that's our drive. That's our motivator." 

After opening against Haiti, Canada faces Cuba on Friday and Costa Rica on Sunday. The top two teams from each group advance to the semifinals on Jan. 27, while the gold-medal game goes Jan. 29. 

The other group has the U.S., Mexico, the Dominican Republic and Guatemala. In a change from the one-game-at-a-time mentality prevalent in most sports, Herdman and players discussed the likelihood of reaching the semifinals before a game has been played. 

"In all the research we've done on Costa Rica, Mexico, Trinidad and the U.S.A., they're the likely ones that are going to stop us on our journey," said Herdman. 

The other entries, he suggested, are not a "world force." But Canadian players insist they are not taking opponents in the preliminary round lightly. 

A more relaxed Team Canada

"We're not looking past our first two games," said captain Christine Sinclair. "There are some good teams. Costa Rica is an up-and-coming team. But, at the same time, we're confident in ourselves that we should be in the semifinals." 

Sinclair said Herdman has succeeded in creating a more relaxed atmosphere. While Herdman has the team playing the same attacking style that Morace did, he has a completely different style off the pitch. For example, he gave the players two days off to spend with friends and family after they arrived in Vancouver Saturday following a training camp in Los Angeles.

The players did not have the same luxury while preparing for the World Cup under Morace in Rome. 

"It's a new face, a fresh start and it's brought back some of the passion I think players were lacking at the end of the World Cup," said Sinclair. 

The Canadian roster includes 14 members of the team that won Pan Am Gold gold in October. Of the six who missed the Pan Ams, five played in the World Cup. 

Sinclair, a 28-year-old native of the Vancouver suburb of Burnaby, is confident that the opportunity to play at BC Place Stadium, which has artificial turf that other clubs do not always play on, will further the excitement that Herdman is fostering. She does not believe playing at home will create added pressure. 

After playing its two previous qualification tournaments in Mexico — "a difficult place to play" according to Sinclair — Canada can benefit from its homefield advantage. She is looking forward to the rare opportunity of playing an Olympic qualification tournament before friends and family in her hometown. 

"I think the pressure comes within the nature of the tournament and what's at stake," she said. "I think it's a bonus to have friends and family in the stands."