After a narrow 2-1 defeat to the host Germans—in which captain Christine Sinclair shook off a broken nose to score on a world-class free kick—Canada was mercilessly picked apart by France, who announced itself to the women’s soccer world with a 4-0 victory.
The Canadians then slumped out of the tournament with a 1-0 loss to Nigeria, whereupon manager Carolina Morace followed through on a pre-tournament promise to resign upon its conclusion.
The turnaround from World Cup doormats to Olympic medalists in the span of just 12 months has been largely attributed to head coach John Herdman and his staff. Indeed, just months after Herdman was hired in the wake of the 2011 World Cup flameout, Canada stood atop the podium as champions at the Pan-American Games (a tournament that, it’s worth noting, did not include the U.S.)
One of Herdman’s first priorities upon being hired was rebuilding the team psychologically after the World Cup disappointment. He swooped in to work with a team whose core had been through nearly a decade together at that point—the likes of Sinclair, fellow striker Melissa Tancredi, midfielder Diana Matheson, defender Rhian Wilkinson and goalkeepers Erin McLeod and Karina LeBlanc.
The script for redemption played out perfectly at London 2012. Tancredi’s four goals in the group stage pushed Canada into the knockouts; Sinclair’s memorable hat trick nearly saw Canada past their long-time American rivals in the semis; McLeod’s stellar goalkeeping and Matheson’s last-gasp goal gave Canada revenge on the French and a spot on the podium.
Now, with the eyes of the world focused on Canada, and its national-team core set for one last hurrah right in its own backyard, it would appear that the script for triumph is about to be written.
But is it realistic?
Since Herdman took over, Canada has won a little over half of the games it’s played: 37 wins against 10 draws and 21 losses. Notably, though, none of those wins came in the four home friendlies the team booked against Tier I opponents in 2014—Canada managed a draw against the U.S. in Winnipeg before losses to Germany (in Vancouver) and Japan (in Edmonton and Vancouver).
Canada (ranked No. 8 in the world) did post a convincing 1-0 win over England last Friday in its World Cup send-off match in front of nearly 24,000 fans in Hamilton, Ontario. But that was the Canadians’ first victory against England (ranked No. 6) in five tries, having lost to (and failed to score against) the English in its previous four matchups, dating back to March 2013.
None of this suggests that Canada is incapable of a deep run in this year’s Women’s World Cup. Indeed, the Canadians were hardly played off the park in any of the aforementioned encounters with the world’s top sides (with the possible exception of a 3-0 loss to reigning world champions Japan).
With the tournament having been expanded to 24 teams, Canada is a virtual lock for the knockout stages, at which point all other mattes—prior results, world ranking, subjective ideas of absolute relative quality—become irrelevant in the face of the performance of those two teams on that day.
It is not unreasonable to suggest that, if the stars align properly, Canada has the potential to defeat any team in this tournament in a knockout game. The question, of course, is whether the stars will align in the same way they did in 2012.
Herdman, for his part, hasn’t been relying on astrology in the run-up to the tournament. Amidst his repeated claim that Canada aims to be in the World Cup final on July 5, he has instead taken a detail-oriented approach to every facet of the team’s preparation. On the macro level, he’s taken steps to ease newcomers into the first team, with some very positive results.
Kadeisha Buchanan, still just 19 years old, has already made 35 appearances for the senior team and is the rock in the centre of defence. Strong, tough and never one to shy away from a challenge, she also possesses speed and awareness that will see her as one of the team’s building blocks for the next decade.
Jessie Fleming, just 17, is the focus of a hype machine that’s waiting to burst into overdrive should she do well at this tournament. Watching her play, it’s easy to see why she’s so highly touted – she’s a quick, aggressive, attack-minded midfielder with a nose for goal and an on-field intelligence befitting someone far beyond her years.
Ashley Lawrence, 19, and Adriana Leon, 22, are two other newcomers who’ve ingratiated themselves into the lineup and could have prominent roles to play at this World Cup. But it’s not just promising youngsters; Herdman has also been getting the most out of key veteran players as well.
