US on the hunt in Juarez
© AFP

Weeks after winning their record sixth Algarve Cup in sunny southern Portugal, USA head down to Juarez, Mexico as firm favourites to book their passage to the Women's Olympic Football Tournament in Beijing. The six-team, ten-day tournament will send two participants from North, Central America and the Caribbean to the Olympics this summer.

The Americans, who bounced back from their biggest-ever loss, 4-0 to Brazil China at the FIFA Women's World Cup China 2007, will be favourites to win the regional qualifying competition after recently heading back to the top of the FIFA/Coca-Cola Women's World Ranking.

Led by new head coach and former Sweden international, Pia Sundhage, USA will be without their talisman and captain Kristine Lilly, who is pregnant with her first child. The US squad, as a result, will be a balance on of youth and experience in Mexico as they aim to head back to the Olympics and defend the gold medal they won in Athens in 2004.

We've tried different things in China at the Four Nations Tournament and at the Algarve Cup recently, so now it's about finding our best combinations of players for these qualifying matches.
Pia Sundhage, USA coach

"We've had a good week of training in Los Angeles and the team is excited about the challenge of the Olympics," said Sundhage. " USA coach">We've tried different things in China at the Four Nations Tournament and at the Algarve Cup recently, so now it's about finding our best combinations of players for these qualifying matches."

The two-time Olympic champions, with ace scorer Abby Wambach, Shannon Boxx and Heather O'Reilly in the team, will find themselves up against Jamaica and Mexico in the group stages.

The hosts will be led by star striker Maribel Dominguez and veteran coach Leonardo Cuellar. The Mexicans were the first Spanish-speaking nation to qualify for a FIFA Women's World Cup in 1999 and after finishing third in the 2002 CONCACAF Women's Gold Cup, have firmly established themselves just behind the region's recognised best: USA and Canada.

The group's outsiders will be Caribbean participants Jamaica. The Reggae Girlz reached the final round of qualifying thanks to wins over Bermuda, Dominica, and Antigua and Barbuda, and will be looking to cause a sensation. Having outscored their three pre-qualifying opponents 27-0 over 450 minutes of football, the rest of the group might want to keep an eye on the islanders.

Canucks expect
Over in Group B, Canada are the firm favourites. Even Pellerud's side have been giving USA a run for their money and challenging for the title of top side in the region of late. The 1998 CONCACAF Gold Cup winners will be led, as ever, by goal queen Christine Sinclair and midfielder Kara Lang.

With all the training sessions and a reasonable number of international matches this winter, this team is eager to go in and qualify Canada to the Olympic Tournament in Beijing.
Even Pellerud, Canada coach

"Our squad for the tournament in Mexico is an interesting mix of experience and youthful newcomers," said Pellerud. "The players are healthier than ever before and we feel quite well prepared for this competition. Canada coach">With all the training sessions and a reasonable number of international matches this winter, this team is eager to go in and qualify Canada to the Olympic Tournament in Beijing."

The Northerners will not have things all their own way, though, with Costa Rica and Trinidad and Tobago blocking their path. The Ticas advanced to the final round of qualifying with a two-legged win over Nicaragua, while the Trinidadians beat Suriname, St. Vincent and the Grenadines, Grenada and Puerto Rico to reach the last hurdle.

The winners of the two groups will meet in the semi-finals, with both finalists then qualifying as CONCACAF representatives for the Women's Olympic Football Tournament in Beijing this August.

Nine teams have already qualified for the 12-team finals in the Far East. Japan, Korea DPR and China PR (hosts) from Asia, Argentina from South America, Nigeria from Africa, and Germany, Norway and Sweden from Europe. New Zealand will be the lone Oceania reps, while Brazil and Ghana will play-off for the final spot in China.