For Canada, Olympic qualifying is the first real test of the Herdman era

VANCOUVER, B.C.—John Herdman isn't entirely a new coach. The England native and recent coach of New Zealand's national women's soccer team was hired back in September to lead the Canadian women's team following the disastrous group-stage exit at the 2011 Women's World Cup and the subsequent firing of head coach Carolina Morace. Herdman's already taken the Canadian team through a substantial international tournament, the Pan-Am Games, and he couldn't have hoped for better results there; the Canadians picked up their first-ever Pan-Am gold medal in women's soccer by beating Brazil in a shootout. Still, it's this Olympic qualifying tournament that will be the first real test. The Olympics and the World Cup are the big stages in women's soccer, and Herdman will be measured by what he's able to do at those levels.

On paper, advancing to the Olympics shouldn't be a major problem for the Canadians. Yes, only two of the eight teams in this tournament will go on to London 2012, but Canada (seventh in the FIFA World Rankings) is the second-ranked team here, behind only the top-ranked Americans. Moreover, Mexico's next in line at 21st overall, and no other CONCACAF team is above 41st (Costa Rica). Canada certainly has the talent to pick up one of the two Olympic berths, and home-field advantage should make it even easier for them. However, there still are plenty of things that could go wrong.

The first obstacle for Canada will be the group stage, as they face Haiti Thursday, Cuba Saturday and Costa Rica Monday (all games at 10:30 p.m. Eastern on Sportsnet and CONCACAF TV). 62nd-ranked Haiti and 41st-ranked Costa Rica should pose more of a challenge than 96th-ranked Cuba, but no team can be written off in a tournament like this. Herdman's squad will have more talent on paper than any of those squads, but Canada arguably had more talent than a couple of the teams they took on in the World Cup, and that didn't turn out well. Morace wasn't able to consistently synthesize individual talent into an effective system; Herdman has been so far, but we'll see how that goes under fire. It's important that Canada is both still finding their way to some extent under Herdman and that they'll be tempted to look ahead to the semifinals and finals. If they can't maintain a coherent system or get distracted by the atmosphere and the future, even these lower-ranked teams could spell problems.

The biggest challenge by far will be in the semifinal, though. If the Canadians finish first in their group, they'll draw the second-placed squad in the other group, and vice versa if they finish second. Finishing first may be crucial, as the other group contains the top-ranked U.S. squad, heavy favourites to win this whole tournament. Even a first-place finish isn't a sure thing, though, as that would likely pit Canada against 21st-ranked Mexico, who upset the U.S. in World Cup qualifying last time around. Regardless of who they face, the stakes will be high: win the semifinal and the Canadians have an Olympic berth, lose it and they'll be watching the London games from home.

The country and the Canadian Soccer Association have a lot invested in this team, and if they fail to qualify for the Olympics at home, serious questions will be asked. A failure to qualify might also mean that Herdman may not have the job for long. If they turn in a strong performance here and earn an Olympic berth, though, Herdman will have his team in excellent shape for London. There's a lot on the line, so we'll soon see just how Herdman performs under pressure.