The London Olympics' opening ceremonies may not be until Friday, but the Canadian women's soccer team will already be in competition before then. Soccer's the only sport that starts Wednesday, and the seventh-ranked Canadians will begin with their toughest test of the preliminary round, facing a Japanese squad that's ranked third in the world and won the 2011 Women's World Cup. The match, scheduled for noon Eastern, will be broadcast live on TSN, Sportsnet and RDS and also streamed live on the web. While the Canadians are underdogs here, Wednesday's match is about more than just the final result, as how they perform against a tough team like Japan may show if their medal hopes are realistic.
How do those Canadian medal hopes look heading into the tournament? Well, FIFA's world rankings wouldn't suggest they're all that favourable, as five of the six nations above Canada on that list (Germany didn't qualify) are in the competition. However, as this analysis of the tournament bracket from Waking The Red's John Leung demonstrates, the peculiarities of the format may work in the Canadians' favour. The group isn't going to be easy, as both Japan (3rd) and Sweden (4th) are ranked above Canada, but if the team's able to pull off a second-place finish there (quite possible) and the other groups play out as expected (with Brazil winning Group E and the U.S. winning Group G), the schedule could be very favourable for them. The runner-up in Canada's group, Group F, doesn't have to face a group winner in the quarterfinals; instead, they draw the runner-up of Group E, likely Great Britain (mostly comprised of the ninth-ranked English team) or 23rd-ranked New Zealand, Canadian head coach John Herdman's former side. Canada should be favoured against either of those teams, even with a home-field advantage for Great Britain.
A victory in the quarterfinals would put Canada into the semifinals and guarantee a chance to play for a medal, either in the final or in the third-place match. They'd draw a reasonable matchup in the semifinal as well, as that side of the draw has the winners of Group F and the runners-up of Group G in the other quarterfinal, which likely will be Japan and France respectively. While the third-ranked Japanese and sixth-ranked French are both formidable sides, they're nowhere near as frightening as the top-ranked Americans, who demolished Canada 4-0 in the final of the CONCACAF Olympic qualifying tournament in Vancouver this January. Even a semifinal loss would give Canada a chance to play for bronze, but a victory against Japan or France in a one-off match is certainly attainable, and that would guarantee at least a silver medal for the Canadians and give them a shot at gold. (By the way, this path also mostly holds if Canada finishes first in their group, as they would then take that "Winner of Group F" slot and play the runner-up of Group G in the quarters; the only danger there is if the U.S. somehow slumps to second in that group, as that would set up a single-elimination match between the North American rivals well before the medals.)
Of course, all of this depends on how the Canadians perform. Finishing as high as second in the group certainly isn't a sure thing; despite the talent on the Canadian team, including superstar Christine Sinclair, fellow veteran Melissa Tancredi and a rising cast of young players, they're still in a tough group with Japan and Sweden (who they play July 31), and even the lightly-ranked South African team could put up a fight Saturday. If Canada can't make it to second place, there's still a chance they could progress as one of the top two third-place teams, but they'd likely face either Brazil or the Americans in a quarterfinal match and then take on the other one of those dangerous teams in the semis. It's finishing first or second in the group that should be the immediate primary goal for this team, though, and the peculiarities of this schedule could set up a very favourable path for them if they're able to do that. It all starts against Japan Wednesday, and although a victory there isn't a requirement, how the Canadians look will say a lot about if this team has real medal potential or not.