Canada closing the gap on U.S.

PORTLAND, Ore. -- Rivalry? What rivalry?

If you go by the numbers, the U.S.-Canada women's soccer series looks more like a pummeling by an older sibling.

When the teams meet for Thursday night's friendly at Jeld-Wen Field (ESPN2, 11 p.m. ET), it'll be their 50th clash. The U.S., led by stars Abby Wambach and Hope Solo, dominates the series 41-3-5.

The U.S. women have a legacy of success. Even when they lose, they win -- their runner-up finish to Japan in this summer's World Cup was electrifying enough to have America talking about soccer again, circa 1999.

Canada, meanwhile, finished a disastrous 16th place -- dead last -- in the World Cup, a tournament that was supposed to showcase how far it had come, from never breaking a world top-10 ranking to No. 6.

Despite that, know this: Little sister is catching up just as the stakes are getting higher.

Five of the past seven meetings with the U.S. have been one-goal victories, and the Canadians tied the Americans 1-1 on Saturday in Kansas City in the first of a two-game exhibition series.

Call this a "friendly" -- the second of two games for the teams who haven't gathered since the World Cup in Germany -- but it's laying the foundation for more drama to come.

Four months from now, the 2012 Olympic qualification tournament, to be played indoors, will be in Vancouver, British Columbia.

Top teams in the eight-team field include the U.S., Canada and Mexico, but just two countries will qualify for the London Olympic Summer Games.

It's easy to forget the Americans almost didn't make the 2011 World Cup field, surviving a harrowing qualifying campaign in which they lost to Mexico and made the tournament with last-ditch wins over Costa Rica and Italy.

"By no means is Olympic qualifying in the bag," Wambach said. "We don't want to go through what we did prior to the World Cup. Because you can't. There's no home-and-away series. The top two teams go."

Mexico is young and up-and-coming with an American twist, with two of its World Cup players hailing from Stanford. Canada, host for the 2015 Women's World Cup, has the soccer world buzzing with its Sept. 1 hiring of head coach John Herdman to replace Italian Carolina Morace, who resigned following the World Cup.

The 36-year-old Herdman, from England, led New Zealand from non-factor to two World Cups (2007, 2011) and the 2008 Olympics.

"He's done brilliant," said Kelly Parker, Canada's veteran midfielder.

At the stadium Wednesday, the Canadian team finished its closed training session before the Americans made their grand entrance, cheered on by about 1,000 spectators who applauded and gasped at the U.S. team's efforts during practice. You'd think they were watching a game.

Yet both teams are in post-World Cup mode, rusty and in transition, installing new formations. The Canadians are playing without star forward Christine Sinclair, given time off after her pro team, the Western New York Flash, won the Women's Professional Soccer championship this summer.

The U.S. is fielding all 21 players from the World Cup squad.

Players from both sides promise these aren't the teams people will see in January, when two Olympic berths are at stake. Then, it's likely they'll see true rivals.

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