Canada ready to start Olympic campaign


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Jim Morris (The Canadian Press)

Playing Canada's first-ever women's Olympic soccer match in a city over 100 kilometres from where the Games are being held will be an advantage for his team, says coach Even Pellerud.

The Canadian women begin their quest for an Olympic medal on Wednesday against Argentina in Tianjin, which is located 120 kilometres from Beijing.

"It's easier to focus on the soccer part here," Pellerud said Monday after a team practice. "It will be the same type of environment we are used to at FIFA World Cups.

"The event gives us more of a World Cup feeling than an Olympic feeling."

Goalkeeper Erin McLeod said nerves will still be a factor early in the game.

"The first few minutes, there will be a lot of emotion," said the Edmonton native. "There will be nerves.

"Once the game gets going and everyone touches the ball, we'll be fine."

The excitement over the team making its Olympic debut will be tempered by the sadness of learning that the recurrence of a leg injury will prevent forward Amber Allen from playing in the tournament.

"I guess my reaction is not unusual," Allen said. "It's incredible disappointment."

Allen battled back from three leg injuries in four years to claim a spot on the Olympic team. Even before leaving Canada for a training camp in Singapore, the 32-year-old from Chilliwack, B.C., sensed a problem.

"I felt like something had changed in my leg," she said. "I wasn't sure because it's not like my leg is normal. I have a higher pain level so I just assumed it would go away.

"It didn't and it just got worse. I just pushed it beyond the limit that one was capable of doing."

Losing Allen is an emotional blow for the tightly-knit team.

"Losing Amber has affected all of us," said McLeod. "We just have to make sure we keep everything positive and our group tight."

Canada played in last fall's FIFA World Cup held in China, so the women are used to the hot, humid temperatures and sometimes choking pollution.

The Canadian women are ranked ninth in the world but they cannot take number 29 Argentina lightly, warned Pellerud.

"Argentina is a team you have to take seriously," he said. "Every time you see them, they are stronger. We have beaten them before and our confidence should be right."

McLeod said Argentina's unpredictability makes them difficult to play against.

"They are quite agile," she said. "They have the ability to shoot from anywhere."

Beside Argentina, Canada plays in a group with number three ranked Sweden and number 14 ranked China.

The USA, Norway, Japan and New Zealand form another group, while the final group has defending World Cup champions Germany, World Cup finalists Brazil, North Korea and Nigeria.

The top two teams in each group advance to the quarter-finals, along with the two best third-place teams.

Canada plays China on Saturday in Tianjin, then faces Sweden on August 12 at the Beijing Workers' Stadium.

The tournament will also be Pellerud's last as Canada's head coach. He's announced he's leaving the program following the Olympics after nine years.

Allen, who joined the national team in 2002, missed playing in the last two World Cups due to leg injuries.

Prior to the 2003 World Cup in the US, she tore ligaments in her right knee. She recovered from that injury only to suffer a stress fracture in her left tibia that required surgery.

She returned to the national team in June 2007, but only to break the same tibia in an exhibition match.

Allen worked through the rehabilitation and rejoined the team this year, playing in five games.

Doctors have not determined if she suffered another fracture as yet, but experience tells Allen to expect the worst.

"Given the fact I had multiple fractures in this area, and I know what it feels like to have a stress fracture, it is something similar," she said.

The pain she was experiencing was impacting Allen's performance on the pitch. She also was worried about doing long-term damage.

Allen stopped short of announcing her retirement, but admits it is unlikely she will play again.

"I think I will be venturing into new things, not soccer related," she said.

Her spot on the 18-person roster will be taken by Jodi-Ann Robinson of Richmond, B.C. Robinson, 19, is in her fifth season with the national team and has six goals in 30 international appearances.

Pellerud said Robinson's experience with the team makes it easier for her to step into the lineup.

"She is an amazing talent and fantastic dribbler," he said of the Vancouver Whitecaps forward. "She can shoot the ball with both feet and she is fast."

With Robinson added to the roster, Whitecaps teammate Chelsea Stewart, 18, of The Pas, Manitoba, has been named as an alternate on the Canadian roster.

Allen will be joined by her fiance on Tuesday and plans to remain in China to watch the Games.

"I will enjoy the Olympics more as a fan," she said. "I am going to have fun (and) support the team as much as I can from afar."