Whether it's Karina LeBlanc or Erin McLeod, Canada's goalkeeper in the round robin stage shouldn't have too much to worry about. (John MacDougall/Getty Images)
When the CONCACAF Women's Olympic qualifiers kick off in Vancouver on Thursday, everybody knows what Canada's goals are going to be. In case you couldn't guess, John Herdman spelled them out yesterday: firstly for Canada to win Group A, secondly for Canada to make the final (thus qualifying for the Olympics) at any cost, and thirdly for Canada to win the championship on home soil if possible, given goal number two.
These are the most sensible goals possible. The Olympic qualifiers are a sort of unofficial CONCACAF championship for the 2011 season, with no Gold Cup this year and no other major confederational tournaments. There's a reason they have a final game after the qualifiers have been decided: this championship is very nearly as difficult to win as the proper CONCACAF Women's Gold Cup and it makes a prestigious addition to any soccer power's trophy case. On the other hand, it's not nearly so prestigious as an Olympic medal: qualification must be Canada's primary goal and a championship would merely be a happy bonus.
So what are Canada's chances? The casual fan will correctly identify the United States as our most dangerous rival, but are there any dark horses who might upset our apple cart? And what about the other teams in our group, most of which are unknown to those of us who don't follow CONCACAF religiously? After the jump, I preview Group A and Canada's road to its first trophy in 2011.
|CONCACAF Olympic Qualifying Groups|
|Group A||Group B|
|Mean Ranking||51.5||Mean Ranking||48.8|
Cuba has never even qualified for a Women's Gold Cup and is barely an active team: prior to this month their last official matches were in July 2011, drawing to Haiti and beating Suriname. They enjoyed seven goals in five games from Yesenia Martinez in last year's Gold Cup qualification run but were walloped by Haiti (themselves no powerhouses). It's hard to find information about them beyond match results; I can't even tell you how old the aforementioned Martinez is or what her career national team stats are.
The Cubans are weak, we know that; they've never gotten a result against anybody who'd we'd even consider an upset risk. Internationally, they are a good four steps below Canada; our women are as clear of them as our men were of St. Lucia. Of course, we remember the trouble the St. Lucians gave us for twenty terrifying minutes in Toronto, but the game against Cuba should (bluntly) be a glorified practice.
Haiti is a stronger side and deserves respect, but not much more. Haiti successfully qualified for their third ever Gold Cup in 2010 but were whitewashed not just by the United States but by Costa Rica. They are ahead of the true minnows: Cuba gave them a bit of trouble in a draw last year but Haiti is generally two or three goals clear of them. The Haitian program has improved over the past five years and they've clawed past the likes of Jamaica and Puerto Rico to gain a solid foothold on the third rank of CONCACAF women's soccer. However, they too should pose no threat to any organized Canadian team.
Once again, information on the Haitian team is too obscure to provide meaningful analysis. Their only Gold Cup goal was scored by Adeline Saintilmond, a 27-year-old forward who also put home three goals in qualifying. 25-year-old midfielder Wisline Dolce also bagged a brace in qualifying; both players are listed on the Haitian roster carried by their website. My year-and-a-half-old memories of Haiti in the Gold Cup are of an overwhelmed, unathletic side which did not stand out as an upset threat. But who knows what they'll bring to Vancouver? Their recent form, while still not good enough to threaten the Canadians, is fair, and they've had consistent results against inferior teams which hint that they may be able to spring a surprise against their betters.
Costa Rica is the closest thing to a threat Canada will face... but even they're far from world class. We all remember how infuriating the men's Ticos are to play, but Costa Rica routinely concedes two goals a game and tries to beat their opponents with pure firepower. They actually have a recent playing history against Canada: we faced them in the first knockout round of the 2010 Gold Cup and annihilated them 4-0 on goals from Josee Belanger, Jonelle Filigno, Christine Sinclair, and an own goal. We waxed them again at the 2011 Pan-American Games, although this game was at least competitive: a 3-1 win with goals from Christina Julien, Sinclair, and Amelia Pietrangelo. Shirley Cruz responded from the spot for Costa Rica.
Cruz is Costa Rica's leading player. A diminutive attacking midfielder who plays with Lyon in the French league, Cruz will wear the #10 shirt for her country and, according to the best available statistics (Wikipedia), has eighteen goals on twenty-nine caps at age twenty-six. Cruz is one of a few Costa Rican players based abroad: defender Karol Sanchez and midfielder Cristin Granados turn out for Virginia Commonwealth University's NCAA team, while Daniele Cruz Mejia is a starting midfielder for the division II University of West Florida. Granados is a former Costa Rican domestic scoring champion and Sanchez a three-time Costa Rican league champion. Both play regularly for WCU but it's not that high a level (Granados and Sanchez are teammates with a number of Canadians who are nowhere near the national team).
The rest of Costa Rica's team is based domestically. They are reasonably strong: for most of the century Costa Rica has fenced with Mexico to be the third-best team in CONCACAF. However, Mexico has moved forward while Costa Rica has stayed behind, and while they should still have no problems with the likes of Cuba and Haiti the semi-final round should be the limit of their aspirations.
The main problem with Canada's round robin opponents is that they are unpredictable. Costa Rica is the only one we've played recently. We were at least able to see Haiti on television briefly, while Cuba might be a total enigma. Of course, the Canadian team has far greater resources than you and I and the Canadian players have been studying video of all their opponents.
If Canada wins Group A, which they bloody well should, they book a semi-final appearance against the second-place team from Group B; winner goes to the Olympics. We assume the second-place team in Group B will be Mexico but not so fast! The Mexican national team has had some excellent results, and I don't just mean their famous Mexico 2 - 1 United States scoreline on November 5, 2010. We forget that Canada only barely beat that same Mexican team to win the 2010 Women's Gold Cup, that Mexico had a better World Cup than Canada with two draws against the world-class English and the fair New Zealand, and that Mexico took third in the Pan-American Games with tight, tenacious defensive play. Mexico's only competitive losses since we won the Gold Cup were to Japan in a World Cup they eventually won and to Brazil in the Pan-American semi-final; that is excellent form.
While the United States is still favoured to win Group B, Mexico has rock-hard upset potential. They are a tenacious pain-in-the-ass team to play; far from the florid style of their men's team or even their earlier women's sides, these Mexicans compete for every ball, slow the play down, aren't afraid to trade possession for position, and will try to grind you down for as long as it takes. If Canada faces Mexico in the semi-final they are in for a tough fight with no guaranteed winner.
Worse, Mexico might well take Group B: they'd have to beat the Americans to do it (I can't see the low-powered Mexican attack out-goal-differentialling the Yankees against Group B minnows) but that's not totally unrealistic. The American program has been sagging noticeably in the past three years and the world number ones scare everybody but terrify no-one. They are the quickest, strongest team in the tournament, with more all-round skilled players than anybody, and a shocking vulnerability to good team-oriented tactics that nullify their individualistic faffering.
Do the other teams in Group B have a chance to turn the tournament on their head and upset the Americans or the Mexicans to claim a semi-final spot? No. That's the end of it.
This tournament will probably play out by the chalk: Canada wins Group A, beats Mexico (barely) to qualify for the Olympics, then loses to the United States in the final because losing to the United States is sort of our thing. Of the eight teams in the tournament, the bottom five are in a different universe from the top three and while the nature of soccer suggests one of those minnows is going to get a point off one of the big girls, it shouldn't change the overall picture. If there's an upset to come, it'll almost certainly be the Mexicans bringing it: they are a team I will be watching with wide eyes and bated breath.