Canadian women looking for World Cup redemption

Before Canada and China kick off the FIFA Women’s World Cup, Sportsnet's Gene Principe previews the tough road ahead for the host nation.

EDMONTON—“The Redemption Game.”

That would be a decent way to tag the opening match of the FIFA Women’s World Cup between Canada and China.

Why? Let’s compare the two programs. In 2011, Canada finished dead last out of the 16 teams in Germany, which led to a coaching change and a total re-think of the women’s program.

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In 2011, China missed out on the Women’s World Cup, which led to a coaching change and a total re-think of the women’s program.

One major difference? Canada won Olympic bronze in 2012, while China missed out on the Olympic women’s soccer tournament.

Four years later, the two rebuilt programs will open the Women’s World Cup on Saturday at Edmonton’s Commonwealth Stadium in front of what could be a capacity crowd. Ticket sales were pegged at 45,000 on Thursday evening. With so many seats taken up for dignitaries and media, the sellout number is being estimated at around 50,000.

And how will it play out? According to Canadian coach John Herdman, that may be up to the Chinese.

“It depends on the mindset they take for the game,” Herdman said. “If they look at Canada and decide this is a game we just want a point from, they may defend with that deep block, and that deep block is hard to break down.”

The deep-defending strategy is what the Canadians saw when they faced China at the BaoAn Cup in January. In that game Canada was able to break down the tournament hosts, with Christine Sinclair scoring twice in a 2-1 win. The Canadians learned that the Chinese will soak up pressure and then use team speed to hit on the counterattack. Gu Yasha, arguably China’s quickest player, scored that day—and she could be a wild card when the two teams meet on what’s expected to be a warm Saturday afternoon in Edmonton.

“When we played them in the Four Nations (BaoAn Cup) they put 11 players behind the ball and they’re very good in the transition,” Herdman said. “So, it’s the counterattack, it’s the set piece, that China can hit you with. But we can’t anticipate what mindset they’re going to take; they may decide to press us. But what you know about China is that their goals will come from quick counterattacks.

“They’re absolutely fantastic; play up, play back, play through. No matter how you try to defend against that, now and again they’re going to get a couple of chances.”

The Chinese weren’t very telling, taking their mandatory media availability to smile and wave for the cameras, but to say very little. When asked about the game plan against Canada, Chinese defender Liu Shanshan said: “We will try our best.”

When asked what China’s learned from the previous match against Canada: “We will try our best.”

Honestly, the press could have asked about the FIFA scandal or peace in our time and the answer would likely have been “We will try our best.” It’s not a dig at the athlete; it’s an illustration of just how little the Chinese want to engage with the media. The press was given a strict five-minute pre-training-session time limit to speak with the players. The Chinese have been training in Edmonton all week long but, until Thursday night, did not make coach Hao Wei or any players available to speak to the press.

But what we do know is that the Chinese are still a ways away from returning the program to a level equal to its former glory. Before the 2011 disaster, the Chinese had never done worse than advancing to the quarterfinals of a Women’s World Cup. In 1999, they lost the final to the Americans on penalties.

In 2015, their run-in to the World Cup has been anything but decent. In the Algarve Cup, they were thumped 2-0 and 3-0 by Germany and Sweden, respectively. They lost to Portugal on penalties. They lost 2-1 to England. And, in the BaoAn Cup, before losing to Canada, they lost 3-2 to South Korea.

So, it’s a guess. Will the Chinese park the bus, or will they try to use their speed to stretch the field?

Canadian holding midfielder Desiree Scott says Canada is ready for either tactic.

“I think you have to prepare for both,” she said. “They may come out and press us, they may drop off and show the medium block. So, we have to prepare for both, we know what to do in both scenarios and we’ve just got to be ready for whatever they throw at us come game time.

“We do sort of know what they are going to bring, technically, tactically, we know what their strengths and weakness are. We know what we need to bring in order to be successful in our first match. We’re confident going in.”

Canadian right back Rhian Wilkinson likely won’t play Saturday; she has been training, but Herdman confirmed she’s being targeted for a return later in the World Cup. As for midfielder Diana Matheson, out with a knee injury suffered on the Commonwealth Stadium turf in a late-October friendly, Herdman said the best-case scenario is that she is ready to return to the lineup in the third game of the group stage. That’s Canada’s June 15 match against the Netherlands in Montreal.

Ukrainian referee Kateryna Monzul, who had the whistle for the 2014 UEFA Women’s Champions League final, will preside over the Canada-China match.