VANCOUVER — The Canadian women’s soccer team is ready for a scrap.
As the ladies in red prepare for Mexico in Friday’s semifinal of the CONCACAF Women’s Olympic qualifying tournament, there’s a resoluteness in the camp, and an understanding they’ll be facing a side with a reputation for physicality.
“With the Mexicans you know you’re always going to get a strong, physical and technical team,” midfielder Brittany Timko told sportsnet.ca following Canada’s final training session Thursday evening.
The Mexicans seemed to target United States star Abby Wambach out for particular abuse in the final game in Group B, tackling her hard on a number of occasions, and the expectation is that Canada’s captain and star Christine Sinclair will be targeted for similar treatment.
“As a team, and personally, we’ve faced it the entire tournament, especially in our first game against Haiti,” Sinclair said. “Some of the tackles we were facing, it was like ‘wow.’ But, we’re expecting it, and we’re going to do the exact same to them. This is one game for everything, so there’s going to be some bruises for sure.”
Head coach John Herdman is realistic about the way in which the Mexicans will attempt to shut down Sinclair, but says it’s all part of the game and that the captain is used to it.
“She’ll have padding all over her body!” Herdman said. “She’s waiting for it, but she’s played Mexico I don’t know how many times. She knows there’s going to be some pulling, some scratching and all the stuff that goes on. I think she’s ready for that and I don’t think too much perturbs her.”
This tournament is one of those rare situations in sport where the semifinal is actually more important than the final, as the two semifinal winners advance to a spot in the competition that really matters, the 2012 London Olympics.
“We don’t have to talk about how important it is,” Herdman said. “They know — you win a game like this at home and it takes you to the Olympics, but it’s more than that. It’s about following up from that World Cup (2011 group stage elimination), it’s about one or two of them stepping up and becoming the player everyone talks about. They know it’s a great opportunity and they’ll go towards it.”
History and current form are on Canada’s side, with 16 wins, one loss and one draw against the Mexicans all time, but crucially that one loss was in a similar Olympic qualifying situation eight years ago. On that occasion, Mexico won 2-1, leaving the Canadian team to watch their regional rivals advance to the 2004 Athens Olympics. In 2004, Canada once again faced Mexico, qualifying for the Beijing 2008 Olympics.
“The past two Olympic qualifiers, this has been the game,” Sinclair said. “The first time they beat us, and the last time we beat them. We’re used to beating them in this environment.”
Despite the one-sided nature of Canada’s matches so far in this tournament, Herdman believes the group stage was enough preparation for this match against Mexico.
“The group stage matches are always challenging, because the opposition will play very differently to what you’ll see from your semi, quarter finalists,” Herdman said. “But the Costa Rica game was crucial. They wanted to beat Canada after the Pan-Ams, and felt they had a chance as well. They play a similar style to Mexico — they’re fantastic on the counterattack. Mexico are another level and I think we’ve prepared diligently for that.
“If the ball bounces the right way, I think this Canadian team can really take the game away.”