Don’t blink, or you might miss Canada’s run at the 2020 Concacaf Olympic qualifying tournament.
The Canadian senior women’s side gets things started in Texas on Jan. 29 against Saint Kitts & Nevis, then plays Jamaica three days later, and wraps up Group B play on Feb. 4 against Mexico. Canada’s run could end after 12 days if it goes to the finals on Feb. 9.
This is all to say the matches will come thick and fast for Kenneth Heiner-Møller and Canada – just as it will for those watching from home.
The eight-team field at the Concacaf qualifiers is divided into two round-robin groups, with the top two nations advancing to the semifinals. Only the two finalists qualify for the 2020 Tokyo Olympics, so there’s little margin for error.
Before things get started, let’s review how Canada could fare in their pursuit for a fourth-straight appearance at the Olympics.
Here are four forecasted scenarios for the Canadian women’s team in Olympic qualifying, sorted from least to most likely to happen.
Least likely: Fail to get out of the group & qualify
Canada is the clear second-best team at this tournament behind the United States – still well ahead of Group A side Costa Rica and group stage foe Mexico – which makes a full-on upset unlikely.
Mexico (ranked 26th in the world), 51st-ranked Jamaica, and 127th-ranked Saint Kitts and Nevis join top-seed Canada (eighth in the world) in a somewhat standard Group B.
All three opponents are beatable, and it’s highly unlikely Canada will suffer a loss in the group stage. But Jamaica, who made its World Cup debut last summer, is the team they have to beat to avoid any scary scenarios. A loss could set up a tense affair against Mexico in Canada’s group stage finale, and put them in jeopardy of not advancing to the semis.
This scenario would be historic, as Canada, Mexico, Costa Rica, and the U.S. have featured in each semifinal since the qualifying process was implemented by Concacaf in 2004.
Slightly more likely: Win the tournament
From worst case scenario to best-case scenario: Canada goes all the way and wins this Concacaf competition. It’s a minor hurdle, considering both finalists qualify for the Olympics, but it’s one Canada came close to clearing in 2008, 2012, and 2016 as runners-up. Their likely opponent in the final? The U.S., the reigning world champions and No. 1 ranked team.
A Canadian victory in the finals would be historic. Only one team has won this championship since 2004, and that would be the U.S.
Even more likely: Finish 2nd in group, semifinal showdown with U.S.
Here’s Canada’s most-likely below-par tournament scenario. Sail past Saint Kitts and Jamaica, but lose to Mexico, who take top spot in Group B – the ultimate trip-up is finishing second and playing a semifinal against the winner of Group A.
Who will finish top of Group A (ugh, it never get easier to say), you ask? All-but-likely, the Americans, which would set up a do-or-die semifinal vs. Canada with an Olympic spot on the line. Therefore, Kenneth Heiner-Møller, in his first Olympic qualifying run, has every reason to try and squeeze out every result from this hectic group stage.
The nightmare scenario of playing the U.S. in the semis shows how important the group stage is to Canada, who have topped their group each of the last three successful qualifying competitions.
Most likely: Win the group, finish 2nd place, qualify for Olympics
It’s the most-likely scenario and one veterans Kadeisha Buchanan, Ashley Lawrence, Christine Sinclair, and Diana Matheson have gone through before: Canada wins its group, its semifinal – likely against Costa Rica – and earns a berth for the 2020 Olympics in Tokyo.
Canada has arrived at this outcome the last three qualifying campaigns, beating either Costa Rica or Mexico before losing the U.S. in the final.
If you don’t see a massive collapse by Les Rouges this winter – and there’s no reason to think there will be – Canada should find themselves with a familiar silver spoon and a trip to the Olympics for a chance at a third consecutive finish on the podium.