Going into the 2023 World Cup, there was a lot of talk about how much the women’s game has evolved.
On the evidence of two weeks of play, that’s been proven true. There is a gulf opening between the teams who’ve levelled up in terms of skill and those who haven’t. Canada is on the wrong side of it.
On Monday, they were given a lesson in the new soccer by co-host Australia. The result was a 4-0 defeat that might as well have been 40-0. Canada becomes the first Olympic champion to be knocked out of the opening round of the following World Cup.
After it was over, an interviewer asked retiring Canadian veteran Sophie Schmidt how it felt to lose that way.
“We’re shook,” Schmidt said.
That’s a good start. For the program’s sake, more shaking will be required.
What did the Australian players do that Canada’s didn’t? They moved the ball as soon as they received it. When they didn’t have the ball, they all ran to places it was likely to end up. When they had a direct line to goal, they took it.
This is basic stuff, but the Canadians lacked either the will or the personnel to manage it. Australia repeatedly carved them on the flanks, and Canada could not fill those gaps. Whenever the ball got anywhere near the Canadian goal, it turned into a Benny Hill skit.
The third Australian goal in the 58th minute was a good example. Australia’s Caitlin Foord came screaming in off the wing. Three Canadians intercepted her, which was not the same as stopping her. The ball was floated through them to Mary Fowler, standing inexplicably alone in the Canadian goalmouth. She tapped it off the post and in.
Fowler didn’t celebrate. Instead, she swivelled around, looking for an offside flag. Surely, a goal that easy could not be legal? And yet.
Game over, but a half-hour of torture still to come.
For most of that time, the product on the field had grown so depressing that the TSN crew calling the game drifted into the Bermuda Triangle of live broadcasting – ‘Whither soccer in this country?’
Currently, it’s looking in need of a serious rethink.
This isn’t about a result. Things go badly wrong for otherwise good teams in big tournaments every once in a while. What matters is how you lost.
Canada scored one goal in three games (the own goal vs. Ireland doesn’t count). It couldn’t reliably break down defences or impose itself in the middle of the field. It couldn’t stop anyone from getting in behind it and causing havoc.
Whenever the pace got above a jog, it looked lost. In every one of their games, it made wholesale substitutions at the break.
Halftime is meant to be a pit stop. You pull off a tire and replace it with a fresher one. You don’t start tearing down the car and hoping the new one goes in a straight line.
Doing this once isn’t great. Doing it over and over again is a fatal flaw.
At some point in a tournament, a team should know what it is dealing with and has made adjustments between matches so that repeated roster overhauls aren’t required. Canada never got there.
In that sense, the Canadian team didn’t arrive in Australia. A bunch of Canadian players were in the country, but the team was a never-ending work in progress.
That’s a fixable problem. Not easily so, but with the proper application of ruthlessness, it can be done. The other problem isn’t as straightforward.
What this World Cup is also demonstrating is that teams with stars win. America, Japan, Sweden and England have a bunch of big-game performers. They are thriving.
Australia has arguably the best player in the women’s game – Sam Kerr. Kerr’s missed every game so far with a calf injury. Had Australia lost, that was its excuse.
Instead, it found new stars. On Monday, it was Real Madrid winger Hayley Raso. She scored the first two. That was more than enough to put Canada away.
If you judged it purely from the press-conference soundtrack the team routinely plays, Christine Sinclair is still Canada’s biggest star.
Except she’s not. Sinclair, 40, is veteran ballast and a link to the glorious past. But Canada continues to act like she’ll save it in the end. On Monday, she started the game, was ineffective and became one of many halftime substitutions.
Afterward, Sinclair told sideline reporter Claire Hanna this was “probably” her last World Cup.
Later, she said, “This, for me, is a wake-up call. … A wake-up call for our federation.”
Since Canada Soccer is involved here, everything comes back to money. But the federation doesn’t score goals. Only stars do that.
So before the senior team wanders off on a tangent about youth development funding, maybe it should put identifying the next Sinclair on its immediate to-do list. Because the current Sinclair can’t be Canada’s security blanket any more.
There were hints of possibility in the final minutes against Australia – just-turned-pro 18-year-old Olivia Smith. But that’s an extremely tough ask for a very young player.
Before it can start sorting its tactical issues, Canada has to decide what it is. Is it a win-right-now world power driven by deep experience? Or is it more of a wild card throwing new faces out there and seeing what they can do?
In Australia, there was no evidence of the former, as well as no sign anyone is willing to accept that and move on to the latter. This is a team with an identity crisis.
The next test is less than a year away – the Paris Olympics.
Canada is still more than good enough to qualify. Its players will have the halo of a gold medal on them when the competition begins. And – manager Bev Priestman’s go-to line – anything is possible in tournament soccer.
But the evidence of your eyes suggests that what you just saw is what you’re going to get. That other elite soccer nations haven’t just passed Canada as currently constructed. They’ve lapped them. Even if no one wants to say the words out loud, that makes this a rebuilding team.
So the year leading into the Summer Games will turn on a question – will Canada choose to change, or would it prefer the game makes that choice for it?
The Globe and Mail, July 31, 2023