There is only ever one favourite when qualifying for a FIFA Women’s World Cup™ kicks off in the CONCACAF zone: The United States. The Americans are unbeaten in their last 11 games and head to the regional championship in Cancun with heavy expectations to take top spot, especially considering they have won 27 of the 28 regional qualifiers they have played throughout their storied history.
The tournament runs from 28 October to 8 November and USA’s Swedish-born coach Pia Sundhage is not content to rest on her laurels. “I am not concerned about our form; all I am concerned with is where we can get better as a team,” she said after a pair of preparatory friendlies against China in which the Americans looked far from their best.
Striker Abby Wambach, the standout player in the side with 109 goals in 142 caps, is also eager to improve as the tournament approaches in the vacation hot-spot of Cancun, Mexico. “Not all the players are on the same page right now,” said the big Washington Freedom forward. “But it’s not something to worry about because it’s the kind of thing we can fix.”
The Americans, twice world champions and current Olympic gold medal holders, open their account with Haiti, an unknown quantity in female football and a nation still recovering from January's massive earthquake. They then square off with fellow Group B contenders Guatemala and Costa Rica. While the USA are heavily fancied to take top spot in their section, Group A is a far more interesting prospect.
Canada, Mexico with points to prove
Mexico, as hosts, will be eager to add to the reputation they’ve built in recent years as regional up-and-comers in the women’s game. Semi-finalists from 2003, Canada, are very much the second team in CONCACAF and are keen to reach their fifth straight FIFA Women’s World Cup.
The Canadians, led by star striker and the nation’s all-time top scorer Christine Sinclair, will take the pitch under new boss Carolina Morace. The former Italian international has taken over the reins after a ten-year tenure by Norwegian tactician Even Pellerud, and her desire to change the side from a hit-and-hope, long-ball team to one that plays a bit of football has not gone unnoticed.
“Carolina brought in a completely different style, a very European-based soccer,” said Sinclair, the team’s talisman. “We have welcomed it with open arms, and we have all completely bought into it. But it takes some getting used to as we've all just been booting the ball for ten years, now she wants us to pass the ball, so we're in an adjustment phase."
High hopes for the hosts
Mexico, who round out Group A along with Trinidad and Tobago and minnows Guyana, will have a certain degree of expectation on their shoulders as they go on a hunt for a place in what would be only their second FIFA Women’s World Cup since they conceded 15 goals and finished bottom of their group at USA 1999. Coach Leonardo Cuellar sees the role of hosts as two-edged.
“It does imply an extra amount of pressure, but I also think that we will have the support of our fans," said Cuellar, just back from a three-game tour of South Korea and counting on ace forward Maribel Dominguez to get the scoring done in his attack-minded side. "I think that the team is a combination of experienced players alongside ones that have stood out amongst the group that had a good Under-20 World Cup in Germany.”
The winner and runner-up from each group will move on to the semi-finals, where the winners will qualify automatically as CONCACAF’s representatives at the 2011 FIFA Women’s World Cup in Germany. The last-four losers will then meet in a third-place play-off, with the winner earning to right square off with the fifth-place finisher from European qualifying for a place in Germany.