VANCOUVER, B.C.—The Canadian women's soccer team's 4-0 loss to the U.S. Sunday may have wrapped up the CONCACAF Olympic qualifying tournament, but it wasn't the most important match of the event for either team. Those crucial matches would be their Friday victories over Mexico and Costa Rica, which resulted in the Canadians and the Americans earning berths in this summer's Olympics. For the U.S., anything else would have been a shock; they entered this tournament as the top-ranked team not just in the confederation, but in the world, and went on to prove their dominance by going 5-0 and scoring 38 goals while not allowing a single one. For the Canadians, though, fresh off a disastrous World Cup and still adapting to new head coach John Herdman, although they were favoured to nab the second CONCACAF berth, it was never a sure thing. Canada pulled it off, though, clearing the bar for the first real test of Herdman's reign. That's significant in its own right, and it also presents a springboard towards London and the further challenges that lie ahead.
It's worth reflecting on just what the Canadian team pulled off here. Olympic berths are almost a birthright for the U.S. team, which has not only made every single Olympics where women's soccer has been an event (1996, 2000, 2004 and 2008), but won three of those tournaments and finished second to Norway in the other one (in 2000). For Canada, it's been a tougher road: the only time their women's soccer team made the Olympics was 2008. After the Canadians' Olympic berth-clinching win over Mexico Friday, midfielder Carmelina Moscato said although she didn't play in that game, it will go down as one of her fondest memories.
"Honestly, it's one of my proudest moments," she said. "I was part of the team in 2004 that didn't qualify, so personally, it doesn't matter if I touched the pitch or not. It was one of those moments as a program, as a nation, that we'll never forget."
Goalkeeper Karina LeBlanc said hosting the tournament made qualification even more vital for Canada, and even more special when it happened.
"It happened here in Canada in front of our families, friends, fans," she said. "You can't top that. It definitely goes down for me as one of my greatest moments."
LeBlanc said the big stage at home was motivating, not intimidating.
"What an opportunity to play in front of our country for our country to go to the Olympics," she said. "It's just a dream come true. ... You just feel like you're on top of the world."
LeBlanc also was there for the 2004 Olympic qualifying failure, and she said it's crucial for the team to build on highs like this qualification and emphasize them moving forwards.
"This is important for us to remember, because eight years ago, we lost and it was so gutting," she said. "This is a feeling you want to remember so down the line you remember what it feels like to be on this end. When we get to the Olympics, we've got to remember this feeling."
Moscato said the team has come a long way since their World Cup meltdown, and much of their progress has been thanks to leaving that debacle in the past and moving forward under Herdman's leadership.
"To be honest with you, I think it was a matter of not necessarily ignoring what happened, but addressing it, learning from it and moving forward in the most positive way possible," she said. "To look back and feel any kind of regret is the worst feeling. We needed to drop it and move forward, and John has allowed us to carry on a new plan. I think that new direction has really inspired us."
Moscato said this qualification is the first step to bouncing back from that World Cup failure.
"It feels like almost a redemption from the World Cup, knowing that the cycle happens the way it does," she said.
Moscato said Herdman may have only been in place for a short time, but the team's already making tangible progress towards his goals.
"The journey with John has been incredible," she said. " I think we're at a place in our program where we're really taking some strides forward."
She said a key part of Herdman's plan has been getting the team to believe they're good enough to take on anyone.
"It's a mindset shift more than anything," Moscato said.
Qualification for the Olympics is just the first step, though, and it's one Canada was favoured to take. The actual Olympic competition will be much tougher, but Moscato said qualifying in fine form is a good indication the Canadians will do well there.
"It...really instils that belief that we're on the right track doing the right things and that we're going to challenge for a medal at the Olympics."
Herdman said the team's already changed dramatically from the side that struggled at the World Cup.
"I think they've shed an old skin," he said. "They've reinvented themselves."
With this reinvention, he has high goals going forward.
"London is calling, and we're aiming for the podium."