The Canadian women’s soccer team hopes to be the seventh Canadian team to lock up a spot at the Olympics this summer in Tokyo as their regional qualifying tournament gets underway in the southern United States this week.
First up for the 2012 and 2016 Olympic bronze medallists in Group B is a date with Saint Kitts and Nevis on Wednesday, followed by matches against more challenging opponents Jamaica and Mexico.
Eight nations in the CONCACAF tournament (Confederation of North, Central America and Caribbean Association Football) will vie for two Olympic berths, with the Americans and Canadians painted as heavy favourites.
The top two teams from each group advance to the semifinals — make the final and you’ve punched your ticket to Japan.
On the surface, Canada should be a slam dunk to make the finals. They’re the two-time defending Olympic bronze medallists, ranked eighth in the world and have captain Christine Sinclair, who is just two goals away from being the most prolific goal scorer in international soccer history. The 36-year-old from Burnaby, B.C., enters the tournament with 183 goals, one shy of tying retired American striker Abby Wambach’s record of 184.
This Canadian side has plenty of experience. All 20 players chosen by coach Kenneth Heiner-Møller were members of the 2019 World Cup roster and 16 were part of the 2016 Rio bronze-medal team. Sinclair, Sophie Schmidt and Desiree Scott also have bronze medals from London in 2012.
But despite the top-10 world ranking and Olympic success, the team has been under scrutiny for its limited depth of scoring — outside of Sinclair — lack of attacking mindset and overall team speed.
At the FIFA Women’s World Cup this past summer in France, Canada was ousted by Sweden in the round of 16 and in recent months has suffered lopsided defeats — 4-0 to Japan in October and 4-0 to Brazil in November.
Anything less than an Olympic berth and coach Heiner-Møller might be counting his days roaming the Canadian sideline.
Here’s a bit more about Canada’s opponents and what it will take to beat them:
vs. St. Kitts and Nevis: Jan. 29, 5:30 p.m. ET
They are the minnows of the group, in terms of world ranking (No. 127) and population (just over 53,000). To fill the talent pool, the federation along with their part-time American coach Jene Baclawski have brought in players with ties to the islands through their families, including several Canadians. About half the team is foreign born.
Canada will be cautious not to play down to their competition. The message will be: don’t overthink it. Keep it simple. Get those three important points for the victory and move on to the next match.
This may also be the game where Sinclair could tally those two goals and end the “will this be the game she breaks the record” talk. You know she wants that off her back.
vs. Jamaica: Feb. 1, 5:30 p.m. ET
The Reggae Girlz became the first Caribbean nation to ever qualify for a FIFA Women’s World Cup this past summer in France and they’d like to make history again as the first Caribbean nation to make the women’s Olympic tournament. Currently ranked No. 51 in the world, they have faced substantial obstacles along the way in terms of funding and respect.
A little refresher. Despite their historic World Cup qualification, the Jamaican Football Federation did not fully fund the women’s program. This incensed Bob Marley’s daughter, Cedella, and she stepped in to help pay the bills. But as of September, the federation still had not paid players their stipends agreed to in a new contract and the players threatened to boycott an earlier Olympic qualifying tournament. Oh, and the coach and assistant coach both quit the team in the past two months, also over pay disputes. Will the off-field turmoil cloud the progress that’s been made on the pitch?
Canada will need to be wary of the counter-attack, especially with the likes of Khadija (Bunny) Shaw up front. The five-foot-11 striker plays for Girondins Bordeaux of Division 1 Feminine (D1F), France’s renowned women’s professional league. The 22-year-old has a remarkable and tragic backstory. She’s lost four brothers and two nephews during her lifetime, four of whom were victims of gang-related violence in her hometown of Spanish Town, Jamaica.
vs. Mexico: Feb. 4, 6:30 p.m. ET
Canada’s final preliminary round game comes against Mexico, which could determine the winner of the group. Mexico is currently ranked No. 26 in the world. The majority of its players play domestically or at U.S. colleges, with a handful of others playing overseas in Spain and the Netherlands.
Their youth pipeline is strong as well. At the 2018 FIFA U-17 Women’s World Cup, Mexico finished second to Spain.
The Mexicans’ first and only appearance at the Olympics came in 2004 in Athens. They got there by beating Canada in the semifinals of the qualifying tournament.
It’s also worth noting the group stage games are being played in Edinburg, Texas, which is just north of the Mexican border. Expect the fans of ‘El Tri’ to be out in full force.
The most recent meeting between the two countries was at the 2019 Pan Am Games in late July, where Mexico defeated Canada 2-1 for the bronze medal. Canada didn’t field its full squad of players in Peru as it followed the World Cup. In May, the Canadians dominated Mexico 3-0 in their World Cup send-off game in Toronto.
As another measuring stick, look at the recent friendlies versus Brazil. Canada had trouble (4-0 loss in November), but so did the Mexicans losing twice in December by scores of 6-0 and 4-0.
So what about Group A?
It’s all about the United States.
Since they won their fourth World Cup seven months ago, it’s been more or less business as usual for the world’s No. 1 team.
Of their 20 player roster, 18 were members of the World Cup-winning squad. The most notable absence is forward Alex Morgan, who is pregnant and due in April. (She says she plans to return this summer for the Olympics.)
The Americans haven’t lost in a year and have their eyes set on capturing a record fifth Olympic gold medal in Tokyo. (They’re extra hungry after losing in the quarter-final stage to Sweden in Rio 2016.) Should they win in Tokyo they would be the first team to win the World Cup and Olympics in consecutive years.
Also in Group A with the Americans are Haiti (No. 68), Panama (No. 53) and Costa Rica (No. 37).
The CONCACAF Olympic semifinals are Feb. 7 with the final going Feb. 9 in Carson, Calif.