USWNT ready for Olympic qualifying scrap vs. Canada

Carli Lloyd says she is ready to 'get the gloves on' for Canada.

MEXSPORT/Omar Martinez

HOUSTON — So, Canada and the United States women’s national team are going to Rio. Everything is settled now that the top two CONCACAF sides have qualified for the Olympic Summer Games in Brazil, right?  

“This is a very important game. Now it’s about whether we’re going to get seeded in the Olympics, whether we get that top seed,’’ Alex Morgan said. “Canada steps up and brings their best against us every game. We have a lot to take care of Sunday.’’

But it’s more than that, really. The final match of the CONCACAF Olympic Qualifying Championship between the North American rivals at BBVA Compass Stadium is important. It’s also something else. A fight. A rivalry. A bloodbath.

“I love playing Canada. It always tends to be a bloodbath,’’ Hope Solo said after the U.S. beat Trinidad & Tobago, 5-0, to book the Americans’ ticket to a sixth consecutive Olympics.

“This game on Sunday is going to be a really wide-open game. It’s going to be tough, gritty. I’m looking forward to it. I’m ready to get the gloves on and get to work,’’ U.S. captain Carli Lloyd.

If Solo sounded a bit dismissive of the U.S. vs. Canada rivalry, and if Lloyd is preparing for a fight, it’s because the Americans are ranked No. 1 and they view themselves as the quality of the women’s game — with a target on their backs. The U.S. won the 2015 Women’s World Cup in Vancouver, in the home city of Christine Sinclair, whose Canadian team did not quite live up to World Cup expectations by being knocked out in the quarterfinals.

More telling, perhaps: When the U.S. booked the #SheBelieves Cup that will see three of the top 5-ranked teams in the world come to the U.S. for a March 3-9 tournament, No. 11-ranked Canada was somewhat of an afterthought. They’re a good test, but not equals.

“It’s going to be a traditional competitive match. I think Canada, dealing with their diagonal balls and physical presence, we probably haven’t faced a team in a while that’s going to pressure us like they will,’’ U.S. coach Jill Ellis said. “For me, certainly winning is always in the forefront of your mind, but we’re bringing in Germany, France and England in because we want to play those types of quality teams, so I look at this next game as a great opportunity to play a fantastic team.’’

AMERICAN IDOL

But it’s a little bit more than that, given what happened in London at the 2012 Olympics. The fact that the U.S. will head to Brazil seeking its fourth consecutive gold medal comes at the Canadian women’s national team’s expense. After winning gold in Greece and Beijing in 2004 and 2008, the U.S. women were on the ropes in the 2012 London semifinals, when Christine Sinclair scored three deft and dramatic goals. The U.S. was forced to rally at every step of the game, and depend on a referee’s call to equalize the match at three-all, before Alex Morgan headed home the game-winner in the 123rd minute — that latest goal ever recorded in a FIFA competition.

Other than the U.S. women’s comeback win over Brazil in the 2011 Women’s World Cup, the Olympic match against Canada reigns as one of the best ever in women’s soccer. But for the U.S. women, the past is history. Solo, Lloyd and most other U.S. national team players are unwilling to concede that the rivalry between the U.S. and Canada is more a figment of Canada’s imagination than a real contest between two equals.

“I think they have more of a rivalry with us than we do with them. I think they always want to prove that, because they are growing the game in their country and they’ve come a long way, but they want to be the best and they want to beat the Americans,’’ Solo said, adding:  “I think we get frustrated because it tends to be such a physical game that it takes us out of the style of soccer that we want to play. So it is a rivalry against Canada because we want to play our best soccer and we never play our best against Canada because it is such a physical game.’’

Solo has called Sinclair the most dangerous goal-scorer she has ever faced. On Friday, Sinclair scored her 160th and 161st international goals against Costa Rica, bringing the Canadian star closer to Abby Wambach’s all-time scoring record of 184 goals. Sinclair is eager to try and deliver a few blows to Solo & Co.

Canada, like the U.S., had peppered its roster with a bunch of younger players. Like Ellis, Canada coach John Herdman was reluctant during the World Cup to test the next crop of Canadian players, so he stuck with veterans. Now he’s onto his youth experiment. Herdman left veterans Kaylyn Kyle, Lauren Sesselmann, Jonelle Filigno and Adriana Leon off of this Olympic qualifying roster. Instead, Canada is getting a boost from 16-year-old in Deanne Rose, who scored in Canada’s 3-1 win over Costa Rica. Midfielder Ashley Lawrence is 20; Shelina Zadorsky is 23.

This trend mirrors the route Ellis is taking in 2016. The U.S. has brought along Mallory Pugh, who is making a big name for herself at age 16. Then there’s Lindsey Horan (21), Crystal Dunn (23), Julie Johnston (23) and Morgan Brian (22) all forming a younger nucleus to this U.S. side. It will be an interesting game to see if the new level of technical skill and speed of play by the U.S. will continue to demonstrate the difference between the U.S. and Canada. Solo thinks so.

“I don’t necessarily think it’s the most prettiest of games when we get to play Canada, but hopefully with this new group of players, we’ll find a way around their American football style of play and will try and move the ball around them a little bit more and not get involved in that kind of blood match that we tend to against Canada,’’ Solo said, adding: “It will be interesting to see if we can move the ball. We’ll have creative players on the field that can keep possession and put them in their place.”

It’s not just about winning when it comes to the U.S. vs. Canada. It’s about putting them in their place. See the difference?