Canada underachieved at Women’s World Cup

Christine Sinclair in action for Canada. (CP)

Ever since Canada exited the FIFA Women’s World Cup, I’ve wondered whether or not the tournament could be deemed a success for our national team.

I feel almost ashamed to admit it, but I have come to the conclusion that it was not a success. In fact, it was far from it. If we separate the act of hosting the World Cup from Canada’s actual play on the field, the latter was a disappointment. The Canadian Soccer Association hit a home run in hosting—the country rallied behind the Canadian team, and the tournament as a whole. But if we’re simply talking about the on-field product, from a Canadian perspective, it left much to be desired.

Yes, Canada was ranked eighth in the world and was eliminated in the quarterfinals, so technically one could make the argument they didn’t underachieve, but that denies the intrinsic advantage you have as the host nation. Great crowd support and familiarity with the venues and climate meant the Canadian squad had an upper hand. But they couldn’t change their style of play mid-tournament and never looked convincing. Canada was touch and go to win every game it participated in.

The one individual who has escaped scrutiny has been coach John Herdman. What’s not to like? He possesses a Hollywood smile, with a “Pinball” Clemons-like enthusiasm. He shaped the squad into Olympic bronze medalists in London, but his team selection at this World Cup was troubling at best. The team’s chief decision maker should not be above reproach now. It’s easy to play armchair quarterback, but if you gave Herdman some truth serum I think he’d agree that this wasn’t a success. This is solely based on the statements he has made.

Before the tournament Herdman wrote, “We have got to get to the final.” That’s not just a coach being hyperbolic, as the Dutch sports data consultancy Infostrada predicted a Germany-Canada final.

Herdman’s initial response after the loss to England was, “Gutted. For all of Canada because I think we could have; I’m not going to say we could have, should have won.” He’s right.

Throughout the tournament, Herdman stuck with a 4-3-3 formation and stubbornly stuck with the players in it. There were few changes of formation, approach, or players of consequence, even though Lauren Sesselmann struggled from the outset and Melissa Tancredi failed to get on the end of most balls sent her way.

If Sesselmann made a match saving clearance or Tancredi scored a game winning goal, Herdman would have been lauded for his loyalty and how well he knows his team. But sports are a fickle business and that wasn’t the outcome, thus the reaction should follow accordingly.

Sesselmann persuaded Herdman to keep her on the field after she struggled in the tournament opener against China. That faith very well may have cost him in the deciding game versus England.

Herdman was also stubbornly loyal to the wrong Chicago Red Stars attacker. Tancredi was repeatedly left in the starting 11 even though Adriana Leon was more impressive in the build up to the tournament. Tancredi’s last goal for Canada was 2012. She hit the back of the net six times that year, but since then the goals have dried up and all she has to her name is a yellow card. In comparison, Leon has five goals since her national team debut in 2013.

The source of Canada’s offence, historically speaking, has been Christine Sinclair, but she’s lost a step as well and is now more of a provider around the goal than a clinical finisher. Her first goal of the tournament was from a penalty kick won by Leon’s pace and movement. The second was on a rebound after Ashley Lawrence had the footwork and touch to open up, create space and get a shot on goal. The point being, Sinclair needs fast, athletic players around her to truly take advantage of her skill level as her level of athleticism drops.

Tancredi is a big, powerful player; a hockey power forward on the pitch. But the game has changed. No longer can you outmuscle your way to a result. As Tancredi has lost a step, Canada has lost ground on the seismic shift in the women’s game, favouring teams with technical ability. Playing Leon, one of the few players who can break a defence down in 1 v 1 situations, or Sophie Schmidt, who has a nose for goal, further forward, would have been the wiser use of assets.

Defender Robin Gayle, who has demonstrated great chemistry with Buchanan, the team’s defensive anchor, and has big match experience, might have been a better choice than the rattled Sesselmann still working her way back from injury.

The Americans have adapted by playing the heralded Abby Wambach as a super sub who can change a match late with her prowess from set pieces. The U.S. hasn’t used the same starting 11 at this World Cup and played five different players on the right side of their midfield. In their best performance of the tournament, a semifinal win over Germany, they totally reworked their midfield shape and played Alex Morgan as a lone striker.

This January, when the Canadian women attempt to book their tickets for the Olympics via the qualifying tournament, I hope the team is more cut throat in front of goal, and that we as a collective are more pointed with our analysis.

As psychologist-turned-TV-star Dr. Phil repeatedly says, “you get in life what you accept.” If we accept this as a positive finish for a team with bundles of talent we’ll never see that talent fully realized. To close the gap with the elite teams, we have to hold ourselves as accountable as they do and adapt our team to beat theirs.

Germany, the United States, Norway and Brazil won 23 of the 27 first-, second- and third-place medals at the Olympics and World Cups held from 1991-2008. Japan crashed the party, winning the 2011 World Cup and cold repeat this year. The Japanese, although not nearly as athletic or physically dominant as the Canadian team, are technically superior—comfortable in possession, taking the ball on either foot, no wasted touches, nothing seemed forced, everything seemed in control. Canada seemed out of ideas and unable to systematically break down defences, and instead relied on singular moments of brilliance. The gap between the two finalists (Japan and the U.S.) and Canada is wide in that regard.

American midfielder Carli Lloyd said, “Long gone are the days of the Americans being able to just physically beat teams. It’s not that way anymore.” If that’s the case for the dominant U.S., it is doubly true for Canada.

The American have scuffled but still managed to get results. Technically superior Germany, Japan, and France were a cut above Canada. The best surprise of the tournament were the strides made by Columbia, Switzerland, the Netherlands and England. It’s clear that there is greater depth in women’s soccer.

After Canada finished last at the 2011 World Cup, Herdman has focused mainly on the senior team but last year he installed his Excel system to develop elite teenagers. The bright side is the team’s youngest players—Ashley Lawrence, Kadeisha Buchanan, Jessie Fleming, Adriana Leon—who seemed the most comfortable with the ball at their feet and the most inventive when supplying it for others. Herdman should have put more faith in the young players who benefited from the development program and less loyal to the history the old players have created.

This Canadian team played with the heart and grit that are prerequisites of representing this country. Their commitment never wavered, but we have to commit to putting them in better positions to succeed. And that means admitting that their best was far from good enough at this World Cup. If this was a men’s or even women’s hockey team we’d be having a week long summit. If soccer is to rise to compete to a similar level, we need the same level of scrutiny.

The main refrain on why this World Cup has been a success is because of the amount of girls who would draw inspiration from this tournament. Although that’s true, it’s incontrovertible that they would have inspired more if they won a medal or made the final. Winning is the fruit of inspiration.

It’s time for the viewing audience to up its expectations and its level of discourse. It’s not unpatriotic to say your country could have done better. In fact, that’s the best way to show your allegiance to the nation.

Herdman has faith: “There’s a new breed of footballer that we’re bringing through. It was a transitional team, we knew that. But we have no excuses. We came here to win a World Cup. Stick with us, that’s all. Stick with us.

“It stings because we knew we could have beat that England team”.

You’re right, John. You could have, you should have and you probably will. But “we” won’t get there without analyzing why you didn’t. This performance wasn’t a success but you learn more from losses than you do victories. Let’s hope it means real success for the women’s team in 2016.