Sophie Schmidt was the undeniable player of the match for Canada in its win over England last week, scoring a highlight-reel half-volley and proving herself a menace for the entire match. The 26-year-old was also Canada’s top scorer in 2014 (with six goals) and will be an integral part of the team’s efforts to expand its focus of attack beyond Sinclair.
Lauren Sesselmann wasn’t even part of the Canadian set-up during the last World Cup, having just acquired her Canadian citizenship the year earlier. But Herdman called her into camp at his first opportunity, and the versatile 31-year-old was an indispensible part of the medal-winning Olympic side. Having only recently returned from a torn ACL, Sesselmann’s health could have a big part to play in Canada’s World Cup ambitions.
Josée Bélanger emerged as the star of Canada’s qualifying campaign for the 2011 Women’s World Cup, but then missed the tournament with an ankle injury. A years-long exile from the national team followed, until Herdman convinced the 29-year-old to rejoin the fold last year. She hasn’t yet recaptured her goal-scoring form, but demonstrated her flexibility last week, unexpectedly (and impressively) filling in as a right-back against England.
Allysha Chapman was a virtual unknown until Herdman called her into the national-team setup last year. But Herdman, who has repeatedly spoken of his desire to have attack-minded fullbacks, saw something in the 26-year-old, whose dogged play and seemingly endless energy have—in very short order—earned her a spot as Canada’s starting left-back.
But the roster news isn’t all rainbows and sunshine.
Matheson continues to recover from a knee injury (and subsequent broken foot) of her own; her name is on Canada’s roster, but whether she’ll be able to play any part remains to be seen. More recently, injury concerns have also arisen for defenders Wilkinson and Marie-Eve Nault, as well as striker Jonelle Filigno.
Meanwhile, Canada’s two top scorers of the past decade, Sinclair and Tancredi, are no longer at the peak of their powers.
Sinclair—Canada’s top scorer of all time with 153 goals—scored just once in 11 games in 2014. Despite a hot start to 2015 (five goals in nine games), it would be foolhardy for Canadians to assume the 31-year-old will singlehandedly bulldoze through opposing teams, despite her storied history of doing exactly that.
Tancredi, meanwhile, was coaxed out of semi-retirement (she took a year off following the Olympics to pursue her education) to provide some attacking support to Sinclair. But since having the tournament of her life in London, the 33-year-old has been held off the score sheet in 12 games for Canada.
With goalkeeper LeBlanc having announced that she will retire following the World Cup, and fellow veterans Candace Chapman and Melanie Booth having also announced their retirements, the page appears to be turning on a golden age in Canadian women’s soccer, an era that began with the massively successful 2002 FIFA Under-19 Women’s Championship.
That tournament saw the host Canadians—led by the likes of Sinclair, McLeod, Chapman and Carmelina Moscato (as well as Kara Lang and Clare Rustad, who’ll both be providing on-air analysis of this year’s World Cup)—play a thrilling final in front of nearly 50,000 fans at Edmonton’s Commonwealth Stadium.
(That game ended in a 1-0 extra-time loss to, you guessed it, the U.S.)
On Saturday, Canada will return to Commonwealth Stadium to open its World Cup campaign against China, a former global powerhouse in the women’s game. They’ll stay in Edmonton to face Herdman’s former side, New Zealand, before travelling to Stade Olympique in Montreal to combat a side that some are picking as a dark horse favourite, the Netherlands.
Where they’ll go from there remains to be seen. But that path won’t be determined by history, or narratives, or television advertisements. It will be determined by how well the women on the pitch can handle the pressure, do what’s needed and step up when it matters most.
Whatever happens, Herdman will be sticking around beyond the tournament. He’s under contract to be Canada’s coach through 2020, giving him ample time and opportunity to shepherd the next generation of stars into the spotlight.
But the spotlight will never be brighter than during this World Cup. Nothing is impossible for the Canadian team at this tournament—but the players will ultimately need to be the authors of their own destinies.