|Costa Rica's Diana Saenz and Canada's Christine Sinclair go for the ball during their CONCACAF women's Olympic qualifying match in Vancouver, B.C., Jan. 23, 2012. (ANDY CLARK/Reuters)
VANCOUVER - Win and they're in.
That's what it comes down to for the Canadian women's soccer team, which will play Mexico in the semifinals of the CONCACAF women's Olympic qualifying tournament Friday.
A victory for Canada in its most important match of the tournament will lock up a spot in the 2012 London Olympics this summer.
"It's those moments that you live for as a soccer player," said Canadian midfielder Sophie Schmidt. "You can always play in a soccer game where it doesn't mean anything. But when it really means something, it's a test of character and I think that's what this next game will be."
The winner of the other semifinal between the U.S.A. and Costa Rica will also qualify for the Olympics. The top two teams meet in the final Sunday with nothing more than bragging rights at stake.
Heading into the tournament, many questioned Canada over its disappointing World Cup performance last summer, even after a gold-medal win in the Pan American Games last October. But having continually claimed they had turned the page on their dismal July showing, the Canadians have backed up their talk so far in Vancouver.
The reinvigorated squad, under new coach John Herdman's guidance, handily won their group, beating Haiti, Cuba and Costa Rica by a combined score of 13-1. In doing so, Canada avoided the Americans in the semifinals and is now one victory away from Olympic qualification.
"It's hard when it comes down to one game, winner takes all," said star striker Christine Sinclair, who has a tournament-high seven goals. "It is scary but that's why you play. It doesn't matter if it's the World Cup or the Olympics, you lose and it's over. The pressure doesn't go away."
With so much on the line, the Canadians will take any advantage they can get -- one of them being the extra day of rest between games. Canada last played Monday in a 5-1 victory over Costa Rica, while the Mexicans lost 4-0 to USA on Tuesday. Those extra 24 hours can work wonders.
"It's an advantage, obviously," said midfielder Kelly Parker. "It's time to get treatments and time to replenish everything we lost in the games in the tournament. Our coaching staff has also done a superb job in conserving our players going into the break. I think we're one step ahead either way."
Canada will benefit from the home crowd, something that's been a welcoming factor in the tournament. The largest attendance at BC Placehas been 12,417 at Saturday's match against Cuba, but the Canadian Soccer Association expects to exceed that total for Friday's game. If the demand for semifinal tickets continues to rise, the entire lower bowl at the recently renovated stadium will be opened.
"It's exciting times for Canada soccer," said midfielder Kaylyn Kyle. "We've played in Mexico with their crazy fans, so I think it's nice coming back into Canada and seeing the fan support here. It's a great experience for us."
For now, it's about handling the hype that comes with such a critical match.
"That's the nature of the game, teams thrive or die by the pressure," Schmidt said. "I fully believe this team has what it takes to get us to the final."