With the FIFA Women’s World Cup™ now a distant memory, the female elite in the North, Central America and Caribbean region have shifted focus towards booking a place at the Women’s Olympic Football Tournament London 2012 with just two tickets on offer.
The qualifying tournament, which begins tomorrow at BC Place in Vancouver, British Columbia, is bound to serve up a series of mouth-watering fixtures as eight nations, including the region’s heavyweights in Canada, Mexico, and USA, battle for Olympic berths. While hosts Canada are favoured in Group A alongside Costa Rica, Cuba, and Haiti, Germany 2011 runners-up USA face a stiff test in Group B as they must face rivals Mexico on the final group matchday after having gone head-to-head with less-fancied sides Guatemala and Dominican Republic.
Two teams will advance from each group into the semi-finals, where they will not only compete for a spot in the final on 29 January, but an assured place at London 2012.
Canada headline opening bill
Costa Rica and Cuba will open the qualifying tournament in tomorrow’s early fixture, while the Canucks begin their campaign against Haiti in the day’s late kick-off. Canada, after failing to collect a single point at last summer’s FIFA Women’s World Cup, have embarked on a rebuilding process as of late with newly-appointed coach John Herdman at the forefront of such changes.
While hopeful of qualifying for London with the next FIFA Women’s World Cup set to take place on home soil, the Canadians will have to do so without veteran midfielder Diana Matheson, who underwent right-knee surgery after helping Canada win the Pan American Games over Brazil last October. Even so, the Canadians will certainly be boosted by home crowd support in Vancouver, and the players themselves have urged local fans to support them in their bid to qualify for this summer’s tournament. With forward and captain Christine Sinclair leading their charges, Canada are expected to clinch either first or second in Group A with two-time semi-finalists Costa Rica presenting their biggest threat.
Pressure is high for the hosts, but coach Herdman has expressed interest in preserving his player’s energy for the all-important semi-final showdown as he is weary of an early meeting with USA. "The only danger is no-one wants to meet the USA in the semi-finals," Herdman told CONCACAF's website. If that happens, things change radically. We'll keep our fingers crossed on that one."
However, before sealing passage through to the semi-finals, Canada will have to navigate a Costa Rican side seeking their first appearance at a world championship as well as minnows Cuba and Haiti, who are making their first-ever Olympic qualifying appearance.
And while Costa Rica boast strong leadership in Olympique Lyonnais midfielder Shirley Cruz and stand in the way of Canada securing first place in Group A, perhaps the more tricky passage into the semi-finals lies in Group B. USA enter the qualifying tournament with wounds fresh after finishing second to Japan at Germany 2011, and are intent upon avenging that loss with not only a ticket to London, but by then winning gold at the tournament - a tall order as the Americans have won gold at the last two instalments of the Olympic Games.
Mexico, USA rematch looms
USA forward Abby Wambach is well aware there are no second chances this time around in qualifying, noting that the “region is historically tight”, while specifically remembering a crushing first-ever loss to Mexico in the semi-finals at the qualifying tournament for Germany 2011 that forced the Americans into a do-or-die qualifying series against Italy. “Our group is tough,” Wambach told FIFA.com. “Mexico is going to be the game that all of us have marked on our calendars, because that’s going to be the game that sees how we are going to cross over for that semi-final match: the match we need to win.
“The good news is that most of the players on this team experienced what we did last summer at the World Cup - that bittersweet taste of making such great movement and headlines back in our country, but just falling short. There is no better motivation you can have.”
Mexico will be keen on producing another upset, though, with coach Leonardo Cuellar holding regular training camps as the Mexican Football Federation heads into a new era of added investment in their women’s programme. The Mexicans have experienced talent in Maribel Dominguez and Monica Ocampo, who both scored in the group phase at the FIFA Women’s World Cup, as well as US-born forward Veronica Perez. Las Aztecas had a decent showing in Germany, drawing England and New Zealand either side of a 4-0 loss to eventual-winners Japan, and also finished third at the Pan American Games behind Canada and Brazil. And, any former hesitation in taking on giants USA has surely subsided as the Americans have a heavy memory of ‘what ifs’ weighing on their shoulders, while Mexico have shown tremendous progress in the last two years.
"Everything is going in the right direction," Mexico coach Leonardo Cuellar told CONCACAF's website. "But we need to confirm that with results. To qualify for the Olympics in London would be a big push for women's soccer in Mexico."
But before Mexico and USA meet in their much-anticipated clash on the final day of group play, qualifying newcomers Guatemala, lead by an up-and-coming duo in forward Katherine Ramos and midfielder Ana Martinez, along with Dominican Republic will be hoping to pull off a shock in the pool.