At the very last moment, Canada rescues a glorious Olympic bronze

sinclair-Ed Kaiser-Postmedia

I swear, this photo is going to make me cry. Courtesy Ed Kaiser/Postmedia

When it looked like all the joy had gone, the Canadian national women’s team got a win that will light up soccer in the country for years to come.

In this Olympic tournament. Canada have shone when they are confident and full of belief, moving the ball from the back and carrying on in the face of adversity. This was not one of those times.

It was hoped that this bronze-medal match against France would be more promising than the last time they met: a devastating 4-0 loss in the 2011 Women’s World Cup. That got more intense after the team got so close to silver against the US, drawing attention across the country.

But those prospects looked really bleak in the first half. Playing their fourth game in ten days, Canada were exhausted by being constantly on the back foot. Distribution is so key in the Canadian game; even if chances aren’t coming together, getting the ball through midfield and holding possession takes pressure off the defense. But by the closing stages of the half, Canada were too tired to get the ball forward, beyond hoofing it to a single player, then being easily closed down without any support. This made it harder on the defense, who had even more pressure heaped upon them.

There was no transformative change at the half-time interval. France became more dangerous, turning offensive possession into lethal, lethal chances. There were almost too many to count. Four players had four shots or more, which what all of Canada together were able to put together. Substitute Eugenie Le Sommer got five in thirty minutes. A shot hit the crossbar, a shot hit the goal post, and then France had four consecutive shots from around 20 yards that sailed just wide over the course 12 minutes. Lauren Sesselmann, trying to win the ball on the ground, conceded an indirect free kick in the area by seizing the ball between her knees and trying to walk away with it, which was only funny because it was terrifying and nothing came of it. Camille Abily cannot imagine what might have been.

Canada did just not look like they could create anything. They had heroic defensive performances from Erin McLeod and Desiree Scott, the former who was incredibly organized on balls coming into the area, the latter who cleared a ball off the line with ten minutes left. But it wasn’t a cautious, confident game. Canada were desperate. We did not see the strength from players that were defensive dynamos in earlier games, and it’s their service that powers the offensive-minded Sinclair and Tancredi. It is absolutely amazing to think that with fifteen minutes left, Canada trailed 18-2 in shots and yet only 53-47% in possession, because it clashes so fiercely with their inability to close down and clear the ball.

Christine Sinclair, for her part, did her best as a provider, getting up the midfield and sending balls forward, but Canada just had nothing going forward to hold up the ball once it got there. With ten minutes left, it became as difficult to see them creating anything as it was to see them being able to run from France for another thirty minutes.

And then.

I have spoken earlier about Canada’s belief being their greatest power. I hoped desperately that it would return at the half, and it didn’t. But somehow, in the very last minute of regular time, something changed. All of a sudden, the ball got forward. Canada were attacking from wide areas. Christine Sinclair was fouled just outside the box, and Diana Matheson’s free kick was directed just wide by Kaylyn Kyle. It seemed as though that would be that, and then Canada returned for another try.

Take a look at it. Sesselmann at halfway lays it off for Schmidt in the centre, who carries it up the field and lays a perfectly weighted slow-rolling ball back for the defender wide on the left. Sinclair bails out Sesselmann, who has got Corine Franco hot on her heels. (If Franco had got even a bit further forward to touch Schmidt’s pass, she could have ended it all early.) Sinclair plays it around the edge of the area to Schmidt. Schmidt is dispossessed and it dribbles out to Matheson at thirty yards. Matheson returns it, and Schmidt’s deflected shot falls right back to Canada’s third-most capped player, now wide-open on the right. She buries it with her first touch.

It was Canada’s only shot on target in the game. It was Matheson’s only goal in the tournament. It was the only one that mattered.

It is so appropriate that this team, with inexhaustible chemistry and unbreakable friendship, succeeded ultimately through a movement of four players, three of which sent and received passes from each other. It was so appropriate that the goal came from ever-reliable Matheson. It was so appropriate that she was supplied by Schmidt, who replaced her in this game as the country’s record holder for consecutive appearences. It was so appropriate that this team, disappointed so thoroughly at the last possible moment in the semifinal, mustered their efforts at that exact moment in this game.

