MONTREAL – “Job done.”
That was coach John Herdman’s message to the assembled media in the bowels of Olympic Stadium on Monday night following Canada’s 1-1 draw with the Netherlands at the FIFA Women’s World Cup.
The result against the Dutch allowed the Canadians to win Group A and book a spot in the Round of 16 in Vancouver—where it spent most of its pre-tournament preparations—and will play a third-place side from either Group C, D or E.
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“Top of the group, five points, we’re off to the West Coast. This was the plan. We’d love to have nine (points), we’d love to have another three points in the bag. But job done. We’re happy,” Herdman said.
Canada accomplished everything it set out to do so far at the World Cup, and has everything to its advantage in Sunday’s second round match against an as-of-yet undetermined opponent. So why is there an underlying sense of uneasiness about the team’s future at this tournament?
The Olympics were three years ago—an eternity in sports—so let’s not mince words here, or treat this team with kid gloves because of their bronze medal in London.
Simply put, Canada has laboured at this World Cup, and is very lucky to be in the position it now finds itself in.
Five points? It just as easily could have been two had the Reds not been awarded an injury time penalty against China in the opener and had New Zealand converted its penalty attempt. Two goals in three games, and only one from open play—that’s hardly encouraging. An inability to finish things off (see the Netherlands match) is also worrisome.
There’s been good stretches by this Canadian side at times during this World Cup. What there hasn’t been is a complete game performance.
Such was the case Monday night. For the majority of the 90 minutes, the Reds were in control. But the pesky Dutch managed to hang around, thanks largely to the hospitable Canadians not killing off the match. The Netherlands finally found a way to get in behind Canada’s defence and went on an odd-player rush not once but twice in the final 10 minutes. The first time they were wasteful. The second time, Kirsten van de Vin buried her shot past helpless Canadian ‘keeper Erin McLeod.
“When I spoke with them at the end of the game there, I said, ‘Congratulations, we won the group, but we’re making this tough for ourselves.’ That’s what we’ve got to shift in the next few days,” Herdman said.
Indeed. Another goal was badly needed to put the Dutch away, but it never really looked like it was coming. For all of Canada’s defensive prowess—and it has to be said they’ve been very tough to break down and that the brilliant Kadeisha Buchanan has emerged as one of the best central defenders in the women’s game—it struggles to score.
Canada hasn’t netted more than one goal in a game since a 2-0 win over Scotland on March 4, 2015—a stretch of eight consecutive matches. Ashley Lawrence’s goal in the 10th minute against the Dutch was the first at the World Cup by a Canadian player other than Christine Sinclair since 2007.
We all asked the question before the start of this tournament: Where would the goals come from for Canada? This team’s over-reliance for offensive production from Sinclair, who is not the same player she was three years ago, is now coming back to haunt them.
Sinclair has been average at this tournament. Canada has struggled to create scoring opportunities. When it has carved out chances, they’ve gone begging.
There are plenty of examples from the men’s side of teams struggling in the group stage of the World Cup before coming good in the knockout round. Italy in 1982 and again in 1994.
Canada isn’t like those Italian teams. Italy massively underachieved in the first rounds, but they had the quality, skill and depth of talent to overcome their slow starts. Watching Canada’s first three games at this tournament, you can’t help but feel it’s reached its limit—that it doesn’t have much more to give, that there is no other gear to shift into.
Also, Italy had Paolo Rossi (in 1982) and Roberto Baggio (in 1994). They were game-breakers, players of the highest calibre who could influence the game at a moment’s notice with a piece of individual brilliance. In the case of Baggio, he was also the type of star to make their teammates infinitely better.
Where is Canada’s Baggio or Rossi? Where is its game-breaker?
Sinclair used to be that player. But her game has been in decline ever since the London Olympics. She’s not who she once was, and a last minute penalty against China can’t hide that fact.
Maybe Sinclair has more to give. Maybe, as Herdman suggested after the Dutch game, that “her time is coming.” But nothing we’ve seen from the Canadian captain through the first three games offers much hope of a turnaround.
The women’s game is a lot more competitive than it was four years ago. We’ve seen upsets at this tournament, and top sides struggle. The closing of the gap between the elite teams and the second- and third-tier nations has closed significantly. A matchup against a third-place team isn’t the cake walk it was four years ago.
Ultimately, it’s not about the journey and the path taken, but the final port of call. The problem, though, is that Canada’s path to that destination isn’t as easy as it’d like to believe
The job isn’t done. It’s just getting started—and whether Canada is up to the job remains firmly in doubt.