A learning experience for Reds in CONCACAF final

Canada accomplished their mission: qualifying for the Olympics. But that doesn't mean the loss the Team USA in the tournament final doesn't sting a little for the young Canadian squad.

Tickets to a Canada versus the United States in women’s soccer practically sell themselves. The meetings are always fierce, physical and passionate.

Sunday’s CONCACAF Olympic Qualifying Championship final in Houston was no different and lived up to this billing.

Here are my three takeaways from the entertaining North American derby, a 2-0 loss for the Canadians:

STARTING XI
Canadian coach John Herdman elected to rest two of his most important players. Christine Sinclair and goalkeeper Erin McLeod practised sparingly throughout the course of the team’s time in Houston. Sinclair is nursing a calf problem, while McLeod is coming off a knee injury sustained in December.

With Canada using a 4-4-2 formation, Josee Belanger moved up to a midfield position, while Rhian Wilkinson line up as a right fullback. Forward Melissa Tancredi wore the captain’s armband and found herself up top with youngster Nichelle Prince. This also marked goalkeeper Stephanie Labbe’s first time facing the United States since 2011, and her second match against them overall.

There were no changes to start the second half. After the U.S. went up 1-0, Diana Matheson and Sophie Schmidt replaced Rebecca Quinn and Wilkinson. Belanger shifted to the right fullback spot.

Sinclair did see minutes, just under a half hour, right after Tobin Heath put the Americans up 2-0. The Canadian captain’s presence provided the group with stability at both ends of the field, especially when it came to playmaking.

TRIAL AND ERROR
The outcome of this game was fairly irrelevant. The goal of this tournament was to qualify for the Olympics and to achieve it with a different crop of players. It’s a new era for the senior squad and with the young blood coming through the system this series of matches allowed them to get a true taste of meaningful soccer.

Off the pitch, they learned how to adapt their daily routines, nutritional requirements and training regimens to the rigours of what’s expected at this level. Those are indelible experiences and will be crucial in Rio this summer.

At the end of the day, Herdman did what was best for his group going forward. There was no need to risk an injury to someone such as McLeod. Instead, why not show the depth what it’s like to play a powerhouse in the USA and go one-on-one with Hope Solo? Let them experience that rivalry first hand and see how much the veterans feed off of it.

GAMESMANSHIP AT ITS FINEST
Earlier this week, American goalkeeper Hope Solo was asked about the rivalry and said, “I love playing Canada. It always tends to be a bloodbath” and compared the Reds to American footballers. In response, Herdman told Sportsnet’s James Sharman, “We just don’t listen to Hope Solo. To be honest, I don’t know if many people do these days. Whatever she says is her business.”

Leading up to the final, Herdman indicated that he likely wouldn’t be resting players (such as Sinclair and McLeod), but he did. American coach Jill Ellis said it was unlikely 17-year-old Mallory Pugh would see minutes, but the young striker was in the starting lineup.

The rivalry has been and continues to be intense. These are players who have suited up side by side professionally or in college, with many of them close friends off the pitch.

However, when it comes to international action, it truly is no holds barred. It’s about pride. These two countries push one another to be better and it has helped the sport grow immensely.

Notes: Canadians Allysha Chapman, Ashley Lawrence and Kadeisha Buchanan were named to tournament best XI… Canada wrapped up the CONCACAF Olympic Qualifying Championship as leaders in goals (24), pass effectiveness at 87 percent, assists (17) and fouls (49)… Josee Belanger led all players with assists (4) over the tournament, while Desiree Scott accumulated the most fouls (13)… The women get a short breather before they head to Portugal for the Algarve Cup. They open the tournament March 3 against Denmark.