CONCACAF Olympic qualifiers are upon us for the womens side of things with the games kicking off this week at BC Place. For Canada the agenda is simple, get through the group stage and then get a result in the crucial semi-final which would see them qualify for the Olympics. After that the final of the tournament would just be a bit of a show piece.
The CanWNT has been drawn in a group with Haiti, Cuba, and Costa Rica which on paper seems like a very manageable group. The tricky part for the team will be the fact that they know very little about most of their opponents in the group. Team leader Christine Sinclair commented on Haiti that they do not know very much about their opposition but "obviously our coaches have done their homework on them. They were in Cancun for the World Cup Qualifiers so at practice tomorrow we will focus on them and what we can do to expose their weaknesses."
Whether they know much about their opposition or not, the mission is simple and the home crowd will clearly be on their side. With all the games being televised on the Sportsnet channels and the games being played in BC, this tournament will in many ways be used as a springboard towards Canada hosting the Women's World Cup in 2015. If these games go well it should only help to grow the profile of the team across the country and further the excitement that is already there. A trip to the Olympics this summer would be a real boost in that regard.
For Sinclair, now 28, this tournament is a rare chance to play in her home province of British Columbia. There is a handful of other players who are also getting the chance to play at home and it is a welcome change for the ladies. In the past the team played very few competitive matches on home soil, that is something which head coach John Herdman is looking to change. In this case it means that the team has to play on an artificial surface, but that is not something the players are overly concerned about. Sinclair noted that the surface does cause extra strain on the body and greater fatigue, but she also noted that the teams medical staff is really good so with a bit of squad rotation they should be able to remain fresh.When the team kicks their tournament off on January 19th against Haiti they will surely be focused on the task at hand. Even the fact that they are playing at home is not being seen as a distraction, but rather as an added boost for the squad. The team will be led by the same core group of players that struggled in last summers World Cup but they seem to be reinvigorated since the summer. Sinclair will be joined in leadership roles by the likes of Karina LeBlanc, Candace Champan, Robyn Gayle, and Brittany Timko so the team has no shortage of veterans. They will also have injured leader Diana Matheson who will be with the team for most of the events in the coming weeks. Matheson should be able to provide insight and a calming influence for the team even if an untimely injury has ruled he out of actually taking to the field.
That core group of leaders and veterans will be complimented by a group of exciting young players who will still be working hard to make a name for themselves on the big international stage. The likes of Chelsea Buckland, Christina Julien, and Lauren Sesselmann are the future of this team but also look set to play a big role in the present. Sesselmann was a breakout player in the Pan-Am games but will look to build on that on this bigger stage. For Buckland, this will be her first chance to play in a competitive match for the national team. She will be looked at, along with Julien, to help provide that much needed secondary scoring threat to take some of the focus and pressure off of Sinclair.
In these early games, against Haita and Cuba, Canada will likely have to deal with teams that take a very defensive approach since they see that as their only chance to steal a result. This kind of 10 behind the ball approach has caused a lot of struggles for Canada in the past but that is something they will need to overcome to do well in this tournament. Sinclair noted that teams will do "anything that they can to get a result. For a bunch of these teams that means hunkering down and trying to catch us on the break. I think in the past we have sort of gotten frustrated with that and panicked a little bit and that's something John (Herdman) is trying to work on with us, to understand that we only need to get one goal over the course of ninety minutes. Yah, it would be nice to win four, five nothing but I think we have sort of learned from experience that it is the result that matters and that they are going to do their best to frustrate us."
Taking that attitude of winning is all that matters into these games will be key because it can often be hard to play in front of your home fans when things are not going your way. As the fans begin to get impatient players will often begin pressing to try and force a breakthrough, it happens at every level, but that can often only cause frustration and potentially jeopardize the result.
After those early games, the match against Costa Rica will probably be a bit more open and balanced as the two sides will almost certainly be facing off with top spot in the group on the line. If that goes well it would setup a match-up with the runners up from the other group that includes the United States and Mexico. That game, the semi-final, will be the real important game in this tournament. With the winner going on to the Olympics Canada will be in for a tough challenge against either side. If it ends up being Mexico it will be tricky as the last two times the teams have met in competitive games Canada has only managed 1-0 wins. Add to that the fact that Canada's past two roads to the Olympics came to their climax against Mexico. Canada was knocked out of the running for the 2004 games in Athens thanks to Mexico but they returned the favour by knocking them out of the running for the 2008 games in Beijing. If they meet in this semi it would be a bit of a tie breaker between the two. Now if it happens to be the United States that would be the toughest test of all. Despite their loss in last summer World Cup Final the Americans remain the best team in the World and even if Canada continues to improve it would take their very best effort to get anything from our neighbours to the south.
Regardless of who they play at the semi-final stage the plan is simple for Canada. Pick up 4 wins and book your ticket to London for this summer. For a player like Sinclair this tournament gives her another chance to cement her legacy in Canadian sports and World soccer. She has already achieved a lot in her career but until she earns a medal at the World Cup or the Olympics Sinclair is unsure where she would stand in terms of the best Canadian players of all time. The trip to the Olympics gives this team one more chance to show that they are among the top sides in the World and do in fact deserve their FIFA ranking.
Sinclair again reinforced the sentiment that the feeling around the team has changed under their new head coach John Herdman. She noted that there is a greater openness in the squad with him welcoming their feedback in the making of decisions. Sinclair also noted that he is working to spread more of the leadership and responsibility away from Sinclair. That change already affected the way the team played at the Pan Am games as Sinclair was able to rest during some of the games and they found more secondary scoring.
On the personal side Sinclair noted that she is still only 28 despite having already amassed 120 goals for her country. She is not thinking about this, or the coming World Cup, as her last kick at the can but rather seems set to continue her playing career for the foreseeable future.