I did not think they had a chance.
I openly questioned the selection of some players, lamented the lack of opportunities for younger players to compete for spots and thought John Herdman’s openly stated goal of a podium finish reeked of ‘rah rah’ cheerleaderism.
I thought, going back to the CONCACAF qualifiers, that Canada was nowhere near as athletic as the US Women’s National team and we were more in danger of being caught up in the next few years by Mexico and Costa Rica than in catching up with Abby Wambach and company.
I felt that while moving Sinclair into an attacking mid position in a diamond midfield was a smart move it was rooted in desperation move that was down to a lack of depth. I thought Trancredi looked like a one trick pony, Schmidt was out of shape and our back four was generally porous aside from Chapman. It seemed like we had hit the point with this generation of players that suggested contesting for honours would be futile and our lack of depth and commitment to inculcating new blood into the national team setup would simply see us caught up by more progressive nations currently a bit further down the depth chart.
I was frustrated that we had to resort to bringing in a player with the most tenuous of connections to this country and hand her a starting position because we had no other options at left back. Our centre back situation looked just as dire as, again besides Chapman, Zurrer, Moscato, Buckland and anyone else that was given more than 15 minutes in the position looked completely incapable of dealing with emerging world class strikers like Alex Morgan and several French players.
And our tepid start to the Olympics did nothing to dissuade those feelings that we were merely going to be chum for the big fish to feed on. Japan, who looked a shadow of themselves when we played them in the first game, still turned us over at will and two horridly naive goals saw us staring at what could have become a rout.
Now I’m not sure if you could call it a defining moment or a turning point because we didn’t exactly catch fire right afterwards but when Tancredi slipped in off the shoulder of her Japanese mark in the second half and bullied a half chance into the net to draw us within one, it helped. It helped calm nerves. It seemed to help some of the players buy into Herdman’s vision of what this team could do. Was it a 2-1 game? That probably flattered Canada by a goal or so but they held their own in what was supposed to be their toughest game and knowing they were just sitting at -1 probably helped affirm that with two third place teams going through to the quarter finals they had good cause to believe they would be playing in the knock out rounds.
And yes they laboured a bit to beat South Africa in a game that should have been more shooting practice than it was but they got three and gained 90 minutes with moderate resistance to try out a makeshift back four in light of Chapman’s injury in the first game. They had their sea legs and they had three points heading into a critical game against Sweden. Barring a disaster, Canada was always going to go through by this stage. The North Koreans had hucked five in their own goal against France and still had the USA to play. But the makeshift back four was now further bandaged with Robin Gayle out. Wilkinson, Moscato, Sesselman and Nault was how it read right to left. Probably not a scenario Herdman had imagined let alone planned for.
So they quickly went down 2-0 as Rhian Wilkinson got caught being second quickest to a cross and Erin McLeod continued to insist on coming for crosses that were just too far away to reach and resulted in tap ins to her vacated goal.
But this was the real turning point. For all the talk of how well Canada played against Team GB, the next 70 minutes were when this team defined itself as more than just Twitterers, passengers and tracksuit collectors. They grew a pair and lit it up. They showed true respect for the jersey and what the vast majority of Canadians value and want to see in their athletes: hard work, determination, physical and mental toughness. And in reaching for these they uncovered technical ability that some had been hiding or were reticent to share on the big stage.
Canada v Sweden, especially in the second half was what the women’s game should be about and what the Olympics should be about. It was inspiring and it was proof that they could be real players. They attacked with poise and speed. They took chances and committed to the attack. And when the final balls were played into the box, Tancredi was simply not allowing anyone in a yellow jersey to beat her to it. Her goals spoke of a player with determination stacked on guts tempered by guile. They were striker’s goals. The second was a brave, brave striker’s goal and this team was re-born. Sweden are no mugs. They beat the USA more than the USA beats them. They are physical and technical and do not concede two goal leads readily.