It is Canada’s only medal in team sports (CTV have been using the metric of traditional team sports, whose methodology I cannot readily explain) in 76 years. It is Canada’s only medal in soccer since Galt FC won men’s gold in 1904. It, and the WNT’s Pan-Am Games win in 2011, are the only serious hardware for Canada in 12 years, and the only serious hardware in a non-regional tournament since that Olympic win 98 years ago.

The Canadian national women’s team have marked their place in history and the hearts of Canadians across the country, who are offering their unreserved jubilation at this success in Coventry. They did not dominate. They did not blind anyone with silky skills.

But they believed, and so they won none the less. And they have taken their place among the world’s best as a result.

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Six thoughts on the Whitecaps’ Year Without Canadians


This match on against Chicago a year ago was the last time Teibert–or any other Canadian–has been seen in a Whitecaps uniform on an MLS pitch. Photo courtesy Vancouver Whitecaps FC/flickr

It has been a year since the Vancouver Whitecaps have played a Canadian.

On August 7, 2011, Russell Teibert was subbed on in the 56th minute for Alain Rochat in a 4-2 win over Chicago. Since then, in 38 first team games, not even a single minute has gone to a Canadian international player. This year, the only players, other than the mandatory three Canadians on the Whitecaps roster, that received zero minutes are the third-string goalkeeper and Greg Klazura.

This has been a sensitive subject with Whitecaps fans, who are often sick of hearing about the topic and irascible about the charge that the franchise doesn’t develop Canadians, which, clearly, it does, with strong players at the youth and women’s level and alum on the men’s team. (The argument that Alain Rochat, Canadian-born but capped for the Swiss national team, should count is invalid. If Jacob Lensky signs, that too will be weak. I mean, even Joe Cannon’s eligible for a Canada cap if both sides wanted it. But it’s probably not happening.)

There was a strong connection between the national program and the Whitecaps when the team was in NASL, and it’s mainly gone missing in MLS despite promises that a franchise for the Caps would help transform the program. It’s the elephant in the room. But it’s a little bit more complex than just Canadian teams ought to play Canadians (although that’s not necessarily false), so let’s work through it. I’ll give three reasons why it’s something that’s okay to live with at the moment, and then three why it’s awful.

Why it’s okay

1. They’re trying

The argument for the lack of Canadians from the Whitecaps as a club is perennially that they are working to develop suitable subjects. Pioneering the Residence academy structure has helped, and the strong showing of the club in this year’s USSDA Academy playoffs has proven that there are great prospects like Bryce Alderson and Ben Fisk on their way up. This is a long and painful process, so it’s important not to expect instant results.

2. Can you think of any?

With the exception of any past-or-present Vancouver Whitecaps, which great Canadian players the club can go and get that can make an immediate positive impact in the squad? There are a bunch of sort of okay players bouncing around North America that can’t really make the first-team any more (the Kevin Harmses of the world), the great Canadians in MLS are securely with teams and the ones in Europe are mostly getting better opportunities. Toronto’s experiment with hauling in Julian de Guzman and Dwayne de Rosario ended in tears, so why would it work any better for the Caps?

3. It’s working right now

This is the guiltiest reason of all, of course, but the Whitecaps are playing well right now. There was good squad composition through the beginning of the year, and then after the roster shakeup there is still a great first XI. Nobody else will sympathise with Whitecaps fans on this, especially not Toronto fans that sat through the years starting 2007 when only Canadians counted as domestics. Which brings us to

Why it’s not okay

1. They changed the rules for this

The point of MLS as a league initially was to develop players for the US national team program; the product would be iffy at first, as the demands for players were much larger than the player pool, but it would get better. This is what Toronto was in for. Until the Whitecaps came in to the league, all but 13 of Toronto’s 30 players had to be Canadian. Part of the negotiation necessary to accommodate Vancouver’s club-based academy structure included making US players count as domestics in Canada, and requiring Canadian teams to only carry three truly domestic players.

This wouldn’t be a problem if the Caps weren’t using all three spots on players that haven’t got even a whiff of playing time in the first team. The idea that Caleb Clarke or Bryce Alderson are first-team players (or that Phillipe Davies was) is a farce, because Martin Rennie wouldn’t ever consider putting them on the field. The Whitecaps, in part, helped negotiate the Canadian quota down to a number where they would never have to play them if they don’t want to; and on current evidence, it seems they would rather work with a shorter bench than find players for those spots they would be able to use.

