Mon, September 23, 2013

Women's soccer team in tough for opener

By ROB LONGLEY, QMI Agency


Canadian defender Lauren Sesselmann (left) and U.S. midfielder Megan Rapinoe (right) fight for a header during an international friendly match in Salt Lake City, Utah, on June 30, 2012. (Jim Urquhart/Reuters)

LONDON -- There will be no waiting around for the opening ceremony for Canada's women's soccer team, no time to admire the Olympic flame.

Instead of easing themselves into competition, the Canadian women have to prove their worthiness as medal contenders against the defending world champion Japanese on Wednesday, two days before the Olympics officially open.

Welcome to London, ladies.

"Our game against Japan will be the toughest in the group," Canadian coach John Herdman said as his team put the finishing touches on preparations for what it hopes will be a more fruitful run than at Beijing four years ago. "We are playing the current reigning world champions, which is never easy.

"Sometimes these tournaments are true to form, sometimes the world champions stutter in the first game. Hopefully, that is going to happen and we can make that happen."

Because of the length of the soccer competition, action kicks off Wednesday with three games in each of the men's and women's draws. The Canadians may be No. 7 in the world in the latest FIFA rankings, but with Japan (No. 3) and Sweden (No. 4) joining South Africa in the four-team group, finishing in the top two to advance to the next stage is no guarantee.

Wednesday's opener at City of Coventry Stadium is by no means a must-win, but if the Canadians can salvage a draw at least, it would be a huge result for a program working hard to fight its way into the world's elite.

The players sense that they are about to return to the form that made them medal contenders in Beijing, where they fell short with a quarter-final loss to the United States. A surprising gold medal performance at the Pan-Am Games last summer in Mexico got them pointed in the right direction.

"We have a very difficult group," Canadian captain Christine Sinclair said. "We have Japan, the defending world cup champions, South Africa, who we don't know a lot about but are sure to bring a good fight, and Sweden, who we have found off-and-on success against over the years.

"If we're going to advance we have to play a complete game, each game."

Since taking over the reins, Herdman has tried to fast-track the Canadian team back to world prominence and the victory at the Pan-Ams was certainly a confidence booster. With Sinclair, one of the world's superstars, leading the group, the Canadians are a threat almost every time they hit the pitch.

Beijing was Canada's first Olympic appearance, one that ended in a heartbreaking 2-1 extra-time loss to the U.S. Their most recent trip to the World Cup was miserable, however, as the Canadians lost all three matches in Germany, scoring just one goal.

As has been the case in each of the four Olympics that have featured women's soccer, the U.S. is the clear favourite. The Americans have won three of four, including the past two editions that featured identical podiums -- U.S., Brazil and Germany. That order will have to change this year since the Germans failed to qualify.

"There is no better motivation than losing," American striker Abby Wambach said prior to the tournament. "We did a lot of really cool things last summer in Germany and we got a lot of people excited about the women's game again and, truthfully, throughout my career I wasn't sure it was going to happen.

"I believe this team has something to prove."

The Canadians do as well and by most accounts seem to have responded to the motivational tactics of their 37-year-old coach. A native of Newcastle, England (where the Canadians will play their third match), Herdman most recently was the head coach and an administrator of the New Zealand women's program. Shortly after being hired by Soccer Canada, Herdman led the Canadian women to a silver medal at the Olympic qualifying tournament in Vancouver last January.

After Wednesday's opener, the Canadians face South Africa on Saturday followed by their group finale Tuesday against the Swedes. The top two from each of three groups, plus the best two third-place teams, advance to the quarter-final stage.

"I think if you look at the realities around this, Japan are world champions for a reason and I am sure that they are going to come into this tournament buoyant with confidence to capture the gold medal," Herdman said. "We know it is going to be tough and our players are ready for a great battle. We need to put in a personal best. That is all we can ask from the players."

rob.longley@sunmedia.ca

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