By Michael Lewis
VANCOUVER, British Columbia - The coaches of Mexico and Costa Rica realize the length of their odds in Friday's CONCACAF women's qualifying semifinals better than anyone.
Costa Rica, which has never qualified for a Women's World Cup or the Olympics, will face the two-time World Cup, three-time Olympic champion and top-ranked United States in the first game of the doubleheader at BC Place.
Later, two-time and reigning CONCACAF champion Canada takes on the Mexicans. The semifinal winners will go the Olympics in London, the losers will go home.
"The truth is that it's very difficult," Ticas coach Karla Aleman said before she used a common Spanish phrase to describe the task. "You can't block the sun with a finger. We're going to play in the match and see what happens in the end."
The Americans, runners-up to Japan at last summer's Women's World Cup, are overwhelming favorites to continue their streak of qualifying for every Olympics since women's soccer was introduced in 1996. Not only have they won all seven encounters against Costa Rica, the Americans have never allowed a goal, outscoring their foes 34-0.
In its three games at the qualifying finals, the United States has outscored the Dominican Republic, Guatemala and Mexico 31-0.
Likewise for Mexico, whose coach, Leonardo Cuellar, used a popular sports phrase to describe his team's situation. He noted that Canada was rated seventh and El Tri 21st in the latest FIFA rankings.
"On paper we're behind," he said. "But you need to play the game. They also might have pressure on them playing at home. They may prefer to have more rhythm playing against better opponents while we have been able to play against the best team in the world.
"I feel that may loosen us up a little bit and make our players come out and be very aggressive."
Improving the odds even more for the United States and Canada, the teams' believe, is BC Place's relatively expansive 107-by-68-meter (117-by-74.5-yard) field, which usually favors an athletic team.
"We play against some of the best teams in the world and if you play on a big field, we believe we're one of the fittest teams in the world," U.S. striker Abby Wambach said.
"We know the games are going to be close. We know the next game against Costa Rica is win or go home and those are the type of games we relish. As a professional athlete you hope to be put in these types of situations."
If Costa Rica has one advantage, it's that the Central Americans will enjoy an extra day of rest, having played their final group stage match on Monday - as did Canada. The United States and Mexico played on Tuesday.
"It is a huge advantage, to have an extra day," U.S. coach Pia Sundhage said. "But on the other hand, our fitness coach Dawn Scott has done a tremendous job with this team, so we will make sure we do the right things . . . So we are ready for that game."
The Canadians also will enjoy an extra day of rest over the Mexicans - something coach John Herdman called "a massive advantage."
"It's a major advantage. In 96 hours the glycogen stores are in full repletion so the players will be in tip-top shape," he said. "It's fantastic, so any player that has played 90 minutes (Monday) plus all the managed minutes over that time they're back to full fitness."
Like the United States, Canada enjoys a considerable advantage over Mexico, winning 16 of 18 previous meetings with one draw. But Herdman noted the one time Mexico beat Canada, 2-1, was to qualify for the 2004 Athens Olympics.
"It's going to be a tough game," he said. "Mexico has a new look about the way they play and some new players, so I think they're a threat. I think there is massive pressure. But you either see it as a burden or you go toward it, that's what makes people's careers."
On Tuesday night, a partisan Mexico crowd was noticeably louder than their American counterparts.
"I know we are away, but you saw the crowd," Cuellar said. "So don't be surprised if we have more Mexicans than Canadians on Friday."