If the Canadian women's soccer team is feeling any nerves about playing in front of their home fans for a spot at this summer's London Olympics, they certainly aren't showing it.
As Canada prepares for the eight-team CONCACAF Olympic women's qualifying tournament at BC Place Stadium in Vancouver, the smiles, the jokes and the laughter all suggest a team that is past its disappointing performance at the World Cup last summer, and is riding a wave of confidence after winning the gold medal in a shootout over Brazil at the Pan American Games in Mexico last fall.
"You see what you get," explained midfielder Kaylyn Kyle. "Everyone on this team gets along so great, on and off the field and it’s not a show. We work very hard together and it’s a great team dynamic right now and it’s really enjoyable to be playing with them."
With Canada not getting many chances to play in front of hometown support, it’s an opportunity that many players are relishing. Some of the squad members have memories playing in front of a packed Commonwealth Stadium at the inaugural FIFA Under-19 Women’s world championship in Edmonton 10 years ago and fondly remember the support Canadians gave them.
Canadian fans have 'an extra gear'
"I think we’re some of the most patriotic fans I’ve ever seen in my life and we’ve been all over the world so I can say that pretty confidently," said midfielder Carmelina Moscato, who was a member of that team that captured the hearts of Canadians in the summer of 2002.
"I think Canadians have an extra gear when it comes to the passion so it’s kind of nice."
While the players are excited to get going, they can’t afford to get too carried away. The group stage involves three games in five days and the decision as to whether or not they get to go to the Olympics all comes down to one semifinal game on Monday, assuming Canada can finish in the top two positions in their group as they are expected to do.
"Everyone’s so excited to be in Vancouver in front of the home fans," said midfielder Diana Matheson, who won’t play in the tournament after failing to recover in time from knee surgery in November. The veteran Matheson is staying with the team to help out and should be fit if Canada goes to the Olympics.
"We're obviously a little nervous because qualification comes down to one game basically. It’s nerve-wracking but exciting is the main thing."
Team chemistry a recipe for success
Within many teams, sometimes ego can get in the way of team chemistry when some players feel they’re not getting enough playing time or if there are personality clashes, but for Canadian goalkeeper Karina Leblanc, the team gets along and stays upbeat because of one thing.
"I think it's the singing and dancing," she said jokingly.
"You're representing your country and I think we all see that. We've all sacrificed a lot so there's that respect there already.
"We have the characters on the team [who help] to not take some days too seriously and then when we need to step up and be serious, I think everybody knows when and where and that’s done."
Canada opens the tournament on Thursday against Haiti. They then play Cuba before finishing the group stage with a game against Costa Rica on Monday.
The other group features the favoured Americans, Mexico, the Dominican Republic and Guatemala.
The top two sides from each group advance to the semis with the winners playing the second place team from the other group. The winners of those two games advance to the final next Thursday, but more importantly, get to book their ticket for London.
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