Mexico coach Leonardo Cuellar issues attendance challenge: will Canadian fans respond?

VANCOUVER, B.C.—Normally, a country's hosting of a soccer tournament guarantees it will receive a home-field advantage from local fans. Mexico women's soccer coach Leonardo Cuellar thinks that may not be the case when his team faces Canada in a crucial CONCACAF Olympic qualifying semifinal match Friday, though. Mexican fans outnumbered and outshouted American supporters in their team's 4-0 loss to the U.S. Tuesday night, and Cuellar said in a post-match press conference that situation may happen again when they face Canada Friday (11 p.m. Eastern, Sportsnet).

"I know we are away, but you saw the crowd," he said. "Don't be surprised if we have more Mexicans than Canadians on Friday."

In many countries, that would be a patently ridiculous claim, but here, it may not be. Yes, the Canadian team has received strong fan support through their first three games: crowds of 7,627, 12,417 (a women's Olympic qualifying record in Canada) and 8,105 showed up for wins over Haiti, Cuba and Costa Rica respectively, and the atmosphere at each of those games was solidly pro-Canadian. Mexico has received strong support at each of their games too, though, and there is a history of foreign nations (especially ones with a strong local immigrant community) having more support than Canada in soccer games played in this country. There are plenty of people with ties to Mexico throughout the Lower Mainland, B.C. as a whole and the nearby state of Washington, and this game is absolutely vital for both sides, as the winner gets an Olympic berth while the loser's eliminated. Thus, while it may be slightly unlikely that Mexico could draw more fans than the home team, it's not out of the question.

Will that actually matter, though? Well, that's a bit of an open question. The strong pro-Mexico support certainly didn't seem to make much of a difference Tuesday night, as the Americans stormed out of the gate and notched two goals within the first 10 minutes. The U.S. - Mexico game always looked like a bit of a mismatch, though, as the Americans came in ranked tops in the world and on the heels of 14-0 and 13-0 victories, while the Mexican team was ranked just 21st and had only scored 12 goals in the tournament; impressive, but not in the class of the Americans. Cuellar admitted that afterwards, saying the American team was out of Mexico's league.

"The U.S., they're just the best team in the world," he said. "For us to be in the game, we needed to have a strong beginning, and we didn't have it."

Cuellar said the American advantage comes from the greater amount of time their players have spent together, as many of Mexico's players are scattered and they rarely have many games as a unit.

"It shows the hundreds of thousands of hours they have spent together doing these things," he said. "At the end, they are a better team than us."

On paper at least, though, Canada seems closer to the Mexicans' level than the Americans were. The Canadians are ranked seventh in the world and will be favoured heading into Friday's semifinal, but they haven't been anywhere near as dominant as the Americans lately. They delivered a rather underwhelming showing at last summer's World Cup, exiting in the group stage (as Mexico also did), and although results have improved under new head coach John Herdman, Canada has 13 goals for in this tournament and one against. That's the same +12 goal differential Mexico had heading into their match against the Americans, though, and although Canada's 16-1-1 against Mexico at the top level all-time, the one loss kept the Canadians out of the 2004 Olympics. Canada will be ready for Mexico, though, as Herdman said after the team's game against Cuba Saturday that they were already preparing for this matchup.

"We're focused on Mexico," he said. "Mexico is the one we're keeping a very close eye on."

Don't underestimate the impact of the crowd, however, and don't estimate that it will be all pro-Mexico. Canadian midfielder Kaylyn Kyle said after the Cuba game that the fan support so far has been both notable and a key ingredient in the team's success.

"It's exciting times for Canadian soccer, just all the fan support and when we're on the streets, people are saying 'Congrats,'" she said. "It's been a really long time since playing at home and seeing all this fan support."

Both Canada and Mexico will be counting on substantial fan support Friday, so how the crowd turns out may play a notable role in the outcome. Canada may be favoured, but as Cuellar said, that doesn't necessarily mean much.

"You need to play the game, in the end."