2. Terry Dunfield

I won’t tarry too long here, but it bears saying. Dunfield wasn’t great. But he wasn’t awful, and he was a Canadian, and Tommy Soehn sent him away for nothing. He just beat Julian de Guzman in a competition for places in Toronto. The next time the Whitecaps say they can’t find any good Canadians right now, think of the one they tossed out on a whim.

3. Do they think they’re not good enough?

The Whitecaps first team right now is a lovely cornucopia of nationalities that bends both the mind and the international player rule. There are a lot of great players there! There are a lot of okay players. In substitution situations, they are preferred to Russell Teibert every single time. Andy O’Brian, who is Irish, and Brazilian Tiago Ulisses were just brought in to be okay players. And it seems like the team prefers them not to be Canadian.

This isn’t like, some weird accusation of racism or something! The fact is that what you battle in the growth of a program is stereotypes and prejudice. Players like Paul Pechisolido and Paul Stalteri were evidence that Canadians could do well in England. Canadians need to prove they can earn their keep in a top flight. When the Whitecaps say “we want Canadians, we just want to develop them ourselves”, that might translate to an opinion that Canada has not produced any MLS players worth getting, and we have to make them ourselves to trust them. That’s the problem.

There are clubs where the coaching staff believe that Canadians aren’t up to snuff and can’t compete, and the battle is convincing them that they are wrong. It’s just bitter that the Whitecaps are one of those clubs.

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Why the Canada-USA loss hurts so bad


This hurts. It’s a special kind of sporting hurt.

It calls up all the old scars. Watching the 6-1 Montreal loss that put the Whitecaps out of the 2009 Voyageurs Cup. Realizing that Spurs had been pipped out of the Champion’s League in 2005, and again in 2012. Worse than the overtime goal that sank the Canucks in the 2004 playoffs, and the 90th-minute goal that ended UBC’s bid to return to the CIS national soccer tournament, and the dumb horror of watching Calgary pound the Thunderbirds to pulp in the football playoffs.

And the late disallowed goal that gave the United States a win over Canada in the 2007 Gold Cup.

Canadians (and Americans) got invested in the Olympic semifinal against the US. Not just the people who always care about soccer, but everyone! Everyone felt like they were tuned in. And afterwards, especially on the internet, we have been bitter and sore. (We were so mad about it that we stressed out Samuel L. Jackson at the Olympics, which as petulant on our parts as keying Santa Claus’ sled.)

Most American fans have been really gracious, although every story on this topic has at least one comment telling people to stop whining. There are also corners of the internet that consider it disgraceful that Canadian players are talking publicly about being robbed due to how often physical Canadian play in the box wasn’t called, and gifs have already been made of an incident I missed where Melissa Tancredi was treading on a player’s head.

I already wrote a match recap, but I’m still sitting here feeling empty hours after, so I feel like I’m just going to explain what’s so awful about it.

Moments like today’s game are the pinnacle of a Canadian soccer fan. Canada forever seems on the other side of an invisible barrier–for the men, it is qualifying for a major tournament, and for both sides it is defeating elite teams–that leads to constant disappointment, year after year. It leads to isolation, where the population who doesn’t know soccer knows only that Canadians aren’t as good at it, and half of the population that does has decided Canada aren’t worthy of support and pine after a European team instead. Almost every time, all we have is hope, and we lose anyways, and then we get ready to hope for the next one.

And then there are a few occasions where it looks like this is the one. This is the time we make the final. This is the time we beat the States. Atiba Hutchinson is one-on-one with the keeper. Christine Sinclair has scored in the 73rd minute, and I think it’s going to fucking happen.

And then a goal kick turns into a free kick inside the box. Why do we focus on this call? Americans tend to speak in muted conciliatory tones about these sorts of things, acknowledging we feel wronged but not really convinced that they should feel bad about it. In a poorly reffed game where both sides were vicious to each other and didn’t get called, in a game where the real heartbreak was the last minute header, why do Canadians speak in only barely-joking tones about the game being rigged because of that call? Why do the players mention the referee before they mention the other team, and why did Christine Sinclair say she felt like she let the country down after putting in one of the finest performances anyone’s made in the uniform?

