A final curtain call of Canadian women’s soccer team vets

Melissa Tancredi, right, in action for Canada. (Jon Super/AP)

VANCOUVER—For long-time national team forward Melissa Tancredi, the decision to retire from a long and rewarding soccer career was easy.

The tough part was simply the timing.

“I knew it was my time, it was just the exact time I was unsure of,” Tancredi told Sportsnet this week following a national team training session at BC Place. “My body is okay, it’s just my mind—my mind is ready. It’s fatigued. It’s been through a lot with this career. I have two bronze medals, two great Olympics, and why not go out on that?”

On Saturday, the Canadian women’s side will host Mexico in a friendly in Vancouver, an event billed as a celebration of the Olympic bronze medal the team won at Rio 2016. The match will also serve as a send-off for Tancredi and teammates Marie-Ève Nault and Rhian Wilkinson, all of them national team mainstays.

“I hope it’s not going to be emotional,” Tancredi, 35, said before breaking out into laughter and adding, “It’s going to be emotional.”

As much as the players are steeling themselves for an emotional afternoon—veteran midfielder Diana Matheson said it was a matter of “putting it in the back of our minds” lest everyone become overwhelmed by the finality of the departures—the retiring players are leaving knowing the team is in a much better spot than it was when they first joined. For all their achievements, the most important, as far as their legacy is concerned, was the one that captured the imagination of fans across the country and boosted the team’s popularity immensely: winning bronze at the London 2012 Games.

“The pinnacle of my career, I believed, was becoming an Olympian in Beijing,” said Wilkinson, 34, whose appearance on Saturday will mark her 181st for the Reds. “Winning a medal was unfathomable to me, and if you watched that tournament [in London], there were the biggest ups, the biggest downs, and then a miracle beating France that day.”

Nault, too, said the experience in London was career-defining. As an alternate in 2012, the defender ended up seeing 361 minutes’ worth of action as a result of injuries, and her journey from alternate to starter was one of the best storylines of the tournament.

“We’d had such a roller coaster of emotion, playing that game against the U.S., and then were so tired but we were able to dig deep and be able to win that bronze medal, for ourselves and for Canada,” she explained. “That was definitely the best moment of my career.”

Wilkinson sees Saturday’s farewell as a “bonus,” an opportunity she didn’t expect to receive. Nault likewise hadn’t anticipated the opportunity to take the field with her team in a farewell game at home.

“Because I didn’t play at the Olympics, I had kind of moved on,” she said. The native of Trois-Rivières, Quebec, was an alternate in Rio and played her last club match, with KIF Örebro in Sweden, in November.

The 34-year-old had planned on attending the match as a spectator, but once she was told there was a chance she might take the field, she knew it was an opportunity she couldn’t turn down.

“I was just going to come and enjoy the game and just being here with the team,” she said. “But then I guess things change and plans change, and when I was told there was a chance I was gonna be playing, I was like, ‘Well, you know what, if I don’t do it, I don’t want to regret it.’”

While Nault has kept in shape since what she thought was her last match in November, getting back into training mode is a challenge, if a welcome one.

“Being able to get the feel of the ball, it takes a while to come back,” said Nault, who noted that the speed of the women’s game has evolved over the years. “At the same time, you get back on the field and instinct just starts kicking in and it just takes you. As long as you still love it, everything falls into place.”

According to Tancredi, who has 124 appearances and 27 goals under her belt, the team itself has evolved over the years: the expectations amongst the group are now much higher. The team is now ranked fourth in the world, and the goal is to reach the No. 1 spot—something Matheson admits “wasn’t even on our radar in past years.”

“We work for each other. We’ve always worked for each other,” Tancredi said. “But now it’s demanding more, and the consistency. That’s the mindset we’ve changed.”

That mindset will carry on into Saturday’s friendly.

“It’s a celebration, but it’s legit a hard friendly,” she said. “We have a lot of young girls with a good, hungry mentality, and I think that’s driving us as well.

Coach John Herdman said he expects the Mexican side, ranked 26th in the world, will “come out firing” this weekend. The two teams will face off again on Feb. 7 in a closed-door friendly.

“We’re fourth in the world, we’ve come off another Olympic bronze, and the players want to keep pushing forward and keep showing that that’s where they should be in the world,” he said. “And whether this is a retirement game and a celebration, it’s just about winning football matches.”

Herdman praised the retiring players for the particularly Canadian grit he said they instil in the team, but also for their work in “passing the torch.”

“I know they’ll be saying a few things, you know, leaving that shirt behind and making sure these kids carry it on the right way,” he said. “I don’t think you’ll replace what they’ve got. It’s a new generation of player who’ve got completely different experiences. So we’ve got to adapt, or we die as a team.”

For Nault, there’s no doubt this team is stronger than it’s ever been.

“The girls that have stepped in, the young ones that have been on the team now, if I think about Ashley Lawrence, Jessie Fleming, Kadeisha Buchanan, those girls, they’re already such great players,” she said. “And they just bring something different—like this little flair. They’re not afraid. They just go.”

While Tancredi, Wilkinson and Nault are marking the end of their playing careers, they won’t be leaving the game behind entirely. Tancredi, who works as a chiropractor in Vancouver, hopes to join the national team staff, while Wilkinson is pursuing a career in coaching. Nault’s ties to the game will be less formal, though she’s already started coaching young girls back home. The hope of leaving a legacy, she said, was always about making an impact on would-be players.

“We just wanted to inspire the next generation of little girls to be like, ‘Yes, I want to be on the national team one day,’” she said. “I think we’ve done that.”

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