This will not be like “Rise”. There will be no #HolySchmidts. No fawning, no talk of role models and inspiring the next generation of female players. This is about whether they can play and compete for a World Cup. I’ve always felt treating this team with kid gloves and giving them a pass on accountability is patronizing to them and to female athletes in general.
So who should play? Who should not play? What do they need to happen to be successful?
John Herdman knows what he’s doing. He’s leveraged an arguably fortuitous bronze medal at the 2012 Olympics into a platform from which he could spend three years re-inventing the Canadian women’s national team into one that could legitimately compete against the best in the world.
Soon after they started post-Olympics training, he told the players they were going to play like Barcelona and told each of them which Barca player they should see themselves as. He told the media and the fans that this would take time and to accept that the initial results may not be a series of wins as they transformed from a gritty, organized team dependent on Christine Sinclair to a more balanced, possession based outfit akin to Japan and other countries whose stars are rising in women’s football. To do that they would scour the country for younger players that fit this new playing style and add depth to the squad. He struck that balance of respecting the team that had won the medal that bought him the time and equity to change how they were going to play at the 2015 World Cup and creating optimism in both the fans who wanted continued success and young players that he wanted to bring in as the next generation of talent that would allow us to compete and beat the top six in the world; the teams that Canada for the most part could never get past when it mattered.
It was exactly what needed to be done and Herdman’s intelligence and charisma ensured the message and the plan were well received by players, media and fans alike.
So as we head into the 2015 Women’s World Cup did he find enough of those players? Does he have the squad that can compete technically with Japan, France and Germany? Unfortunately, I think he answered that question when he convinced Kara Lang to try to come out of retirement. Herdman recruiting Lang into a team being re-imagined as Barcelona is really a bit like Barcelona signing Martin Keown. Likely still effective against many opponents but hardly the Iniesta of the women’s game. It seemed to be a concession that despite best intentions to find younger, technical players who could be groomed into national team candidates, those players just weren’t there, or not enough of them at least, and Lang was a clear Plan B. It’s what you do when you wake up in the middle of the night and realize Kaylyn Kyle is not going to tiki-taki her way through the American back four and score but Lang may just catch Hope Solo a touch hungover and rip one over her head from 40 yards when it’s needed most.
The hope of course is that Herdman persists with the plan to make this team more technically adept, more comfortable on the ball and more aware of tactical situations. Just because Barca couldn’t be built in three years is no reason to abandon construction. The reality is that this is the way the women’s game is going and the teams currently on the rise are doing it with intelligent players with touch and vision.
So this is a team that is in transition and it comes unfortunately at the time of the greatest event in their career: a World Cup at home. We will persist with warhorses and blood a few teenagers that will help shape the team for the coming decade. It’s not a perfect scenario but there is still a good chance that the team can acquit itself well. Remember though, we have only advanced from the group stage of a World Cup once and finished dead last in 2011.
In fact, if you drill down a bit deeper, we have been to the past five World Cups, only missing the inaugural one in China in 1991, yet we have only won four games: three in our run to the semi-final in 2003 (vs Argentina and Japan in the group stages and China in the quarter final) and one against Ghana in the group stages in 2007. That’s only worth mentioning to provide context to the fact that the results at the 2012 Olympics were more of an outlier than those in 2011. We are not the force in women’s football that we often like to make out we are. In the quarter century that the women’s World Cup has existed, we have been to the semi-final once and not advanced from the group stage otherwise. Since women started playing in the Olympics in 1996, we have qualified twice, coming 8th in 2008 and, of course, won a celebrated bronze in London in 2012.
Back to the here and now.
Looking at changes from the 2011 World Cup and 2012 Olympic squads to the current 2015 team there are many familiar faces. Aside from Candace Chapman, who recently retired but hadn’t been involved with the women’s national team since the Olympics for a reason that seems to fall under ‘none of your business’, and Christina Julien, who started one game, every player who started a game for Canada at the 2011 World Cup in Germany is on the 2015 World Cup squad. Every player who played against France in the bronze medal game at the Olympics aside from Chapman and Brittany Baxter is likewise in the 2015 World Cup Squad, including the naturalized Lauren Sesselmann added to the team soon after the 2011 World Cup. So there’s hardly been mass turnover and a changing of the guard on first look.
We do have additions though and several will prove crucial and hopefully influential.
