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North Korea looms as Canada’s toughest women’s soccer test

Canada's Valerie Sanderson celebrates Janine Beckie's goal against Finland during the second half on Friday. Sanderson will have a large contingent of family cheering her on in Tuesday’s match.


Canada's hopes of reaching the quarter-finals at the women's under-20 World Cup likely depend on a win against the toughest team in their group – North Korea.

Canada (1-1-0) plays North Korea (2-0-0) in their final group stage match Tuesday night at Olympic Stadium. The Canadians enter the game in a precarious position after losing their opener 1-0 to Ghana and then needing a dramatic, second half comeback to top Finland 3-2.

"We've known since the 90th minute of the Ghana game that we needed two results, or two wins," coach Andrew Olivieri said Monday. "You saw the impact the crowd had in Toronto in the second half [against Finland]. That was great for us. We hope to have the same in Montreal."

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After playing before crowds of 14,834 and 16,503 at cozy BMO Field in Toronto, Canada will move indoors on to artificial turf in the cavernous, 55,000-seat Big O to face one of the top teams in women's soccer at the junior level.

The North Koreans, led by striker Ri Un Sim, downed Ghana 3-0 on Saturday after edging Finland 2-1 in their opener.

They are known as a well-organized, disciplined team that makes opponents pay for mistakes.

"We have to make sure we're careful and that there are not too many lapses," said Olivieri, a Montreal native and former goalkeeper for the Montreal Impact.

North Korea leads the group with six points and a plus-four goal differential, while Canada has three points and an even differential and Ghana has three and is minus-two.

Finland has no points and is minus-two, but still has a chance to get into the tie-breaking mix if Canada loses and it wins big against Ghana in Moncton on Tuesday night.

Canada looked doomed when it fell behind by two goals in the first half against Finland.

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But Janine Beckie scored in the 48th minute, followed two minutes later by the equalizer from Valerie Sanderson, who slotted home a feed from Nichell Prince. Spurred by a roaring home crowd, Prince got the game-winner that kept Canada in contention.

"It was amazing," said Sanderson, who will have a large group of family and friends from Boisbriand, Que., in the seats. "Every time we were touching the ball they were screaming.

"Even when we were down 2-0 they were behind us. I hope Montreal does the same for us."

She said the win showed the team that it has the grit and mental strength to recover from setbacks and pull out victories.

They may need it against North Korea, which won the women's U-20 in 2006 and has been consistently in contention, mostly just behind favourites Germany and the United States.

Ri, who scored twice against Ghana and helped set up both goals against Finland, is the player to watch.

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She won the golden shoe as top scorer at the 2012 under-17 tournament in Azerbaijan and has a shot at doing the same in the U-20. Her two goals are one short of tournament leaders Claire Lavogez of France and Theresa Panfil of Germany.

It should be a test for centre-backs Kadeisha Buchanan and Rebecca Quinn, who are among five U-20 players who also play for the senior national team, and goalkeeper Kailen Sheridan.

Canada's concern is that it has yet to show top form for an entire game.

"I think we're well prepared," said Sanderson. "We watched a game they played and we know what we have to do.

"We're ready mentally, physically and tactically. We have to battle 90 minutes. They're really good on the ball, possession-wise. They go on the flanks a lot. I think we can handle what they do."

Olivieri says his team needs to be stronger on ball possession.

"What I don't like is that the number of goals we've conceded is not typically Canadian," he said. "A bit of it is organization, a bit is focus and attention. The players know they can be better."

Canada's goal going into the U-20 was to at least reach the semi-finals. The team hopes to build off the enthusiasm for the women's game created by Canada's bronze medal at the 2012 Olympics in London.

And the event will help develop players ahead of the FIFA Women's World Cup, which Canada will play host to in 2015.

"We feel a little more respect," said Sanderson. "It showed in Toronto. People are coming out more for soccer. It's promising for 2015."

Before the Group A match between Canada and North Korea, Group B leader Germany faces winless Brazil at the Big O. If Canada finishes second in its group, it may face the Germans in the quarter-finals.

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