So, what to make of Canada at the FIFA Women’s World Cup in France?
The Reds stormed out of the gate in the group stage with a pair of wins against Cameroon and New Zealand to advance to the knockout round with a game to spare.
But the bloom fell off the rose after Canada capitulated in its first big test, losing to the Netherlands to finish second in Group E.
Here are some thoughts on Canada’s group-stage performance, and on what’s ahead for the Reds.
No need to panic after loss to Netherlands
Canada barely broke a sweat in brushing aside Cameroon and New Zealand without conceding goal, allowing just a single shot on target.
They were command performances, but the Dutch, ranked No. 8 in the world and the reigning European champions, were always going to be Canada’s sternest test. And so, it came to pass.
But there’s no need to panic. Canada didn’t suddenly become a bad team overnight. The Netherlands were the better side on the day and deserved to win, as they applied constant attacking pressure and made the most of their scoring chances. That being said, Canada more than held its own, and the game was ultimately decided by very fine margins.
On the opening goal, Sherida Spitse delivered a free kick deep into the box and teammate Anouk Dekker beat Canadian defender Kadeisha Buchanan to the ball by a split second to head it home. What if Buchanan, who has been sensational at this World Cup, was just a bit quicker and was able to make the clearance?
On the winner, split-second decisions cost Canada again. What if left fullback Jayde Riviere had properly closed down Dutch defender Desiree van Lunteren and not allowed her to send a low ball across the box? What if Canadian goalkeeper Stephanie Labbe reacted quicker and tipped away the cross before it landed at the feet of Lineth Beerensteyn, who bundled it home?
After the game, forward Janine Beckie admitted to Canadian Press reporter Neil Davidson that Canada “wasn’t good enough,” but also said, “I think the goals they got we gave them.” There’s some truth in that. There wasn’t a terrible amount between the two teams, and the final result could’ve been much different.
Huitema, Riviere shine in their World Cup debuts
There are a number of Canadian players who have distinguished themselves in France. Captain Christine Sinclair notched her 182nd international goal, and is now just three away from breaking the world record. Kadeisha Buchanan quarterbacked a stingy defence, and Janine Beckie was dangerous with her set-piece delivery.
But it was Jordyn Huitema and Jayde Riviere, a pair of 18-year-olds making their World Cup debuts, who garnered a lot of attention, giving just a glimpse of what they can offer Canada well beyond this tournament.
After Canada blanked Cameroon in the opener, coach Kenneth Heiner-Moller made one lineup change versus New Zealand, replacing veteran fullback Allysha Chapman with Riviere.
Riviere was making only her seventh appearance and second start for Canada, but it hardly showed. Riviere played with a great deal of maturity, and didn’t flinch when Heiner-Moller switched from a 4-3-3 to a 3-5-2 formation after 15 minutes, a move that meant she was pushed further up the field.
“That was impressive, eh? How old is she? 18. That was quite a debut in a World Cup. … [Riviere] has a bright future ahead of her,” Heiner-Moller said after the match.
Huitema is more experienced than Riviere, but not by much. She earned her 22nd cap (and sixth start) in the loss to the Dutch after riding the bench in the first two games.
Huitema entered this World Cup with a great deal of hype. She recently became the first Canadian player to sign a professional contract straight out of high school, inking a deal with Paris Saint-Germain. A former Canadian U-17 player of the year, she’s expected to be the focal point of the attack when Sinclair eventually retires.
In the meantime, Huitema lined up alongside Sinclair and Beckie in a 4-3-3 formation, and was called upon to serve as more of a playmaker. It’s not her normal role and, though it took some time, Huitema adapted well and helped set up Sinclair’s equalizer. After Sinclair was subbed out, the teenager took up a more central position (a role with which she’s intimately familiar) and led the Canadian attack the rest of the way to great effect.
“I think Jordyn did exceptionally well. She can play wide, and she can play centrally – you saw that tonight. She can take players on,” Heiner-Moller offered.
“She made us look dangerous on crosses. She had a few good one-on-ones … It was definitely a good [showing] for her.”
A tougher path, but maybe that’s not so bad
Thursday’s loss against the Netherlands had big ramifications for Canada.
Had Canada won, it would have beat out the Dutch for first place in Group E. As a result, the Reds would meet Japan in the Round of 16 next Tuesday, and its toughest test wouldn’t have come until the semifinals with a potential showdown against European powerhouse Germany.
By finishing second, Canada will instead play Sweden in Paris next Monday, and face a much tougher path in the knockout stages – a quarterfinal match verus the Germans looms large.
But this could be a good thing for Canada, who for years have tried to break through the barrier and join the top nations in the international women’s game. If the Canadian team wants to truly be considered among the elite, then it has to beat those same nations, and maybe taking the tougher path will bring out the best in them.
Sinclair recently proclaimed she had been waiting her entire career for this Canadian team, “in that they’re so talented [and] have the depth to be able to compete at World Cups and Olympics.”
Canada now has the perfect chance to prove it.