Canada at Rio 2016: Five things that stood out

Team Canada poses after beating Brazil to win the bronze medal. (Nelson Antoine/AP)

The Canadian women’s soccer team captured the bronze medal at the 2016 Rio Olympics in less than two and a half weeks.

However, four years of planning and preparation by both the coaching staff and players went into reaching the podium for a second consecutive time. The journey wasn’t an easy one, but the final product showed that the Canadian women’s program is in good hands and that there’s a strong pipeline of players being developed.

Here are my five takeaways from Canada’s performance at Rio 2016:

John Herdman’s four year plan
The story of how this roster came together isn’t a simple one. There were a number of bumps in the road en route to Brazil, including injuries, positional experiments and many residency camps along the way.

Nichelle Prince and Shelina Zadorsky were first called into the senior team in early 2013. While they both played a couple of friendlies, it would take over two and a half years until they became mainstays. Allysha Chapman returned to the Canadian fold in 2014 after stints overseas and wondering for almost a decade if she would have a chance on the national stage again.

Janine Beckie used the heartache of being a late cut from the 2015 FIFA Women’s World Cup team as motivation to turn into one of Canada’s strongest scoring threats only a year later.

Just six players from the 2012 Olympic roster returned in Brazil, and some of them had issues to overcome. Melissa Tancredi left for a period of time to concentrate on her studies, while Diana Matheson suffered a number of injuries leading up to the Women’s World Cup.

Canada also had to move on from a core group of veterans who helped the Reds capture bronze four years ago. None of those roster decisions were easy for coach John Herdman, who forged ahead with his plan of blending youth and experience.

He said something very poignant ahead of the knockout stage in Rio, explaining how different the 2012 and 2016 squads were—he spoke fondly of his London group, recognizing they achieved their success through team spirit and culture. However, with this year’s team, he stated it was a culmination of four years of putting systems in place, working on different strategies and giving the players tournament experience to see what they could do.

Stephanie Labbe leaves her mark
With Karina LeBlanc’s retirement last summer and an injury to Erin McLeod earlier this year, Stephanie Labbe was thrust into the starting goalkeeper’s job without having a chance to catch her breath. Although she had plenty of experience playing professionally in Europe, this was the first time the 29-year-old was given the full reins of the national side.

The team fed off of her inspired play in Brazil. She was confident in goal, and that helped moti-vate those in front of her. She earned two clean sheets over the five matches she started, one of them coming against France, ranked No. 3 in the world. In the dying minutes versus Brazil in the bronze medal match, she kept her composure as the hosts began to apply pressure in search of the equalizer.

Her standout moment, though, came at the start of the tournament versus Australia. It wasn’t a save she made. Instead, it was how she comforted Zadorsky when the defender was sent off in the 19th minute. When the referee showed Zadorsky the red card, Labbe was quick to tell her teammate it was okay. Canada went on to win the match with 10 players on the field and that victory gave them a sense of confidence they displayed for the rest of the tournament.

Veterans relish leadership roles
You don’t have to look further than Tancredi’s two-goal performance against Germany in the group stage to see how seriously the veterans took their leadership roles. With Christine Sinclair rested, Tancredi was given the captain’s arm band and not only did she lead the way on the score sheet with her best performance since the 2012 Olympic run, the 34-year-old was also tremen-dous in the defensive end.

Desiree Scott worked tirelessly throughout the tournament as the central defensive midfielder. Rhian Wilkinson offered her experience on the back line, whether it was on the pitch or the bench. Matheson and Sophie Schmidt provided an added spark in the midfield.

And really, what else can be said about Sinclair? She scored the game winning goal in the bronze medal match in what was her 250th appearance for Canada.

Keeping up with the world’s best
Herdman has long talked about beating the world’s “tier one” teams. In the span of 16 days, Canada beat four nations ranked in the top 10 by FIFA: Germany, France, Brazil and Australia. That is no small feat. To consistently perform well against the best in the world is something Canada has struggled to do.

This year, Canada defeated Brazil three times in three different settings (Algarve Cup final, June friendly in Ottawa, and at the Olympics) and beat them in Brazil for the first time. The Games marked the Reds’ first ever win against the Germans. Canada also kept France at bay in the quar-terfinals, the same team that was looking for revenge from the bronze medal game in 2012.

Passing the torch
Canada’s performance in Brazil signified a passing of the torch. Ashley Lawrence was a stand-out, displaying her versatility game in and out. Jessie Fleming showed tremendous growth in just a span of a year and is becoming one of the strongest playmakers the women’s program has de-veloped.

On the world’s biggest stage in the biggest game of her young career, 17-year-old Deanne Rose was instrumental versus Brazil in the bronze medal meeting, while Nichelle Prince showed that Canada has depth at the striker position.

Beckie showed the world that once all is said and done, she’ll be one of the team’s prolific scor-ers, and how she’s learned from one of the best ever in Sinclair.

Rebecca Quinn stepped up to fill in seamlessly on the back line when needed and has the tools not only to be a solid defender, but a capable midfielder.

Both Zadorsky and Kadeisha Buchanan rebounded into solid form after foul trouble.

For this group of youngsters to experience the success they did in Brazil only bodes well for their respective careers and the future of this program.

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