Sinclair is the heart and soul of this time. She is the talisman and she is one of the best female players to ever play the game but this turnaround, a turnaround that made the performances in the next two games not just tenable but likely, was driven by Tancredi at one end of the field and Desiree Scott in the middle of it. Those are the players that sent the silver shiver up the rest of the team’s spine, screamed “This is the Olympics!” at them and dragged them from that peaceful slip into eternal sleep that we’re told those about to drown experience.
So yes they looked great against Team GB. But it was the hosts that quickly slipped into the deep sleep. There’s a sick feeling that gnaws at you when you concede a goal like the one Foligno scored; one you know she’d have a hard time duplicating if she had another 100 chances. It feels unfair. But it’s not as bad as the sickly feeling you get when you concede off a free kick (that Desiree Scott created by winning the ball in a 50-50 and then running at the heart of the defenders to force the foul) that had a wall that reeked of amateurism and a keeper that really didn’t seem to know where she should be. That kind of sick feeling can lead to either capitulation or resolve. Canada had that fork in the road against Sweden and chose resolve. Team GB capitulated brutally and really never caused a step of trouble for Canada the rest of the way.
Canada, in their quarter final, were composed and organized at the back with the unlikely Moscato-Sesselman partnership gelling and McLeod’s exuberance kept in check by a dose of common sense. The press and fans alike decried it their best performance to date and maybe ever. For me, it looked like the sort of win the States is used to getting. Go up two goals and cue the collapse as opponents pack it in and allow you to coast the rest of the way.
But a semi final agains the United States is a different kettle of fish. Herdman was smart enough to know the only dimension of the game he could realistically have any impact on at this stage was mental preparation. They needed a big V8 belief machine hitting on all cylinders. He needed a big jug of WeCanWin flavoured kool-aid and 18 Big Gulp sized cups.
And the guy pulled it off. This was not a timid display. This was not ‘let’s just give a good account of ourselves, keep it close and leave with our heads held high.’ When Sinclair scored her first goal, she didn’t get all giddy and smile and laugh. She looked ferocious. She looked as far from content as anyone who has ever put their team up 1-0 against the USA has ever looked. We got the same look after her second. And when she scored her third she ventured over, still steely-eyed to an ecstatic bench and essentially told an excited John Herdman to fuck off. We may never know why! You can catch his expression on the TV replays as he suddenly goes from instructing Sinclair in hurried tones to pivoting, chastised, on his heels, facing back to the bench and raising an eyebrow in both surprise and awe.
That chick was playing for keeps.
She was playing for a win and a spot in a gold medal game. And she was playing to beat the States. She was doing all she could to give the monkey on her back a solid battering. It. was. awesome.
But despite Sinclair’s water into wine display in the American box and despite Moscato rising to the occasion and making Abby Wambach’s shift feel like her mineshaft had collapsed on top of her it just didn’t happen.
Despite Sesselman’s deputy service at centre back, playing against what was the best striking tandem in the world heading into these Games and despite Matheson, Schmidt and Scott all scorching box to box paths into Old Trafford’s turf it fell to external forces to play a large hand in who would win this.
A six second violation? Followed immediately by a dubious, dubious hand ball call to the game but snake bitten Eve Marie Nault that led to the tying goal on a penalty? And then somehow three extra minutes of play at the end of a thirty minute extra time?
Often I pick apart why goals went in. There’s always a highly visible trail of clues and usually more than one culprit. That was the case on the three American goals from open play but I’m not going anywhere near that today.
This team, in the last three games, changed so many opinions I have about them. Do I think they should all be there come the 2015 World Cup? No. But I think several earned a reprieve and showed they are not just fully deserving of their Olympic spots; they are the embodiment of an Olympian.
Carmelino Moscato played at a level I thought was behind her. Sesselman is one of us now. Matheson is not five foot one. That is simply impossible. Sophie Schmidt now looks like an athlete and plays like an inspired one. Desiree Scott is here to stay. Diana Matheson is back. Melissa Tancredi is someone I would love to buy a beer for. Christine Sinclair is, and I don’t say this lightly, the person I would like my daughter to become.
You don’t get many days like these in sport. When you win on days like this, as both an athlete and a fan, the day burns long and bright. When you lose, it just burns. But we all remember that burning feeling either way.