HOUSTON, TEXAS – It wouldn’t be overconfidence on the part of the Canadian women’s team to view its first three games in Olympic qualifying as easy victories.
Canada opens play at the CONCACAF Olympic qualifying tournament on Thursday against a Guyana side that is making its debut in this competition, and that also features nine players who are with club or university teams in Canada.
Guyana, ranked 89th in the world and looking to develop its domestic game, should be overmatched against Canada, ranked 11th and featuring a roster that’s a healthy mix of experience and youth. Still, Canada can’t afford to look past Guyana.
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“It’s like a golf course. You play a hole and that’s the hole we’re playing,” Canadian coach John Herdman stated. “You’re focused on that and then you put that behind and move onto the next. We’re really clear that we’ve got a process we have to deliver and we’re coming up against teams that would love to get a point against Canada and go out to stifle and frustrate.”
After opening on Thursday against Guyana, Canada meets Trinidad and Tobago on Sunday and Guatemala next Tuesday in Group A of the competition.
Not only are these winnable games, but they’re games where Canada should win easily to give themselves the best possible opponent in the tournament semifinals.
It’s the perfect opportunity for Herdman to give playing time to some younger talent that should still manage to compete against the teams they’ll face in this tournament. But the youngsters are not just here to get the experience as Herdman always points out—he doesn’t bring players into camp unless they’re able to contribute.
“These new faces that are in our team bring a new energy and excitement to practice but to everyday life. They’re in this for the first time and its interesting hearing them talk about the dream of qualifying for an Olympics for the first time and the dream of being in an Olympics,” forward Christine Sinclair said.
Canada’s captain, Sinclair could surpass American Mia Hamm and move into second place in the all-time women’s international scoring list if she nets her 159th career goal on Thursday.
“Training is very competitive and we probably have the deepest squad we’ve ever had. It’s exciting and I think the potential for some of these kids is just the moon, literally. We have some special talent,” Sinclair said.
What there is in this Canadian squad is plenty of balance between that youth and experience.
There are three teenagers and players such as Kadeisha Buchanan, Rebecca Quinn and Ashley Lawrence who are all just coming off university seasons, and all represent the present and the future for the team.
But to stabilize that youth, a solid chunk of the Olympic bronze medal team from the 2012 Games in London is back, most notably, of course, Sinclair and goalkeeper Erin Mcleod, who are two of the best players at their respective ends of the field.
“We’ve added some new pace which has put our defenders on the back foot a lot more and we’ve added some new technical confidence that’s made some players step up to a new notch,” Herdman stated. “I think it’s just become a really competitive in there and quite exciting. I’m hoping that alchemy is what’ll give us an edge in this tournament.”
There are currently six players on the roster with at least 100 caps for Canada and that number is expected to swell to seven on Thursday as Desiree Scott should see action, likely as a starter.
McLeod is back and fully fit after suffering a bone bruise in a tournament in December in Brazil. She had to leave the field after colliding with Brazil’s Marta and then landed awkwardly.
But McLeod was part of the early group to arrive for training on Wednesday in Houston and answered she was “all good” when asked how she was feeling.
The other group in the tournament is based in Frisco, Texas, and sees the favoured Americans taking on Mexico, Costa Rica, and Puerto Rico.
The top two teams in each group will cross over with the respective group winners playing the runners-up in the semifinals. The finalists earn the two Olympic berths up for grabs within CONCACAF for this summer’s Olympics in Rio de Janeiro.