[CONCACAF WOMEN'S OLYMPIC QUALIFYING] Abby Wambach doesn’t fear the soccer gods, yet neither does she trust them.
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She and her U.S. teammates remember what happened the last time they played the host team in a Concacaf qualifying tournament. A 2-1 semifinal loss to Mexico in Cancun 14 months ago dumped the Americans into a two-game playoff with Italy for a spot in the 2011 Women’s World Cup, and though they successfully navigated that passage it’s a jarring experience they’d rather not re-live.
“I think based on the way that we qualified for the World Cup, none of us will be taking anything for granted this go-round,” said Wambach of the eight-team competition that will decide the two Concacaf Olympic representatives. “We want to win games handily and want to go in there confidently, and obviously get out of our group first. We want to be playing at our best so we don’t leave qualifying up to the soccer gods. We want to take care of business and have control of our own destiny.”
Not every element is subject to U.S. control. If it wins its first-round group that includes Mexico, Dominican Republic and Guatemala, it plays the Group A second-place team for a spot in the Olympics. Canada is expected to edge past group rivals Costa Rica, Cuba and Haiti, and so wouldn’t play the Americans in a semifinal showdown if both nations finished first.
But if the USA stumbled into second and had to beat Canada on artificial turf in a rowdy, sold-out B.C. Place, which seats more than 50,000, anything might happen. Mexico’s women rose to the occasion in a frenzied environment, and Canada has been a tough out for the Americans many times in the past. (The same scenario would result if the Americans won their group and Canada placed second.)
“It’s going to be interesting, not only because it’s in Canada in January, but it’s going to be on FieldTurf indoors,” says Wambach, who led the USA – as usual – last year with eight goals, including four in the Women’s World Cup. “Does that change the way that the game is played? Maybe. Mexico and Canada and Costa Rica aren’t teams to be written off. They are teams that give us problems in certain areas.
“There’s a lot of different factors. One, these teams are getting better; their delegations are putting more money into the women’s game. I think some of these players, especially in Canada and Mexico, are coming to play in the U.S. for college, and learning the game on even more of an international level. A lot of the top-tier players have an avenue to play here in WPS or go overseas, and that’s making the game better.
“Fifteen years ago, nobody would say a Mexican player or more than one or two Canadian players could play for the U.S., but many of them now would compete for spots on our team. The world is getting closer and it’s not as big as it used to be.”
The Americans open Friday against the Dominican Republic (10:30 p.m. ET, Universal Sports Network, and play Guatemala Sunday (7:30 p.m., same network) before taking on Mexico Tuesday. The margin between first and second place could be decided on goal difference, and so head coach Pia Sundhage needs goals as she tests a 4-2-3-1 formation she unveiled in a pair of friendlies against Canada following the World Cup.
The teams tied, 1-1, in Kansas City and the Americans rolled, 3-0, in Portland. The USA finished 2011 by tying Sweden, 1-1, in Arizona Nov. 19.
“We know that we can play 4-4-2,” says Sundhage, a former Swedish international midfielder who took over for April Heinrichs four years ago. “In this system, 4-2-3-1, with Lauren Cheney as a No. 10, how can she bring players into the game, how can we find her to be successful, and how can she find relationships with the players around her. That’s the important thing. When I brought up this new system, they embraced that change. It’s crucial that you have players who want to try something new.”
Trying Cheney, who has played most of her national-team career up front, as a deeper-lying attacker is another nuance introduced by Sundhage to fashion a more technical approach. Former U.S. international Julie Foudy applauds the philosophy while acknowledging it has yet to fully take root.
“Whether we are there as a country or not is the question, and I don’t think we are,” said Foudy, a veteran of 16 years and 272 caps with the national team. “I don’t think we’re quite there yet in developing technically savvy young women who are coming to our program.”
Those long-term plans are set aside for at least seven days. The all-important semifinals will be played a week from Friday.
“You don’t want to go up against Canada if you can avoid it,” said Foudy. “And this time there’s no playoff, no margin for error. If you lose that [semifinal] game, you’re out.”