Sunday’s final between Canada and the United States at the 2012 CONCACAF Women’s Olympic Qualifying Tournament may mean little on paper, but it certainly means something to the players.
With Olympic berths secure in their pockets, both sides want to use this game to build their preparations for the 2012 London Games and a tournament victory would sure help with confidence and momentum heading into the summer.
For seven members of the Canadian team and two from the Americans, Sunday’s final represents the second time in 10 years that the two countries will battle on Canadian soil for a major tournament title.
In the summer of 2002, the Americans broke the hearts of a Canadian team that had captured the attention of the country with a 1-0 extra-time win in front of almost 48,000 fans at Commonwealth Stadium in Edmonton. It was the inaugural FIFA Under-19 Women’s World Championship and it launched women’s soccer into the national consciousness of Canadians.
“It was the biggest environment I’d ever played in,” said American defender Rachel Buehler. “Everybody was rooting for Canada and there was one tiny section with an American flag but it was crazy.
"It really showed what soccer fans and what that whole thing is about — the passion and all of that. I thought it was awesome, I remember it so well.”
Fans came in droves
While all of Canada’s games were played in Edmonton, the Americans played their group stage games and their quarter-final at Centennial Stadium on the campus of the University of Victoria in British Columbia’s capital. Though much smaller than Commonwealth in Edmonton, the stadium with 5,000 seat capacity was packed every night and, for a team made up of teenagers, playing in that sort of environment is something they haven’t forgotten.
“We have such great memories of staying in Victoria. It’s such a beautiful place,” said midfielder Heather O’Reilly, who said the tournament still feels like yesterday and that she and Buehler still share memories of the event.
“The Canadians really backed the tournament. I remember being so flattered and excited that it was on the front page of the newspaper there and it was a big deal.”
One thing in particular stands out to O’Reilly from that event. Though the Canadians’ fervent support was intimidating to someone who was 17 at the time, O’Reilly said being on the field when the winning goal went in still sticks in her mind.
“My part in that goal was basically falling on my face and being in the dirt. A cross came in and I made a near post run, but got sort of nudged and I was basically face down in the dirt,” she said. “The heartache in that stadium was definitely very apparent.”
Rivalry continues to grow
In the 10 years since, some of the players on both sides have played with and against each other in NCAA competition and the professional ranks, so if anything, that Canada-United States rivalry just keeps growing.
“Every time we play Canada there’s always a little of that rivalry. We all know each other pretty well from playing with each other in the league (Women’s Professional Soccer),” said Buehler. “It’s always a fun but very intense game when we play each other and I know that with all these awesome Canadian fans it’s going to be a very exciting environment I’m sure.”
Just like the players, it seems the fans don’t mind this game doesn’t matter in the grand scheme of things. After all, national pride is on the line.
As of Saturday night, the Canadian Soccer Association said they had sold 21,000 tickets to Sunday’s final with only about 4,000 left at BC Place so it’s likely there will be another memorable atmosphere of a Canada-U.S. final on home soil.
“There is that rivalry. Canada-U.S.A,” said Canadian goalkeeper Karina LeBlanc after the Olympic-clinching win over Mexico on Friday. “You can pick whatever sport.
“Canada versus U.S.A. is a battle. That’s a huge rivalry and you know what, we’re at home.”
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