Canada starts strong at Rio 2016 with terrifying and terrific win

Christine Sinclair collapsed after her 80th minute goal metres from where she left Australia's Lisa De Vanna flat on the turf. (Rovena Rosa/Agência Brasil)

Christine Sinclair collapsed after her 80th minute goal metres from where she left Australia’s Lisa De Vanna flat on the turf. (Rovena Rosa/Agência Brasil)

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.

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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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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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Canada refuses to lose against Sweden and earns its place in the quarterfinal


Christine Sinclair and Melissa Tancredi connected on both of Canada’s goals in a 2-2 draw with Sweden. Photo courtesy AP

Canada did not break in impossible circumstances.

The Canadian national women’s team came back from an early, traumatic deficit to draw 2-2 against Sweden and in the process define the team’s resilient character. It’s a quality they will need if they are to provide a victory against the elite nations in Olympic women’s soccer.

Canada started with pace and threatened with three fine chances, but the game whipsawed from a blank slate to a desperate attempt to get something from nothing in the space of three minutes.

Sweden’s two goals were astounding in that they came so quickly, they came against the run of play and they were so simple: both balls from wide areas, both in the same weak spot that Japan took advantage of, weaker with the absence of the injured defender Emily Zurrer.

The rapid change in fortunes could have been devastating, and I’ve seen teams knocked flat by conceding twice before. But Canada stuck to their game, which focused on ball movement up the pitch, delivering to the area and hoping something happens. This is how Canada had 13 shots, but only 2 on the net. Olympic leading scorer Melissa Tancredi’s goal just before halftime was Canada’s first shot on target.

Sweden’s approach was to apply more of a physical game than Japan did, trying to frustrate the Canadians. And as you might expect from a team defending, they were comprehensively outposessed by Canada, who had them 60-30. But they didn’t close down les Rouges (and Christine Sinclair, specifically) the same way Japan did, and Canada simply created too many chances to be denied.

Sinclair, as well, was sublime. The prolific striker has turned to a provider, using her vision and poise on the ball to create many of Canada’s best chances. This has created the secondary scoring Canada has long desired, but the captain remains crucial.

Her teammates work hard, but create little alone; this was the root of striker Jonelle Filigno’s frustration, who was limited by offside and foul calls until she was replaced by Kaylyn Kyle. Sinclair has been the one to turn sparks into goals, and it was again her cross on Tancredi’s head that earned Canada the valuable point.

The reason why it was valuable is because Canada’s greatest asset is their inexhaustible confidence. Canada could have qualified for the quarterfinals with a loss, depending on other results, but if they were to shamble through to the knockout rounds with only a win against South Africa to their names they would not have anything to bring to the incredible challenge ahead.

Because try as they might, this draw did not break the glass ceiling in women’s soccer that has separated Canada from the elite teams in major tournaments. Qualifying as a third-place team will mean they cannot escape group-winners like the US, GB or Brazil, all three of which pose a sterner test than anything they found here.

But this too seemed impossible, and Canada were able to pull out a result, just to prove that they could. It would be unwise to count them out a second time.

Stats after the jump.

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