The national women's soccer team faced a crossroads when it returned home from a disastrous performance at last summer's World Cup in Germany.
The team's confidence was shredded, its pride wounded, and head coach Carolina Morace resigned, ending her tumultuous relationship with the Canadian Soccer Association.
"A situation like the World Cup can either tear your team apart or bring it together," captain Christine Sinclair said this week. "I think we have shown over the past few months it has brought us together. The passion is back for everyone."
The team can take a step on the road to redemption when they play Mexico Friday night in the semi-final of the CONCACAF women's Olympic qualifying tournament at BC Place Stadium. The winner earns a berth in this summer's Olympic Games in London.
"For this group of players, we see it as a must-win," Sinclair said, still sweating after a long practice. "It's the Olympics or bust."
The other semi-final pits the defending Olympic champion United States against Costa Rica, with a trip to London on the line. The tournament's championship game is Sunday.
Sinclair, one of the best soccer players Canada has ever produced, has taken centre stage before a hometown crowd. The 28-year-old native of Burnaby, B.C., has seven goals as Canada won games against Haiti, Cuba and Costa Rica by a combined score of 13-1.
"She is the spoke in our wheel," teammate Melissa Tancredi said. "Actually, she is the hub of our wheel." American star Abby Wambach called Sinclair "probably the best all-round player in the world."
Not a big woman, Sinclair has deceptive speed. She can shake free from a defender, then beat a goalkeeper with a quick, powerful shot. An intensely private person, Sinclair often looks uncomfortable when talking to the media. Nicknamed Sincy, she showed her leadership by playing the final two games of the World Cup with a painful broken nose.
Sinclair's 127 goals in 171 international games is fifth among all-time women scoring. That leaves her one behind Germany's Birgit Prinz and two back of Wambach's 129. American legend Mia Hamm leads with 152 goals.
The Canadian women went to the World Cup ranked No. 6 in the world and full of high expectations. Instead, they lost their first three games by a combined score of 7-1.
"Germany didn't quite go as planned," Sinclair said. "For all but one team in the World Cup, it didn't go as planned."
Tancredi said the disappointment won't easily be erased. "It would be a mistake for any of us on this team to think [this]tournament is going to wipe out what happened in the World Cup," she said. "The World Cup is something that happened. All you can do is grow from it."
Under new head coach John Herdman, the women regrouped to win the gold medal at the Pan American Games in Mexico. The roster for the Olympic qualifying tournament includes 16 players who played at the World Cup. One addition to the staff is Ceri Evans, a psychologist from Christchurch, New Zealand, who helps with mental preparation.
"I don't think there was anything wrong with the mental attitude of the team [at the World Cup]" Herdman said. "It was just the circumstances of the tournament. At the end of the day, when the wheels come off, they come off. Individually, I don't think they are scarred from that. We have a mental trainer here just to make sure some of the baggage that might be hanging round is cleared up."
Canada has a record of 16-1-1 against Mexico. The lone loss came in the 2004 Olympic qualifying tournament and kept Canada from playing at the Athens Olympics. The memory of that upset should prevent any Canadian overconfidence.
"You never know what can happen," Sinclair said. "Mexico is a quality team. You have to show up for 90 minutes."
Special to The Globe and Mail