Because we thought we had it. Because the header was clean, we will not have the chance of penalties, because the US will go on to the final and win (or not), because it will keep me awake nights wondering what it would have been like–for Canada, for the players, for the game, for my joy as a sports fan–if we could have done it just this once, if only that weird awful call hadn’t have happened. Because we don’t know what more Canada can do than it did this time, and it feels like it will never get better.

It will, of course, get better with time, like any sporting hurt. They did really well, and I’m really proud of every one of them. On Thursday, I will wake up at 5 AM, and hopefully Canada wins a medal, and if they do people will wake up hours later and think “Hey, that was neat,” and put it in the same mental drawer as the synchronized diving and the weightlifting.

But this time, they were watching. Everyone was watching. And we almost pulled it off.

Try as they might, no victory for Canada in pulsating, maddening clash with USA


Photo courtesy AP

Sometimes you do everything you can and you still lose.

There is no doubt that the Canadian women’s national team that have turned out for these Olympics are better by far than the one that showed up for the Women’s World Cup in 2011. They work hard, they work together and they believed wholeheartedly that they could beat a team that bested them twice this year already, and all but three times in history.

But the number-one-ranked team in the world just had too much to offer. Canada held three separate leads against the United States before conceding on a free kick in the 123rd minute in extra time. There were no penalties and no historic win after all, as Canada fell 4-3 at Old Trafford. They will head back to Coventry for the bronze medal match, and the US will go to Wembley for a rematch of the World Cup final against Japan.

There was no shortage of foreboding before this game for Canadians. Every time these teams have met since 2001, Canada have come in as underdogs and tried to pull off a result, and every time the US came out ahead. No matter how good Canada looked against GB, America have shown no sign of weakness.

That’s why it was so astounding in the 22n minute when Christine Sinclair put Canada ahead. The US looked more dangerous early on, so Sinclair’s goal was the first indication that Canada might have a chance to contend. A product of great build-up play in the midfield, it was a great ball forward by Marie-Eve Nault to Tancredi that gave Sinclair the chance. She pulled right until she had an opening, and she buried it.

For the longest time the goal and the 1-0 scoreline stood. The energy of this game is such that there weren’t a lot of particularly direct chances; Erin McLeod had a lot more to contend with and the US made about 11 more shots than hit the goal, but it was playmaking that tested the most nerves. Canada were strong defensively, depending on a strong performance from Sophie Schmidt, a rock on the backline, and were able to ride it out till halftime.

And then, that goddamn second half. Megan Rapinoe punished poor organization to draw level for the US on a corner kick. An Olimpico (a direct goal from a corner kick) at the Olympics, it was the lack of a defender on the near post that saw the ball slide through Schmidt’s legs and in.

There was nothing like deflation in the response. Canada retained a decent share of possession, although neither team had the ball long without having it torn away by the other. Then on the 67th minute, a clearance attempt bounced back to the Canadian midfield, and after a few tests, Nault was able again to lift the ball down the left wing to Tancredi, who was able to cross in while the US defense was still on the run. Sinclair again was on hand to send a header just past Hope Solo’s glove on the right side.

The US were back to pressure McLeod immediately after conceding. The Americans benefit from solid organization and distribution, and this is how they kept it up in the immediate minutes after dropping it. The movement of the goal started from the midfield, with a long pass from Kelley O’Hara fifty yards down the left sideline finding Rapinoe just outside the right corner of the area. It settled flat at her feet, and she cut all the way across goal to bounce it in off the right goalpost, three minutes after the last goal.

And them, as soon as that happened, it whipsawed back the other way; on a Canada corner kick, somehow the movement flowed away from Sinclair at the same time as the ball came to her head. Two different US defenders tried to jump to head it–one away from her, one towards her–and ran into each other, and just like that the Canadian captain had a hat trick, giving her one more career goal than American talisman Abby Wambach. With 74 minutes left, if Canada could just hold on, they might be actually able to hold on and make it past the United States.

It’s hard to explain what happened next. It looked like McLeod handled outside the area at first, but what really took place was that on a goal kick, the Canadian keeper opted to punt the ball rather than place it and took eight seconds rather than six. Keepers are only allowed to hold for six, and so the referee called an automatic indirect free kick inside the area for delay of game, regardless of the fact that the play didn’t hold any of the usual cynicism of timewasting.

