SPORTS

Canadian coach looking for strong performance in pre-Olympic test with U.S.

06/29/2012 08:57 EDT | Updated 08/29/2012 05:12 EDT
VANCOUVER - Canadian women's soccer coach John Herdman does not hold back when describing the importance of Saturday's pre-Olympic test against the United States.

"It's one of them where it'll be a real yardstick," said Herdman. "It'll tell us how close we are to achieving our goal at the Olympics — and also how far away. That's our reality."

Canada has a 3-42-5 all-time record against the U.S., including a 1-0 extra-time loss in the 2008 Beijing Olympics. The Canadians have not beaten the Americans since 2001.

The friendly in Sandy, Utah, is only the second international contest on Canada's schedule since it qualified for the Games in Vancouver in January. The only other game came in the form of a win last month over China in Moncton, N.B.

"(The Americans) are in great form," said Herdman. "They're smashing teams left, right and centre. And for these (Canadian) girls, they've had a lack of international games, so they're desperate for this game."

Competition was limited due to the suspension of the Women's Professional Soccer season, only a day after the CONCACAF Olympic qualifier in Vancouver in January ended. The league, which featured some of the world's best players, subsequently folded.

Herdman revised his plans and introduced a residency program for most of his players in Vancouver after initially planning to hold one only for players who did not land with professional teams at home or overseas.

In the qualifying tournament final, the Americans, ranked No. 1 in the world, thumped seventh-ranked Canada 4-0, schooling Herdman's crew on the level necessary to excel on a global stage. Fortunately, the Canadians had already qualified for the Games on the basis of a semifinal win over Cuba, but the loss to the U.S., which came after Canada went 3-0 in round-robin play, forced Herdman and all of his players to re-think their Olympic preparations.

"If you're going to win anything at the Olympics, at some point you're going to have to beat the U.S.," said Herdman.

The Canadians have changed their formation drastically in a bid to achieve more collective movement. Herdman wants his team to develop its own distinct style while developing the ability to break down top-calibre squads.

"This (game) is about getting results," said Herdman. "It's about allowing this team to achieve the big dream."

Canada's best international result was a fourth-place finish at the 2003 Women's World Cup. The Canadians have an 8-3 record this year, with the other losses coming against sixth-ranked France and fourth-ranked Sweden.

Herdman, an Englishman who took over the club's reins from Italian Carolina Morace in September following a disappointing early exit from the 2011 World Cup, was blunt in his assessment of the Canadian women's squad's progress.

"I don't think this team has ever progressed to a level that the country can be proud of," he said, adding he has asked players to change their ways.

Accordingly, he calls the game against the Americans a "huge test." It could be a painful examination for top goalkeeper Karina LeBlanc.

The Maple Ridge, B.C., native is expected to make her first start since spraining her ankle in training in May. She has only been back in action for a week.

If her health allows, she will play the full game, which she hopes will produce a much better result than Canada's last meeting with the U.S. did.

"The qualifier sucked, but we're beyond that," LeBlanc said. "Our vision and our goal is about the Olympics, and this is one of the stepping stones to getting there."

In other words, revenge will not be a key motivator for Canada in the Salt Lake City suburb, where a reported 16,000 tickets have already been sold.

"We can't look back," said LeBlanc.

Midifielder Sophie Schmidt of Abbotsford, B.C., has not seen the whole time since the qualifier, because she was away playing in Sweden for a while. But she feels the club has improved greatly since the loss to the U.S.

She wants the club to focus on how it is playing Saturday, but also overcome some past anxiety that it has experienced in games against the Americans.

"We need to compete to win," said Schmidt. "We're a little afraid to compete against the U.S., because they're the best team in the world. But we have to go into every game expecting ourselves to win and want to win, because that's the team that we can be."

Canada must "hurt" the U.S. on the pitch, at least for a little while, to reinforce lessons learned during the residency camp. Such an effort will make a "world of difference confidence-wise."

"We can beat any team on any given day, and we need to believe that and play like that," said Schmidt.

After Saturday's game, the Canadians will get five days off before departing for a pre-Olympic tournament in Switzerland and then moving on to London for the Olympics.

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