Soccer

Canada battles Mexico at CONCACAF qualifier

Canada breezed through its opening pair of matches at the CONCACAF Women's World Cup qualifying tournament, but host Mexico will pose a much tougher challenge Tuesday in Cancun (CBC Bold, CBCSports.ca, 9:30 p.m. ET).

Canadian women's victory or draw would lock up Group A and avoid top-ranked U.S.

The first two games were easy. Now comes the hard part.

Canada breezed through its opening pair of matches at the CONCACAF Women's World Cup qualifying tournament, beating Trinidad and Tobago and then Guyana by a combined score of 9-0.

Host Mexico will pose a much tougher challenge for Canada when the teams meet Tuesday in Cancun (CBC Bold, CBCSports.ca, 9:30 p.m. ET).

Even though both nations have already qualified for the tournament semifinals, there is still plenty to play for. Canada and Mexico are tied atop Group A with six points each, but the Canadians sit in first place by virtue of a better goal difference (plus-9 to plus-7).

A victory or draw would not only win Group A but would enable Canada to avoid the top-ranked United States in the semifinals, opening up a much better chance of reaching the final. The tournament finalists automatically qualify for next year's FIFA World Cup in Germany, while the third-place team will be forced to meet Italy in a two-game playoff.

If Canada wins the group, a semifinal showdown with Costa Rica awaits on Friday (CBC Bold, CBCSports.ca, 7 p.m. ET), which would be a much easier proposition than a match against the Americans — Canada has won just three times and earned four draws in the last 47 competitive games against the U.S.

'Toughest test'

"I think our chances of qualifying directly for the World Cup are very good," Canadian forward Christine Sinclair told CBCSports.ca before the start of the tournament. "Our toughest test will be against Mexico in our last [group-stage] game.… If we play well, we should be in the semifinals, hopefully avoiding the United States."

Still, Sinclair and her teammates can't afford to look past Mexico, which has been a rising power in women's soccer ever since it qualified for the 2004 Athens Olympics at the expense of Canada.

"With Mexico, they're an up-and-coming team that has knocked us out of Olympic qualifying before," Sinclair said. "I wouldn't be worried if we were playing anywhere other than Mexico, with the home fans and the environment."

Kaylyn Kyle, a 22-year-old midfielder from Saskatoon, admits playing in Mexico can be "a bit intimidating," but says she's confident Canada can overcome the disadvantage with the experience and leadership skills of team veterans such as Sinclair and Diana Matheson.

"We have a lot of Olympians and World Cup players, so me as a younger player, I'll have some nerves, but you just look at the role models in our team," Kyle said. "They know how to settle the squad down. We have a diverse group of players and a lot of great leaders, so that will help us out a lot."

Coach Carolina Morace has used all 20 players on Canada's roster through the first two matches of the competition. The Italian wouldn't be able to do that if she didn't have a deep and talented pool of players to call upon.

Not only are the veterans contributing (Sinclair tallied four goals in Sunday's 8-0 win over Guyana) but youngsters such as Kyle, fellow midfielder Jonelle Filigno and defender Emily Zurrer have all made solid contributions to the Canadian cause in Mexico.

"It's an incredible bunch — its not just the 11 players on the field, we also have incredible bench depth. That goes a long way," Kyle stated. "We have the drive and determination where we can go into a tournament like this and have our personalities persevere on the field."

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