For a second, it looked like Canada had escaped the dangerous free kick, but then terror swept in as it became clear that the ball hit Nault’s arm. It was a penalty, and Wambach drew back even with Sinclair and Canada at 3-3. It’s this that have the Canadian fans the angriest. (We were rude on Twitter to Samuel L. Jackson!) The game’s refereeing was spotty throughout the game, but it was spotty in both directions. Rapinoe alone had two ball-to-arm scenarios that weren’t called, but then again Canada just flattened Wambach in the box a few times with no call.

It will not be the first time a team playing as the away team in Old Trafford will look skyward after conceding a penalty. It will not be the last time people say that the team that stepped up to take have the luck of champions.

But they had more than that. In extra time, both teams played a little surer and a little safer than they did before. But the Americans physically punished the Canadian defense and ground them down throughout the extra periods, and at the end of the day Alex Morgan was too far open and too ready to take the header. It wasn’t a referee that ended it, but a wide play and an open header.

The remaining half-minute was a formality. Unbelievably, frustratingly, undeniably, the US did it. That’s the maddening part of soccer; you could never explain exactly how Canada led three times and yet this game just became another loss on the piles of losses to the Americans except that the US were crazy, deadly good.

But Canada is too, and they aren’t done quite yet. The country is watching now (they won’t be watching-watching, though, as the game is at 5 AM on Thursday morning) and a bronze medal would be a way to tell them that Canada belonged here, that this is a sport we can win things in.

The match is in Coventry, a new home-away-from-home for Canada, against the French. It’s terrifying because of the nightmare that was the 4-0 loss in the group stages of the World Cup last year.

But Canada has come far since then.

Stats after the jump.

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Clinical performance against Brits sends Canada women to quarterfinal test


Photo courtesy Armando Franca/AP

They showed they could be clinical, and that’s all-important coming into the semifinal.

Making their only Olympics quarterfinal appearance, the Canadian women’s soccer team powered past Great Britain 2-0 to secure a spot in the semis against the USA at Old Trafford. The fact that GB were mostly composed of players from England, a squad ranked two spots below Canada, lent some hope ahead of the game, but nobody could have predicted the dominant performance by Canada in Coventry.

In short, Canada played like dominant overdogs, like they never doubted for a moment they could knock the first-and possibly last-ever Team GB out with style. Both goals came from set pieces, which shows the strength of Canada’s preparation and the inability of GB to find a solution for them. Jonelle Filigno’s goal was glorious, a half-volley that floated up into the corner and put Canada ahead early; Christine Sinclair’s free-kick stunner only ranks lower because the GB defense was so disorganized.

The second half was not an offensive masterpiece for Canada, but a defensive one; playing physical, organized soccer, Les Rouges turned away wave after wave of attack from GB and were able to defend in some sticky situations. But the mental battle was won because despite what Britain saw as a coming-out party for the women’s game (because they were doing well), despite their professional league and despite the fact that commentators on both sides of the pond saw this game as a formality, Britain were losing 2-0 and looked to find no way back.

So now Canada is off to Old Trafford, to face an enemy as familiar as they are frustrating for Canada. There are lessons here: The first is to keep playing like they did Friday. They were organized, they were confident, and the believed utterly that they had the ability to beat GB. The second is to react to adversity better than GB did. The US are powerful and will be better organized in defense and more dangerous in attack. If Canada drop behind, they need to keep their heads about them and continue to believe they can find success.

The deck is stacked against Canada, as they’ve lost to the US twice lately and indeed have only ever beat them three times ever. But Canada can afford to play like they have nothing to lose, as a loss doesn’t mean elimination but dropping into the bronze-medal match, where victory would be a fine result. And they must, because they certainly have something to lose: If they are embarrassed here, they will have a hard time pulling themselves together for the bronze match, especially if it’s against France, who shellacked them 4-0 in the 2011 Women’s World Cup.

It’s 90 minutes. Keep it close and hold well enough, and maybe you can eke it to extra time and penalties, and from there it’s a lottery where the winners get a guaranteed medal and a trip to Wembley.

Give it a shot.