Pan Ams a starting point for young Canadians

The Canadian women fell short of their quest to earn a medal at the Pan Am Games, falling to Mexico in a game that saw the Canadians struggle with creating quality chances.

It all started on July 11. That was the beginning of a journey for a young Canadian women’s side at the Pan Am Games that featured ups, downs, plenty of learning experiences and now, ends on a bittersweet note.

However, there’s more to focus on than just the team’s fourth place finish and the Reds’ bronze-medal match loss to Mexico on Friday. For some players, it’s the start of the road to an eventual spot on the senior squad or a trip to next year’s Olympics in Rio.

While the Canadians are surely disappointed at not winning a medal, they’ll take valuable lessons from this tournament to help them as their careers progress, whether it’s in the national program, in college or the pro ranks.

Here are my three takeaways from this game, which ended in a 2-1 loss for Canada.

Tale of two halves

The foreshadowing of the first half came early, as goalkeeper Stephanie Labbe was forced to make a number of crucial saves in the opening 10 minutes. The Canadians seemed to be flat-footed and defended in a reactive manner, rather than anticipating the play of the Mexicans.

As a result, it cost them the opening goal. After a Canadian corner kick went virtually untouched by the Reds, Monica Ocampo grabbed the loose ball, barrelled down the pitch, won a footrace versus fullback Kinley McNicoll and beat Labbe. The other defenders were still deep in Mexico’s third of the pitch and appeared to be caught off guard by Ocampo’s counterattack.

That reactive habit also snuck into their offensive play during the opening 45, as they were often waiting for the ball to come to them, especially when service was provided into the 18-yard box. The Canadians were seemingly watching, instead of looking to get a touch. Many seemed to be too tentative to take charge and demand the ball. You can chalk that up to inexperience or being afraid to make a mistake. It all goes back to that famous saying by Wayne Gretzky, “You miss 100 percent of the shots you don’t take.”

Second half proves to be a nail-biter

Janine Beckie’s well-taken free kick in the 61st minute, which so unkindly went off the crossbar, was the personification of the team’s scoring woes over the past four matches. The ball seemed to make its way to the goal in slow motion and take that frustrating ping off the woodwork, much to the dismay of the squad and fans in Hamilton.

Even without Kadeisha Buchanan, who was subbed off at the half, Canada pushed forward. As the seconds ticked away, their confidence grew across the pitch. The service especially improved from the fullbacks, who worked hard to be responsible in their third, while trying to create something in Mexico’s end.

Canada was awarded a late penalty, which Jessie Fleming converted to gave her side a chance with only minutes left on the clock. The spectators were on their feet, chanting “Canada! Canada!” but there just wasn’t enough time to get the equalizer. This all raises the question: what if Beckie’s free kick went in? Unfortunately, we’ll never know.

Starting point for this group

This set of players hadn’t been together for very long prior to the start of the tournament, only a few days in fact. Four of them came straight from the FIFA Women’s World Cup, while the majority joined from their respective clubs in Canada, the U.S. and Europe. As a result, the cohesion just wasn’t there. When you combine that with an average age of 21, it’s tough to set an honest expectation.

The coaching staff’s number one goal going into the Pan Am Games was to get these youngsters some experience on the international stage. They did just that, facing off against Brazil, Colombia and Costa Rica, who were coming off competing at the World Cup.

It also gave the coaches a gauge of what the future holds with the under-17 and under-20 teams, who certainly have solid talent with the likes of Gabrielle Carle, Sarah Kinzner and Marie Levasseur.

The tournament also gave Canadians a better look at Beckie, who was easily the team’s MVP. Creative, poised and always involved, the 20-year-old who plays her college ball at Texas Tech is a difference maker every time she’s on the field. She had a lot to prove going into the Pan Ams, given her late cut from the World Cup roster. Safe to say, she proved a point.

It’s also important to recognize captain Labbe. She was the oldest player of this group and had the unique task of leading the youngsters. Her duties were crucial for her own development within the senior squad.

So, what’s next for this set of players? A number will rejoin their professional clubs, while others gear up for their NCAA seasons. With no friendlies or camps set yet for the senior team this fall, we can look ahead to the 2016 CONCACAF Women’s Olympic Qualifying Championship in late January, as well as the 2016 FIFA U-20 Women’s World Cup.

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