CHAMPAIGN – The Olympic women''s soccer qualifier was supposed to be a slam dunk. The U.S. and Canadian teams were favored heavily to advance.
But only half of them made it. The Americans won March''s CONCACAF title in Costa Rica. But Canada was upset 2-1 in the semifinal by Mexico. The Canadians aren''t going to Athens.
"They''ve definitely shown in the last six months that they are battling to get into that upper echelon," Illinois coach Janet Rayfield said of the Mexicans. "This is going to be their first time to make those same kinds of statements they were making in CONCACAF."
On its way to the second biggest tournament on the planet, new power Mexico is making a stopover in Champaign- Urbana. At 11 a.m. today, Illinois hosts the Mexican National team at its soccer complex.
"It''s significant in the sense that it provides us with such a great test of where we are as a team," Rayfield said. "Psychologically, it''s a great challenge to play a team that''s had that kind of experience. The atmosphere is going to be different.
"There is definitely a buzz around the team and around the program."
It will be the second meeting between the teams. In 2001, Mexico rallied from a 1-0 deficit to beat the Illini 4-1. In the snow.
The weather is expected to be better today. And Rayfield hopes the score is closer.
"I would say going in you would have to give Mexico the edge for sure," Rayfield said. "But I think we''re going into this game saying we''re not going to try to keep the score low or anything like that. We''re going to go out and compete, and we''re going to see how we can compete against some of the best players in the world."
Why is the Mexican team here?
Mexico had a game Friday night against Notre Dame, rallying for a 3-2 win. Earlier in the year, when the Notre Dame coaches found out Mexico was looking for another game, they called Rayfield.
"We jumped at the opportunity, of course," Rayfield said. "They are trying to get some good competition in getting prepared for the Olympics. I think our success this year is probably what prompted it."
If it works the way Rayfield hopes, national teams will continue to visit C-U for exhibitions. The Illini are at the end of their spring season, so the matches don''t interfere with Big Ten or NCAA tournament preparation.
"I''m as excited about this game for what it could mean to the soccer community," Rayfield said. "We''ve really tried to get the word out to the Champaign parks and rec. This is a great opportunity for them to see some of the world''s best."