Sinclair rescues Canada at Women’s World Cup

Canada coach John Herdman knew he was going to get a dramatic game in the opener of the Women's World Cup, and acknowledged that changing his team's strategy paid off vs. China.

EDMONTON – For years, Canadians have not been shy about espousing their conspiracy theories about officiating in national-team games. From the phantom offside at the 2007 men’s Gold Cup semifinal to the six-second call at the 2012 women’s Olympic tournament, we’ve gone on and on about how the international officials have got it in for us.

Did Ukrainian referee Kateryna Monzul restore the karmic balance? In a game that had 0-0 written all over it, she determined—in second-half injury time—that Chinese defender Rong Zhao pushed over Canadian sub Adrian Leon in the penalty area.

Christine Sinclair rolled the penalty kick into the corner of the goal, and Canada earned a 1-0 win in the opener of the FIFA Women’s World Cup Saturday in front of 53,058 fans at Edmonton’s Commonwealth Stadium.

In a game of this magnitude, in second-half injury time, Monzul made a determination based on a scrum of players going after the ball in the penalty area. To say it was a brave call would be an understatement.

Canadian coach John Herdman said that the shove was, by the book, a penalty. But he admitted that it’s not one that’s often enforced, and that it was a "brave" call.

The more than 50,000 in attendance helped Monzul be brave.

"Absolutely, that’s your home-field advantage," Herdman said.

"It was an emotional moment for our team because we’ve worked pretty hard, they’ve sacrificed a lot. It was always going to end the right way, with Sinclair scoring in the opening game… When the call came, I celebrated like we’d just scored.

"My celebration, well I was pretty embarrassed, I think it’s the only time a coach has actually jumped on a player."

Sinclair scored on a penalty against the Chinese in January’s BaoAn Cup. This time, she went low to the keeper’s right.

"I did (go the same way as the BaoAn Cup)," she said. "I thought maybe they’d think I’d go the other way. But I think if you place it well, the keeper has no chance to save it."

Chinese coach Hao Wei was diplomatic after the match. He said he "respected the officials and the referee’s judgment" and that he couldn’t really comment on the call until he’s had a few more looks at the video.

But, despite Sinclair’s late penalty, we’re filled with uneasy questions about this Canadian team. Can the forwards trouble a world-class defence? Can the passing out from defence improve?

Before the Sinclair drama, Canada’s best scoring chances fell to Kadeisha Buchanan and Josee Belanger. This is the rub: Buchanan started at centre back and Belanger started at right back. When two defenders trouble the opposing defenders more than your forwards do, you’ve got a major problem.

Buchanan’s chance came just two minutes after the opening kickoff, while thousands were still trying to get to their seats. Sophie Schmidt’s free kick found an unmarked Buchanan at the far side of the penalty area. Buchanan controlled the ball with the aplomb of a striker, then stung a shot towards goal that goalkeeper Wang Fei got down into a low crouch to save. The rebound came back to Buchanan, whose second effort was charged down by Wang.

Belanger’s half-volley from well outside the box crashed off the bar midway during the first half.

But what of strikers Jonelle Filigno and Melissa Tancredi, who started in front of all-time Canadian scoring leader Sinclair, in the formation? They did little to trouble the Chinese. Sinclair has been moved back in the formation by Herdman, the logic being that she has more opportunities to get the ball at her feet. But, to make that strategy work, you need strikers ahead of her who will push and pull the defenders out of position, to create gaps for Sinclair to exploit. Filigno and Tancredi simply didn’t have the off-the-ball movement to open up the Chinese defence. The Tancredi we have seen since she came back from her two-year break to go to school is a shell of her former self.

China was unlucky not to get a first-half goal. As expected, Chinese speedster Gu Yasha started the game on the left side; but after 15 minutes coach Hao Wei moved her to the right. Canada nearly paid for underestimating Gu’s speed; the forward pounced on a lazy back pass from defender Lauren Sesselmann intended for keeper Erin McLeod. But the Canadians fans in attendance could breathe again after McLeod came out to smother the shot.

After another lazy pass out of the back four that was picked off by the Chinese, midfielder Desiree Scott brought down striker Lisi Wang with a yellow-card challenge. Wang’s ensuing free kick crashed off both goalposts, but didn’t trigger the goal-line buzzer on Monzul’s wrist.

Lisi Wang, though, had to leave the game before the end of the first half, as she was feeling the effects of the Scott challenge.

At the hour mark, Herdman gave the ineffective Foligno the mercy hook, replacing her with midfielder Kaylyn Kyle. And, the Chinese pulled nine players into a tight formation, basically forcing Canada to launch balls over the formation for Sinclair to run onto—or, basically, turning Canada into a pre-Herdman version of itself.

Scott came out in the 70th minute in favour of teenager Jessie Fleming. Tancredi, after 76 woeful minutes, made way in favour of forward Leon.

But, unlike the first half, precious little was created by either side in the second—a situation which was much better for the Chinese than the Canadians. China defended staunchly, while the Canadians looked like a side that had run out of ideas. Canada had been reduced to route-one football.

Finally, in the 81st minute, a ball fell kindly for Schmidt in the Chinese penalty area. She was able to turn and a lay a cushioned pass for Sinclair. With the ‘keeper at her mercy, she scuffed a shot that gave Fei Wang little trouble.

McLeod admitted the Canadians were rattled.

"I think we played nervous. I don’t think we really calmed down for most of the game, so our quality dipped. I think we’re lucky to come out with the win."

Herdman said playing against the Chinese’s deep block was frustrating, and that he switched the formation to a 3-4-3 in the final 10 minutes to try and force the issue. But, he pointed out that Canada had two-thirds of the possession.

It came down to Sinclair’s one last chance; and she didn’t miss. Whether or not that ball should have been put on the spot is up for debate.

Soccer Central podcast: SPORTSNET.CA's Soccer Central podcast, hosted by John Molinaro and James Sharman, takes an in-depth look at the beautiful game and offers timely and thoughtful analysis on the sport's biggest issues. To listen and subscribe to the podcast, CLICK HERE.