The eyes of soccer fans all across the country will be firmly cast on Vancouver when it hosts the CONCACAF Women’s Olympic Qualifying tournament from Jan. 19-29.
Eight of the best teams from the region — Canada, the United States, Mexico, Costa Rica, Haiti, Cuba, Guatemala and the Dominican Republic — will converge on BC Place Stadium where they will duke it out in order to punch their tickets for this summer’s Olympics in London.
Setting aside the obvious of there being two Olympic berths at stake, here are five reasons why you should watch the tournament.
1) First test for Canadian coach John Herdman
Forget about Canada winning gold at the Pan Am Games in October. Not to diminish the Canadians’ gold medal victory too much, but let’s be honest: the Pan Ams are a Mickey Mouse competition, as evidenced by the fact that Brazil fielded a “B” team and the U.S. didn’t even bother to compete in the women’s soccer tournament.
Vancouver poses the first serious test for John Herdman, the Englishman who took over the coaching reigns from Carolina Morace in the aftermath of Canada’s capitulation at last summer’s World Cup. Herdman was hired in September, and although he led Canada to glory at the Pan Ams, the jury is still out on what kind of influence he has had on this team.
It’ll be interesting to see after only a few months how much Canada has progressed with Herdman at the helm, how much of the passing game preached by Morace they will adhere to, and whether they have really put the debacle in Germany behind them.
2) See tomorrow’s stars today
Yes, the likes of Christine Sinclair, Hope Solo, Kaylyn Kyle and Abby Wambach will be in Vancouver, but so will a crop of exciting youngsters who could bust out at this tournament en route to becoming the next big stars in the women’s game.
Chelsea Buckland, 21, is a Canadian forward with lots of promise, having scored 28 goals in the past three seasons in the NCAA for Oregon State. She recently scored in a friendly against Sweden, but this will be her first major tournament for Canada. A strong showing in Vancouver would go a long way to cementing her spot on the national team.
Lauren Sesselmann is a Wisconsin-born defender who acquired Canadian citizenship through her father in 2010 and made her national team debut in 2011. Her steadying presence at left back helped Canada win Pan Am gold, and she could be a force on the Canadian back line for years to come.
A three-time All-American at UCLA, forward Sydney Leroux was born in B.C. and even played for Canada at the U-20 level. But she decided to represent the U.S. at senior level (she qualifies to play for the Americans through her father) and has earned one cap for her adopted country. An athletic forward, she was selected first overall by the Atlanta Beat in last week’s Women’s Professional Soccer draft.
Limited to two substitute appearances at last year’s World Cup, Mexican midfielder Teresa Noyola is coming off a spectacular 2011. The three-time All-American led Stanford to a national title and won the Hermann Trophy as the top women’s player in NCAA Division I soccer.
3) It’s being held in Canada
Remember the last time Canada staged a major women’s tournament?
The year was 2002 and the FIFA U-19 Women’s World Championship (with games in Edmonton, Vancouver and Victoria) captured the hearts and minds of Canadian sports fans.
It was at this tournament that Canada was first introduced to the likes of Christine Sinclair, Kara Lang and Brittany Timko — players that would become the backbone of the senior women’s team for the next decade.
After upsetting Brazil in the semifinals, Canada lost to the U.S. in a dramatic final that went to extra time. Despite the loss, Canada acquitted itself well and the tournament drew big crowds — over 47,000 jammed into Edmonton’s Commonwealth Stadium to watch the final.
Ten years have passed, and in that time Sinclair has developed into a super star, while the women’s game has grown exponentially here in Canada. With a healthy buzz in Vancouver, the Olympic qualifying tournament has the potential to be another watershed moment for the Canadian women’s team.
4) The element of surprise
The top two teams in both groups at this tournament advance to the final four, with the semifinal winners earning an Olympic berth. Conventional wisdom suggests Canada will meet the U.S. in the final, but that’s far from a certainty, especially when you consider recent history.
At the 2010 CONCACAF World Cup qualifying tournament, Mexico upset the U.S. 2-1 in the semifinals. As a result, the Mexicans claimed one of the two automatic World Cup berths at the Americans’ expense, and the U.S. was forced to beat Costa Rica in the third-place match and then get by Italy — which they did, just barely — in a two-legged playoff.
According to Sportsnet commentator Kara Lang, Costa Rica and Mexico are two rising powers in the women’s game, and more than capable of authoring a major upset in Vancouver.
5) Canada vs. the United States
Barring a massive upset, this tournament looks set for a Canada vs. U.S. final — and if it that happens, expect a competitive match with spirits running high.
The Canadian women will need much more than just home-field advantage against the Americans — who are ranked first in the world — if they have any intention of winning the competition. They’ll have to overcome a massive psychological disadvantage.
The U.S. has dominated Canada, winning an amazing 41 of 48 matches with four draws, and has never lost on Canadian soil against their cross-border rivals.
It’s been more than 10 years since Canada last tasted victory, further underlining how incredibly one-sided this matchup has been. A victory over the Americans in the final — if it comes to that — would not only send home the fans in Vancouver in a happy mood, but it would also give the Canadian team a major confidence boost ahead of the Olympics.