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Nov 24, 2006

Physical Canadian team presents a different challenge

CARSON, Calif.-- Moments after Canada beat Jamaica 3-0 in the first semifinal game at the Gold Cup, American and Canadian players passed within a few feet of each other as the former took the field to warm up for the second semifinal and the latter happily ambled toward the bench to collect their belongings.

Unlike the geographic border between the two North American nations, the invisible line separating the two sides on the field at the Home Depot Center appeared to be anything but undefended.

Despite any number of ties between players on both teams, from college to the old WUSA, it was tough to spot any eye contact in those moments on the field. There were no congratulatory hand slaps for the Canadians, who qualified for the World Cup with their win, let alone a word of encouragement for the Americans, who were about to do the same against Mexico.

The rivalry between the two teams hasn't yet descended into outright public animosity, but neither is it full of friendly banter or even mixed emotions. The Canadians are tired of playing in the total eclipse of American soccer, and the Americans are tired of being reminded of that with every tackle, foul and bruise they accumulate playing their rival.

"Canada is a tough team, they come out to fight, and if we play their style of game, it's going to be up in the air," Abby Wambach said after beating Mexico. "I think Evan [Pellerud] is going to prepare his girls, just like Greg is going to prepare us, for a really hard-fought battle. It's always a grudge match against Canada."

"I think Canada," Wambach said, carefully choosing her words. "Of course, we have a target on our backs for Canada, because they've always been compared to us, in terms of our play."

As a result, Sunday's Gold Cup final, placed in the uncomfortable position of being far less meaningful in the big picture than the semifinals which determined World Cup qualifying, is a game about everything and nothing at all.

2006 CONCACAF Women's Gold Cup Schedule

Third-place game, Nov. 26
Mexico vs. Jamaica, 6 ET

Final, Nov. 26
U.S. vs. Canada, 8:30 ET

The teams have met twice already this year, most recently in the final of the Peace Cup less than a month ago. The United States won both games, extending its record in the all-time series to 31-3-3. The rivalry appeared to be evening out when Canada went 2-2-3 between Aug. 20, 2000 and March 14, 2003 (although one of the wins came against what amounted to a junior varsity team for the United States in the 2001 Algarve Cup), but the United States has won the last seven games in a row by a combined score of 17-2.

This time around, neither team will enter at full strength. The U.S. will again be without Shannon Boxx, who tore her ACL in the spring, and it wouldn't be entirely surprising to see coach Greg Ryan rest Abby Wambach for at least a portion of the match. Wambach injured her ankle during the group stage of the Peace Cup and needed a shot to play against Mexico on Wednesday.

Canada has its own injury woes with Kara Lang out after tearing her ACL this spring, but bruised egos are the team's biggest concern at the moment thanks to a messy dispute between three veteran players and Pellerud.

Charmaine Hooper, Christine Latham and Sharolta Nonen, all starters when Canada lost to the U.S. in Cary, N.C. in July, were not with the team at the Peace Cup and are not part of the Gold Cup roster. They were banned from the national team by the Canadian Soccer Association after skipping games this summer following a dispute over what they felt was undue pressure from Pellerud to relocate when the team's residency camp moved from Ottawa to Vancouver.

Skill aside, Hooper and Latham have in many ways been the heart and fiery soul of Canada's program for years. And as well as Canada has played without them, reaching the final of the Peace Cup and dispatching Jamaica on Wednesday, they are significant losses.

"Charmaine, I have the utmost respect for her," Wambach said. "She and I have a similar style, we're very physical, we use our bodies to the most of our abilities. And without Charmaine on the field, I think you are lacking a lot of wisdom and experience in the game. I know if Kristine Lilly was off the field for us, it would be the same thing."

The team's success without the three veterans is a testament to a style of play that is equal parts effective, flexible and entirely unappealing to watch. True to the coach's Scandinavian roots, Canada relies heavily on the long ball to generate offense while never shying away from contact anywhere on the field.

"Canada has a style of play, and I feel like even without them [Latham, Hooper and Nonen], they still have the same style of play: direct, aggressive, we're going to come at you high pressure," United States midfielder Leslie Osborne said.

Not that Pellerud is completely rigid in accommodating the talent he still has at his disposal.

"I think naturally losing great players and leaders, you're going to have to change things," Osborne said about how Canada approached the Peace Cup final. "And I think with a lot of younger players, they threw numbers at us. And I think what they did was effective for them enough, but I think that they're always going to be kind of the same style. And we expect a hard tough game with them every time we play them, no matter who they have out on the field."

After his team's semifinal loss, Mexico coach Leo Cueller bemoaned his team's lack of physical size, comparing the matchup against the U.S. to a heavyweight boxing a flyweight. Cuellar wasn't suggesting the U.S. was unduly physical, but Canada is clearly a more evenly matched sparring partner when the ball is in the air or contact is called for. As a result, tactics take on even greater importance for Ryan's team.

"We need to keep the ball and play our game," Osborne said. "When you play a team that is so direct and so physical, you start playing to what they're playing like.

"Our game is keeping the ball, taking numbers forward, going out wide, taking players one-on-one, keeping the ball. When we play them, it's hard because they high pressure us. We think we can just kick it up, but that's not it. They'll come flying at you; cut the ball, keep the ball and then we can go out. So that initial pressure is what we need to control. And sometimes teams get scared of that initial high pressure and they freak out and just kick the ball."

While Ryan may choose to start most of his healthy regulars in an effort to respect the integrity of the tournament, the intensity of the rivalry also provides a good testing ground for some of his more inexperienced players. Unlike the semifinal, when the coach made just one substitution in the opening 85 minutes, Sunday's game may be an ideal opportunity for extended playing time for someone like Natasha Kai. Ryan compared the young forward, who has six goals this year, to Wambach in terms of unpolished potential, and Canada would provide a good measure of her composure.

But assessing the progress of young players like Kai is just one of the tasks remaining on Ryan's agenda.

"We've made up 70 percent of what we need to do this year," the coach said of the total work to be done before the World Cup. "This residency program was fantastic for us. Next year, we already know how we want to play, it's just working on our execution, our finishing, our set pieces, making sure we stay in sync with one another. So most of the hard work is done, and next year should be fun for us."

In some ways, Sunday's game exists in a void for the U.S. It's neither part of what has been a year-long march to qualification nor fully a part of the polishing process that will take place when the team reconvenes next year to begin preparations for China.

Luckily, any game against Canada always has a meaning all its own.

Graham Hays is a regular contributor to ESPN.com's soccer coverage. E-mail him at Graham.Hays@espn3.com.