VANCOUVER, B.C.—Much of the focus in this Olympic qualifying tournament is on the top-ranked Americans and the host Canadians, understandable given that they're the two favourites to advance to the Olympic competition in London this summer. However, one of the best stories is a team that's never made it to an Olympic tournament or a Women's World Cup, and hasn't even made it out of the Gold Cup group stage since 1991. That would be the Haitian women's team, who will go up against Canada tonight (10:30 p.m. Eastern, Sportsnet/CONCACAF.com) at B.C. Place.
Soccer has long been popular in Haiti, but the country has never had a great deal of sports infrastructure, and things only got worse following the devastating 2010 earthquake (which killed 30 members of the Haitian football federation, including the women's coach). Reports from CFL players' visit to Haiti last year illustrated that the situation was still quite dire a year after the quake, and there are still plenty of problems today. What's remarkable is how the women's soccer team has overcome much of that. Heading into this tournament, they're ranked sixth in CONCACAF and fifth out of the eight teams present (Trinidad and Tobago didn't qualify), and they won their pre-qualification group. Considering that their program is working with very little and is largely funded by donations, that's pretty incredible.
One element that's helped the Haitian team is the presence of international players. Much like Canadian-born Sydney Leroux suiting up for the U.S. and U.S.-born Lauren Sesselmann playing for Canada, the Haitian team has significant international content. As Marc Weber of The Province reports, the key figure in bringing in that content is former coach Gaspard d'Alexis, a former U-20 Canadian national team player who took over the program following the earthquake and reached out to players from Canada and the U.S. with Haitian connections:
[Sam] Brand, a 23-year-old Californian, and [Kim] Boulos joined two others: New Yorker Tatiana Mathelier, and Ednie Limage, a goalkeeper for the University of Moncton.
"I thought that the team needed to see there's other Haitians outside, willing to help," said d'Alexis, who is no longer the coach. "They came to give them hope, to laugh. And Kim and Samantha, they were looking at those girls like heroes."
Only once did Boulos see a Haitian player cry on that first trip. But Gaspard remembers seeing Boulos cry.
It was when she watched the players putting their cleats in a bucket after practice. She asked why and was told it was so the next group of girls had boots.
All of those players are still on the Haitian roster, but that doesn't diminish how much homegrown talent this team has too. Working with such limited resources and infrastructure, they've still accomplished incredible things; they won a game at the 2010 Gold Cup despite the disarray caused by the earthquake, and they dominated their pre-qualifying group for this tournament, winning two games, drawing one and finishing with a plus-12 goal differential. No one's going to confuse Haiti with a women's soccer powerhouse like Canada or the U.S., but they can't be overlooked in this tournament. Every game counts here, and soccer's known for plenty of upsets. The Haitian team's shown incredible heart to get this far, but their journey may not be over yet.