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Five Questions: CONCACAF women’s soccer Olympic qualifying semifinals

CONCACAF women’s soccer Olympic qualifying is into the semifinal phase, with the United States facing Costa Rica at 8 p.m. ET on Friday and Canada and Mexico battling in the second match at B.C. Place in Vancouver, B.C. at 11 p.m. ET. The winners of each of the semifinal games advance to the Olympics in London this summer.

The Americans laughably cruised through the group stage, defeating the Dominican Republic, Guatemala and Mexico by a combined 31-0. They are expected to handle Costa Rica with ease in the first semifinal. More interesting is the nightcap that features a gritty Mexico team anxious to prove the world wrong and defeat a confident and favored Canadian team.

Here are five questions for tonight’s semifinals:

  1. How ugly will it get for Costa Rica? The way the United States women have steam rolled the competition in this tournament, there seems little doubt that they should run away with Friday’s game against Costa Rica. There is a hesitation to that statement since the same was said in general terms about World Cup qualifying in 2010, where the U.S. stumbled thanks to that exact combination of complacency and entitlement. Still, Costa Rica is shaky in the back. Goalkeeper Julieth Arias in particular has been uninspiring and lacking in confidence, which could further worsen if she gives up a couple of early goals against a potent U.S. attack.
  2. Does Hope Solo play? The world’s top goalkeeper was in noticeable pain in Tuesday’s 4-0 win over Mexico as she grabbed her upper right leg. She is said to have a “little quad pull,” something that occurred during training recently but could be due to weakened muscles from her time on ABC’s “Dancing With the Stars.” If the U.S. is in control by halftime, head coach Pia Sundhage would be wise to remove Solo for the perfectly capable Nicole Barnhart. That could prevent further damage to Solo’s quad. Then again, so would resting her entirely, but that seems unlikely given Solo’s competitive toughness.
  3. How tough will Mexico be? Canada is playing well, but avoiding Mexico in the group stage always meant facing El Tri or the United States in the tougher semifinal. Mexico made great strides by defeating the U.S. in 2011 World Cup qualifying and putting up a decent showing in Germany last summer. A win on Friday over host Canada would cement the notion that CONCACAF is no longer a two team region. It would also send an ascending Canada team into three years of darkness with no major tournaments following 2011’s winless World Cup.
  4. LeBlanc or McLeod? Canada head coach John Herdman continues to reiterate that both Erin McLeod and Karina LeBlanc are starting quality goalkeepers, but only one will get the nod tonight. Thus far the two have rotated games in the qualifying tournament, with LeBlanc playing in the opening 6-0 win over Haiti, McLeod playing in the 2-0 win over Cuba and LeBlanc between the pipes in Monday’s 5-1 win over Costa Rica.
  5. A CONCACAF gold medalist? The biggest question of course is who will qualify for London. Everything is on the line tonight. Canada and the United States are favorites, but there could be drama in the making. If things go as planned and the U.S. and Canada advance, both have good odds at winning gold in the 12 team tournament this summer. Either way, this sort of all-or-nothing semifinal round after a ludicrous group stage is far from ideal. Everyone seems to agree with that, but the question still remains on what to do about it. The main issue is not the tournament structure, but investment in women’s soccer, Shek Borkowski writes. Still, it seems that strides could be made to improve the tournament structure. The players realize the set-up is not very good, but it is reality. “In the future we really want the best teams to be playing in the Olympics,” U.S. forward Abby Wambach said before the tournament. “We don’t want so much pressure and so much life-changing events to be placed on this one particular game.”

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