VANCOUVER, B.C.—One game could define the Canadian women's soccer team's entire year. Canada faces Mexico Friday night (10:30 p.m. Eastern on Sportsnet, CONCACAF.com) at B.C. Place in an incredibly high-stakes CONCACAF Olympic qualifying semifinal. A victory would send the Canadians to the London Olympics later this summer, and while in and of itself it wouldn't ensure a great year for them, it would be a significant step towards one. A loss would keep them out of the Olympcis, though, and a loss to the underdog Mexicans in a tournament played at home could effectively make this entire year a write-off. It could even have implications for the job of recently-hired head coach John Herdman, as qualifying for the Olympics is his first real test. Canada's had an excellent tournament thus far, going 3-0-0 in group play with 6-0, 2-0 and 5-1 victories over Haiti, Cuba and Costa Rica respectively, but that could all come crashing down with a poor performance in Friday's game.
Canadian superstar forward Christine Sinclair said after the Costa Rica match there's a lot of emphasis on performing well in this one game, and that can be difficult.
"There's definitely pressure," she said. "You could be the best team and not win, and that's just the nature of the sport. It's hard when it comes down to one game, winner-takes-all."
Sinclair knows whereof where she speaks. She was on the team when they took on Mexico in a similar situation during qualification for the 2004 Athens Olympics, and that didn't end well.
"We've been there before, losing to Mexico and missing out on the Athens Olympics," she said. "It is scary, but that's why we play."
Canada will be favoured in this match, and for good reason. The Canadians are ranked seventh in the world (Mexico is 21st), and have done what they needed to so far in this tournament. They've scored 13 goals while only allowing one, and could have had more (and not conceded any) if they hadn't taken their foot off the pedal in games against Cuba and Costa Rica. Mexico hasn't been bad, and they're 2-1-0 with 12 goals for and four against, but they weren't particularly impressive against the U.S. on Tuesday. Moreover, despite coach Leonardo Cuellar's attendance challenge, they're still on the road. Cuellar said after the U.S. match that Canada poses a significant challenge for his squad.
"Obviously they are a very good side, they're an experienced team, and we need to play better than we did today," Cuellar said. "We need to be more concerned about the possession of the ball. Canada has changed their style with their new head coach. They get numbers forward, they're aggressive, they have some outstanding players, so we need to play better than we did today to go to the Olympics."
Cuellar said anything can happen in a single game, though.
"On paper, we're behind, but the games you have to play them."
He said the single-game pressure of being a favourite in a home semifinal may also weigh on Canada.
"They may also have pressure on them, playing at home."
Canadian midfielder Sophie Schmidt said the pressure of a one-game showdown for an Olympic berth can be tough to deal with.
"I think so," she said. "There's just so much hype on that one game."
Schmidt said that's to be expected in soccer at this level, though.
"That's just the nature of the sport," she said. "Teams thrive or die by the pressure. I fully believe this team has what it takes to get us to that final."
Sinclair's played in a lot of these crucial games, but she said the pressure doesn't diminish despite experience.
"No, I don't think it gets easier," she said. "It doesn't matter if it's the World Cup or the Olympics. If you lose, it's over."
Midfielder Kaylyn Kyle said there may be the pressure of a single-game contest weighing on Canada, but getting to this point is an opportunity and it shows how far they've come.
"It's exciting times for Canadian soccer right now."