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1986, men. 1998, women. 2000, men.
That's the list. Canada's continental championships for either gender in six words. Add the 1904 Olympics and that's every title of consequence our senior teams have ever won. Had I a mind, I could make the trophy cabinet even smaller and put an asterisk next to 1986 and 1998. In 1986, the men won the combined CONCACAF championship/World Cup qualifying session because the Mexicans were hosting the World Cup that year and didn't participate. When the American women sat out the 1998 championship for the same reason, our ladies pounded the weakened field. Only the 2000 CONCACAF Gold Cup stands out as our best taking on their best and prevailing.
I realize that's three more continental titles than have been won by, to pick a name at random, England. All the same, given that our women's team has been top ten in the world for most of its history that's a pretty feeble haul. This is our women's team's third consecutive appearance in the final, and on both of the previous occasions they played their hearts out against the United States and crushingly lost in extra time. This time, the Mexicans have done the hard part for us, vanquishing the United States in one of the great upsets in the history of international soccer.
So now we just have to beat the team that beat the United States. Actually, it doesn't sound quite as easy when I put it that way.
I desperately want the women to get us our first trophy in a decade, to get their first trophy against a full CONCACAF field. I think they should be able to do so if they play as efficiently and professionally as they did against Mexico last week. But that doesn't mean I'm writing the Mexicans off. God, no. If they bring the same calibre of play against us they did against the United States, Canada will need its best game of the tournament.
It is obligatory, in any preview of this game, to say that Canada already did what they came to Cancun to do. They've qualified for the World Cup. It's done. We'll see them in Germany in 2011. Fantastic. Qualification was always the goal: a championship would have been just a delightful bonus. All the same, that sort of talk sounded a lot more compelling when we thought we'd be tangling with the United States in the final instead of a Mexican team that has just salivating at the thought of a trophy. We think we can beat the Americans but we sure haven't in an awfully long time. On the other hand, we know we can beat the Mexicans because we just did.
The Canadians have the advantage that they're stronger mentally than the Americans. When Mexico got their two shocking goals in the first half-hour, the United States found themselves utterly unable to cope and went straight into panic mode. This played right into the hands of Mexico, who until very late kept their composure and didn't get worked up thinking of the historical upset they were creating. The Americans had hardly a taste of adversity the whole tournament and went right to pieces as soon as their game plan suffered a setback. Canada, on the other hand, proved their character in that atrociously-refereed game against Trinidad and Tobago and have excelled at preventing the sorts of chances that the Mexicans took advantage of.
Not that there aren't still questions. Canada hasn't allowed a goal the entire tournament. This is a tremendous tribute to Canada's defense, which has been both active offensively and utterly implacable in their own area. It's also a great compliment to Karina Leblanc, who after a few rough friendlies for the national team has been the most consistent goalkeeper of this tournament. But it also means we don't know how the Canadians will respond to a real defensive setback, because they haven't experienced one yet. Mexico has some scoring punch, as they've proven: perhaps even comparable to Canada's. Maribel Domínguez may be short and thirty-one but she played a blinder against the United States and I'd be afraid of her striking power if she had one leg, no arms, and got around the pitch in a wheelchair. Canada's defense held her in check well enough last week, but the American defense isn't too shabby either and she found room against them. Will Carolina Morace's sound, calm team stay sound and calm if Domínguez snatches a goal against the run of play? The Americans sure didn't.
Plus, the crowd will be on Mexico's side. This sounds obvious; I mean, the friggin' game's in Mexico. But in our group stage match, the stands were mostly empty and the fans that were there didn't make a lot of noise. The Mexican faithful didn't turn out for a largely meaningless group game against a country that isn't a particular rival of theirs. They did turn out for the Americans, and they shook the stadium down. Enough of them showed up early to cheer for Costa Rica that Canada got a taste of a hostile crowd, but it was nothing next to what the United States was up against.
Mind you, that game was on a Friday night and this one's on a Monday. That'll make some difference. Beating Canada won't mean nearly as much to the average Mexican fan as beating the United States, although I bet they want that trophy as much as we do. But if the Canadians expect a lukewarm Mexican crowd they'll be in for a real shock. Canadian players are of course used to hostile crowds, but it's still a disadvantage.
Canada's a better team than Mexico. That's been thoroughly proven. The United States was a better team than Mexico too, and look at how far that got them. If Canada plays its usual efficient, professional game, they'll bring the trophy home. That's far easier said than done against a team with nothing to lose, and the Americans have thoroughly proven that as well. We have one hand on the trophy, but that trophy's pretty big. If we let them, the Mexicans will wrestle it right away from us.