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So far, it's been a job well done for the Canadian women's national team. As we speak, the Canadian ladies are in Mexico attempting to qualify for the 2011 FIFA Women's World Cup in Germany. Canada's qualified for every such competition since 1995 and we're expected to qualify for this one. Given the attention the women's game gets here, it's awfully easy to forget but we're pretty good at women's soccer.
It's a strong crew that Canada's bringing to World Cup qualifying, but not our strongest. Striker Christine Sinclair, of course, is probably one of the five best female players in the world, and beyond that there's a considerable amount of depth but little real star power. Fans of the Whitecaps such as I will be delighted to see that Canada has taken a remarkable six players from the Whitecaps' women's team: defenders Robin Gayle and Emily Zurrer, midfielder Kaylyn Kyle and Desiree Scott, and strikers Kara Lang and Melissa Tancredi. You will be unsurprised to hear no other club is as well represented.
Our first two games haven't exactly been stern tests, mind you. Taking on Trinidad and Tobago on Friday, Canada dominated possession and had the lady Socca Warriors so far on their back feet they risk tripping over that mediocre Mexican grass. However, CONCACAF refereeing was out in full force and Canada had two legitimate goals called back before Melissa Tancredi finally broke through with one that counted and gave us a 1-0 win. Sunday against Guyana, we beat them 8-0 which... was exactly as competitive as it sounds.
Neither game teaches us that much for our impending date against Mexico: clearly the third-best team in the confederation but also clearly good enough to teach us a lesson if we come out complacent. But what can we learn from the only successful Canadian national team's performances to date?
First and probably most importantly, the Canadians look more and more like they're growing comfortable with Carolina Morace. Morace's been in charge for twenty-one months now so you'd hope so, but devotees of the Canadian soccer world will remember that Morace's tenure as Canadian head coach got off to a pretty lukewarm start. Narrow wins over countries we should really beat in our sleep, followed by a five-game losing streak in which we scored two goals and conceded ten. Late in 2009 results started to improve, but there were still some real shockers: a 2-0 loss in China, a 1-1 draw to Norway, and the mixed blessing of the Cyprus Cup where we won the tournament and beat England but barely eked out victories over such third-rate powers as South Africa and New Zealand. Finally, there was the horrifying 5-0 loss in Germany back in September.
It's a horrifying, historical truth about the Canadian women's soccer program that it's always emphasized athleticism over skill. In the late 1990s and early 2000s, when we were among the five best women's soccer nations in the world, it was largely because most countries hadn't embraced women's soccer as comprehensively as we had. Our ladies had access to high-quality physical training facilities and (by Canadian soccer standards) first-class physical training, but next-to-no coaches of any calibre. That, along with the influence of the infamous Even Pellerud, meant Canada tried to win games just by being bigger and stronger than their opponents. It worked, somewhat, but as more countries caught up to our level of physical fitness and threw in some actual football training, results started to go against us. It was a rare bit of very intelligent strategic insight to bring in the skill-oriented (and expensive) Morace to replace Pellerud, to try and turn this whole program around.
The result was a period of brief, if unpleasant, adjustment period and now a team that can compete on levels other than "Christine Sinclair is stronger than everybody". The depth of the team has been its most striking feature: Canada's second eleven would still be one of the top twenty women's teams in the world. Kara Lang, Canada's second-leading international scorer of any gender at only twenty-three years old, spends most of her time on the bench and arguably deserves to be there, having struggled with injuries while the national team has found a bevy of consistent strikers and midfielders (she played a blinder against Guyana and was my second pick for Woman of the Match, mind you: her moving pick on the Guyanese goalkeeper to allow Sinclair's first goal and her own poacher's finish were both cases of raw talent and good soccer instincts creating a golden chance when a lesser player may have just stood around).
Watching Canada play Trinidad and Tobago was marvelously instructive. Trinidad and Tobago are actually a pretty athletic bunch: I was surprised by both their speed and their strength, which wasn't on Canada's level but was certainly competitive. Their coach, as you are doubtless aware, is old Canada supremo Even Pellerud and he's been getting some good results out of them lately. Against Canada, they went into the old long ball hoof-it-and-run style that served Canada so very well years ago.
And Canada picked them apart. Oh, it was a thing of beauty. Our defense, sitting back, had no trouble coping with their speed and were talented enough to turn the ball around and send the attack surging towards the Trinidadian goal. That we won only 1-0 was no credit to Trinidad and Tobago, who were comprehensively outplayed. It's all well and good to say that Canada ought to be more talented than Trinidad and Tobago, but then Canada's lost a lot of games to teams they ought to be more talented than. To see a Canadian team, in a favoured position against a potentially dangerous enemy, take care of business so ruthlessly was a sight for sore eyes.
Now we play Mexico, a team we ought to be more talented than. In fifteen senior meetings, Canada has lost to Mexico only once. They're clearly the third team in CONCACAF, behind us and the Americans. But they're also on home soil and could get us if we let them. Their attack is plenty dangerous, even if their defending has been a weakness. They're led by veteran Maribel Domínguez, 31 years old but still a highly capable striker and not too far removed from being offered a contract in the Mexican men's second division. Domínguez has scored in every match of the tournament so far, which is more than Christine Sinclair can say, and as a sly little striker in the Simeon Jackson mold might be able to find space between Canada's large defenders.
Theoretically, Canada shouldn't struggle with the Mexicans. Thanks to our advantage in goal differential, a draw would be enough to give us a relatively easy first round test against Costa Rica rather than an extremely dangerous match against the United States. That first round win is all-important: if we win the first round, we go on to next year's Women's World Cup regardless of what we do in the final. If we lose, we must beat the other first-round loser and then Italy for the last qualification spot. Canada can beat Italy, but it's an awfully close matchup and we should all fervently hope it doesn't come to that.
It's no exaggeration to say a 0-0 draw against Mexico might get Canada into the World Cup. We all want victory, but sometimes it's better to just avoid defeat.