It was tough, tight and nerve-wracking on the pitch, but a 2-0 shutout on the scoresheet that puts Canada in a power position in Group F.
The current incarnation of the Canadian women’s soccer team has been empowered by the 2012 Olympic bronze medal win, but it’s a newer, less predictable squad that can’t be judged on those results. Lose flatly against Brazil in a friendly on a Saturday, hold them off long enough to get the win the next Tuesday. So the fate of Les Rouges in the opening match of the 2016 Olympics against 5th-ranked Australia was really anyone’s guess for about the first 20 seconds.
Christine Sinclair used veteran experience to catch Australia before they even got on their bikes, burning Alanna Kennedy and Laura Alleway with ease before setting up Janine Beckie for the fastest goal in Olympic women’s history. The game’s first minutes are rarely as important as their last minutes, but this squad needed to define what kind of Team Canada it was immediately.
What’s funny about the game’s first twenty minutes is how they defined the game but were mostly separated from its bulk by the red card to Shelina Zadorsky. The same exuberance that Canada showed in its last friendly against France helped it establish itself early on and it contributed to the foul that saw Canada go deservingly down to 10 players.
But although 4-4-1 is certainly not the formation head coach John Herdman anticipated before the game, the switch answered questions and brought results; Melissa Tancredi, a veteran of 2012 with a diminished role this year, made way like a good soldier for Rebecca Quinn. Her energetic play fit into the defense without missing a beat. It’s the defensive game that maybe gives the team its identity and purpose; a mix of young players and tough veterans scrapping it out as hard as they can to keep the team in the game and provide for the forwards.
Or in this match, just one forward. A transcendent forward in Sinclair whose service helped put Canada in front and who took advantage of Jessie Fleming’s long ball to put Australia away single-handedly. Her touch nudging the ball past rushing Aussie keeper Lydia Williams in midfield was perfect, just enough to leave Williams in the dust and give herself enough time before Lisa De Vanna arrived to send a loping chipped ball through the empty penalty area and into the goal.
Canada were lucky here. They did well after the ejection, but had Australia scored on the resulting free kick, it would have been over. The moments when Steph Labbé was on the deck with a leg cramp brought hearts into mouths. Beckie’s missed penalty in the second half could have been a costly missed opportunity. But with Australia in the middle ground of difficulty between Germany and Zimbabwe, they have got all three of the group stage’s most vital points and they were forced to fight together against the odds. Not a bad way to establish yourselves.