|Costa Rica's Diana Saenz and Canada's Christine Sinclair try to control the ball during the first half of their CONCACAF women's Olympic qualifying soccer match in Vancouver, British Columbia Jan. 23, 2012. (REUTERS/Andy Clark)
VANCOUVER - Over the past two weeks, it's been nothing but rave reviews from the Canadian women's soccer team when describing coach John Herdman.
They praise his attention to detail, laud his ability to help rekindle their passion, and when it comes down to winning, the nation's best player, Christine Sinclair, said she has yet to see the team play poorly with him at the helm.
The positivity on and off the pitch has paid off for Canada thus far in the CONCACAF women's Olympic qualifying tournament.
Heading into Friday's crucial semifinal match against Mexico at BC Place, that mindset will again be put to the test -- with a trip to London on the line. And for the 36-year-old Brit, there's no qualms about just how big the opportunity is for his troops.
"Personally, it's to be able to take these players onto the highest stage in sports and being able to really have a good go at winning a gold medal," Herdman said Thursday. "When you see players like Christine and the team, those players deserve to play on the highest levels. We've got to do what we can to make sure she gets a chance to show her skills in that tournament."
In order to do so, they'll have to first get by the 21st-ranked Mexicans. Herdman knows it won't be easy -- unlike when Canada breezed through the group stage.
"The gloves will come right off," said Herdman, a 36-year-old Newcastle native who took the New Zealand women's squad to the 2008 Beijing Olympics. "We know the Mexican team will fight tooth and nail for every inch on the football field. It's the old adage 'Who wants it more?' and we're going to see that."
But there's also some concern in facing Mexico, which lost 4-0 to the Americans Tuesday to finish second in the group. Specifically, Herdman notes the Mexicans' transitional play and No. 9, Maribel Dominguez.
"When someone is that lethal, you got to give them extra attention," he said of the 33-year-old forward. "The team looks younger and fresher. There's almost a bit of an unknown here of how they will cope under this pressure. At the same time, I think they've got enough in the bank to cause you some real problems."
The Canadians will counter with formidable firepower of their own, led by Sinclair, who has a tournament-leading seven goals, Melissa Tancredi and Christina Julien up front.
Canada played Mexico in December 2010, winning 1-0 at a Four Nations tournament. A month before that, Canada beat the Mexicans 1-0 in the final of the 2010 Women's Gold Cup, with Sinclair scoring the winner.
Goalkeeper Karina LeBlanc vividly remembers the match in Cancun. She was booed at, yelled at and fans threw debris, including lollipops. All it did, she said, was pump her up more. But while there won't be any candy tossed her way this time around, the veteran is hoping for a similar result.
"A win on Friday would be more powerful," she said. "There's going to be a lot of emotions in that game and (the crowd) will actually be cheering for us. I can't even explain it, it's so exciting."
As for Herdman, LeBlanc appreciates what he's done for the team in a short five months.
"I don't want to knock the prior coaches, but after the World Cup (last year) we lost our sense of who we were and John reminded us why we love the sport and why we play it. As much pressure as there is in tomorrow's game, we're going to have fun and that's the biggest thing."
The attitude instilled by their new coach could very well be the biggest intangible for the Canadians Friday.
"The team is ready," Herdman said. "We've controlled the controllable and it comes down to what happens on that grass in 90 minutes plus. We're going to have to fight all the way if we want to win this game."