Canada Prepares for Women's Olympic Qualifying With Challenges Ahead

Until recently Christine Sinclair's face has been disappointingly hard to see around Vancouver, and a mask has had nothing to do with it. (Martin Rose/Getty Images)

By now I should know never to underestimate the interest in Canadian women's soccer.

The Canadian Soccer Association held a press conference at the team hotel downtown to welcome the Canadian women's national team to Vancouver in preparation for the CONCACAF Women's Olympic Qualifying (January 19 - 27, good tickets for single games and tournament passes still available at canadasoccer.com). As I'm at the real job today, I decided to pop down on my lunch break; quick in, talk to a couple of the ladies, pick up my press pass, quick out, no problem.

Nope. The little conference room was packed with press to an extent that seemed to surprise even the CSA officials present. Two book boxes sat behind a counter filled with press passes for photographers, writers, and all those who've come from around North America to cover a mere qualifier for the second-biggest women's soccer tournament in the world. The players, one presumes, are used to press coverage but you could see Diana Matheson (who isn't even playing) trying to catch her breath between media requests as if it was all a bit much.

Nobody's expecting a repeat of the 2002 U-19 Women's World Championship, where slow crowds in the early rounds built up to the largest attendance in Canadian soccer history for the final. The CSA isn't even trying to sell tickets to most of the stadium and only really reached out to Lower Mainland youth clubs last week. But it looks like the ladies won't be suffering for lack of coverage, and if Canada does well the crowd might pop the roof off BC Place.

If Canada does well. That's a bigger question mark than us fans might hope. Canada's been handed the easier of the two groups with Costa Rica, Cuba, and Haiti; the top two teams advance to the semi-final and the two finalists both qualify for the Olympics. The Americans will probably win group B, meaning that Canada's looking to win group A and get an easier semi-final against the runner-up of group B (probably Mexico). Canada doesn't beat the Americans. It simply doesn't happen. So unless the United States chokes in the round robin, a Canadian group win is essential. It's even likely. But we can take nothing for granted.

We talk about home field advantage, but in a country like Canada that's not always as decisive as we'd like. As I mentioned, I'm not expecting great help from the crowd. The Canadian players haven't been inside BC Place yet and have not had a practice in Vancouver; so much for getting acclimatized to town and turf well in advance. We know that some of Sam's Army are making the trip to support the United States team and, with the CSA's usual thoughtfulness towards their guests, are being made welcome. More worryingly for our semi-final hopes, I fully expect Mexican supporters to make a good showing as well.

CONCACAF Olympic Qualifying Groups
Group A Group B
Country Rank Country Rank
Canada 7 United States 1
Costa Rica 41 Mexico 21
Haiti 62 Guatemala 85
Cuba 96 Dominican Republic 88
Mean Ranking 51.5 Mean Ranking 48.8

It would take the greatest upset in women's soccer history for Canada to fail to advance to the semi-final. None of the other three teams in Canada's group are considered even outside challengers (a full preview of Group A will be going up tomorrow morning). However, there are just enough question marks to have me on my guard.

The loss of Diana Matheson, obviously, is an immense one. Matheson is a 27-year-old with 127 appearances for her country. She's so small it's almost shocking; when I shook her hand in person I initially worried that I was going to crush her before remembering that this is a professional athlete who could have thrown me off the mezzanine had she a mind to do so. In midfield, she is as tough and tenacious as they come, capable of sticking to opposing midfielders and forwards and bringing out the worst of their games while flying through the middle and moving the ball with a liveliness rivaled only among Canadians by Sophie Schmidt.

Matheson was training with the team in Los Angeles despite being short of game shape; it was considered a long shot from the start and she was hoping to slowly improve in a way that just didn't happen. The fact that head coach John Herdman took Matheson into camp despite how unlikely it is she could be ready speaks to how much the Canadian team needs her on the field, and the fact that she's actually sticking with the team in Vancouver, doing whatever she can to help out and support her teammates says what she means off of it. Her replacement, Alyscha Mottershead, is an almost unblooded pup.

Apart from the loss of a core player, Canada's next biggest threat is the sheer obscurity of some of their opponents. Costa Rica is a familiar adversary but Haiti and Canada are rarely even in the same universe, while Cuba is the most mysterious team I've ever tried to research before a major soccer tournament. I was told the team has put an emphasis on preparing for each opponent and Erin McLeod said that they've been watching video of every team in the tournament; learning that John Herdman has put so much effort into video preparation relieved the hell out of me.

Costa Rica should be competitive but would lose four games out of every five. Haiti and Cuba are minnows in the most complete sense. The only risks against them will be that Canada will come out incredibly lazily or that they'll have some surprise for which we're just unprepared. Listening to players repeating that they're confident they'll know what each team has up their sleeves is very promising but there's no replacement for watching a game live, or playing against a team, or even knowing somebody who's played against a team.

Nor am I entirely confident in the home crowd. The Canadian Soccer Association has put some resources into marketing this tournament: transit ads and a few radio spots. Burnaby native Christine Sinclair has been an affable face for the team. But community outreach has been lacking. The Whitecaps have been involved in promoting the tournament online, but the CSA waited until very late in the day to try and gain the support of the grassroots clubs. At tournaments like this, most of the fanbase doesn't come from casual soccer fans but from either the hard-cores who'll watch their country at any level or the lower-level groups, sometimes adult but primarily youth, for whom any chance to watch world-class soccer is a treat.

BC Place's loge seats, which can be drawn forth onto the pitch to make the cavernous venue feel more intimate for soccer, will not be used. Entire sections even in the lower bowl are apparently not being sold. The press box might wind up being the most crowded part of the stadium, and with the exception of host broadcasters Sportsnet the typically-disgraceful Toronto media has preferred to obsess over Toronto Marlies games rather than acknowledge a soccer competition that isn't in their backyard. All the same, the level of western media interest shows that the most important outlets are willing to give Canada its due... if only they'd had more to work with until now.

Canada should get into the Olympics easily, but lots of things should happen. It's vital that Canada puts itself on the best footing possible to make sure the favourites come through, and so far the record has been mixed. Some circumstances were beyond their control, but there are areas in which the CSA could have done better.

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