Sunday, May 24, 2009

Canadian women set for USA clash

Tomorrow evening, a new era will fully dawn at BMO Field as the Canadian women's national soccer team plays their first home match under new head coach Carolina Morace. It's going to be a baptism by fire for Morace, though. The Canadian women are currently ranked 11th in the world by FIFA. They were initially supposed to face seventh-ranked Japan, but the Japanese team canceled their North American exhibition tour because of swine flu concerns. Replacing them will be the top-ranked Americans, a tough test for any team at the best of times but an especially difficult opponent for a new coach still adjusting to her lineup. Early results under Morace have been promising, including a second-place finish at the Cyprus Cup in March, but this match will be a challenge of a different order.

The U.S. has been much stronger over the history of their women's program, boasting a stellar all-time record of 37-3-4 against Canada. Canada's narrowly come out on the wrong side of some of the most important clashes lately, though, including 2-1 losses in extra time in both the 2006 Gold Cup final and the Beijing Olympics, the last clash between the two countries. One player to watch on the American side is striker Abby Wambach, who's always found a lot of success against Canada. She currently plays for the Washington Freedom in the new Women's Professional Soccer (WPS) league and has 99 career goals for the U.S, but hasn't played an international match since breaking her leg in their last tune-up before the Olympics last summer. She's back in the American lineup and will be eager to hit the century club.

On the Canadian side, famed striker and captain Christine Sinclair is also stuck on 99 goals. She already holds national team records in career goals, single-season goals, goal-scoring streaks, minutes played, and Women's World Cup goals, and she'll come closer to yet another record tomorrow with her 130th appearance for Canada. That ties her with famed striker/defender Charmaine Hooper for second on the list and puts her only two matches back of former midfielder Andrea Neil, who's now an assistant coach with the national team. Sinclair also plays in WPS with California's FC Gold Pride.

Another Canadian to watch is goalkeeper Karina LeBlanc. LeBlanc shone in the Olympics last summer and was a big reason why the Canadians made it to extra time against the U.S. She's also done well in WPS so far with the Los Angeles Sol, including posting a shutout over Wambach and the Freedom in the league's first match. LeBlanc is the longest-serving player currently with the national team and has spent 12 seasons suiting up for Canada. She holds team goalkeeping records for both appearances (69) and shutouts (29).

One other item of note is how many players on both rosters come from the WPS. Almost all of the American players selected play in the league, which is perhaps to be expected, as domestic leagues tend to focus heavily on developing talent for their own national team. Several Canadians have also proven their talent and earned spots in the new league alongside the best players from the U.S., Brazil and Europe, though. Five of the 22 players on the Canadian roster currently ply their trade in WPS (Sinclair, LeBlanc, Kelly Parker, Candace Chapman and Martina Franko), and there's a good chance that many more of the younger players currently starring for college or USL teams could make their way to the WPS eventually. It's good for the national team to have such a high-quality league close to home, as it allows for easier trips for those players than those who play overseas.

Interestingly enough, this match is also a clash of not only female head coaches, but foreign female head coaches. Morace is famous for her work with her native Italy, while American coach Pia Sundhage has spent most of her coaching career in the U.S. but was a legendary player for the Swedish national team. She has a ridiculous record of 36-1-3 since taking the reins of the U.S. team in 2007 and led them to a gold medal in Beijing last year. She'll be looking to continue America's dominance against their northern neighbours.

The match is at 7 p.m. tomorrow night. It will be broadcast live on Sportsnet (and I'll be live-blogging it here and at The 24th Minute), but there are also apparently plenty of tickets still available if you happen to be in Toronto. This could be a great chance to get to see some of Canada's top soccer talent at home against some of the best players in the world, and it's not a frequent opportunity; the U.S. women's team has only played four of their 44 matches against Canada on northern soil. Twenty-five have been played in the U.S. and another 15 took place at neutral venues. That may change now that Canada has a great stadium at BMO Field, and a good turnout would go a long way to help that cause. Famed Canadian soccer fan Dino Rossi still has a few unsold tickets from the batch he bought in advance, and tickets are also still available through Ticketmaster. Check it out if you happen to be in the area, or stop by the live blog if you're not! It should be a great match.

[Cross-posted to The 24th Minute]

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