Adriana Leon, a 22 year old forward
Allysha Chapman, a 26 year old left back who had been out of the national team set up since 2008
Selenia Iacchelli, a 28 year old forward/midfielder who has been in and out of squads for years but only has 4 caps
Kadeisha Buchanan, a 19 year old centre back
Ashley Lawrence, midfielder, also 19
Jesse Fleming, a 17 year old forward who may also be able to (hopefully) play midfield
Of these, Buchanan and Chapman are locks to start at the back and Fleming should see lots of playing time. Lawrence’s time is likely a function of the state of Diana Matheson’s knee. If Matheson manages to fully recover from her torn ACL in time to play, Lawrence won’t see nearly as much action. Barring injuries, Leon and Iachelli are not likely to see much time.
So there are young players coming in and they are able to patch over obvious deficiencies. The concerns are that we are heavily reliant on two players coming off serious knee injuries (Sesselmann and Matheson) as well as two teenagers (Buchanan and Fleming). I’ll emphasize ‘heavily’ and suggest that few teams with ambitions in the tournament are in a similar situation.
The lack of recent production from forwards is likewise a concern. Christine Sinclair can only be expected to carry the load for so long. Unlike Abby Wambach for the States, Sinclair does not have the luxury of teammates who will draw defenders attention away from her and other teammates who provide service to her in both the quality and quantity required. That said, Wambach’s reign is also near an end and it will be interesting to see how much time she gets this World Cup.
To expect Melissa Tancredi, at 33 years old, having missed two years of play to finish her chiropractic studies after the Olympics to have the effect in this World Cup that she did at the London Olympics, where her outstanding play was only overshadowed by Sinclair’s hat trick against the States in the semi-final is wishful thinking. While it would give us a component that no one else is close to being able to provide, it doesn’t seem to be on the cards. Given that Leon and Filigno, despite considerable time spent with the team, are still a notch below what is needed, it falls to youngster Fleming to provide any sort of consistent incision and finishing as a forward, likey down the left.
Herdman has flirted with the idea of 4-2-3-1 with Sinclair the attacking central midfielder in behind a striker who could lead the line but the reality is that Tancredi is no longer that player and the only one on the horizon who could fill that role, Summer Clarke, gave the U20 World Cup a pass last summer and as a result was not considered for this World Cup. Factor in that while Desiree Scott would clearly be one of the holding mids, we really have no one to partner with her. Sophie Schmidt is needed further up the field and putting Kaylyn Kyle in there is really just depriving a more complete player of a spot in the starting eleven. Kyle is a role player now who will likely come on if we are protecting a one goal lead.
If in the end though, if Matheson is unable to play due to her knee, that may be our best option:
Wilkinson Buchanan Sesselmann Chapman
But on the assumption that she plays, I think you’ll see a 4-3-3 that looks like this:
Wilkinson Buchanan Sesselmann Chapman
Sinclair Tancredi Fleming
Lawrence would take Matheson’s spot as necessary if Herdman isn’t interested in going 4-2-3-1.
The issue is then to hope they gel, get stronger as the tournament goes on and none of them get injured because this is not a deep squad. At the risk of angering the PR machine and hyped up hashtaggers that have generated the cuddly love-in around this team, there are some plain truths that have to be acknowledged around individual players and squad depth in general.
Here’s a quick overview of the likely starters:
Erin McLeod is clearly the starting keeper but has to play to her strengths and not her emotions. Often too eager to be the brave keeper who comes for crosses, too often they are misjudged and result in goals that would have been easy saves if she stayed on her line and left her centre backs to deal with it. Still has the ability to keep her team in games they have no right to win (like the bronze medal game in 2012).
Rhian Wilkinson will likely keep her starting role at right back because they simply have to have some experience back there. She’s not going to get forward and link and may struggle with opponent speed but she’ll have composure and smarts that will hopefully be infectious.
Kadeisha Buchanan has unreasonable expectations being placed on her. She’s 19 and is going to make mistakes (as she has already). She’s starting, like Sesselmann, because we simply do not have players who can compete at this level in this position now that Candace Chapman is no longer playing. Herdman has made it clear he doesn’t rate Zurrer (didn’t pick her for Olympic qualifying and while on the squad for the actual Olympics didn’t step on the field due to a mix of injuries and form) and Moscato, while capable of reading situations well cannot deal physically with world class strikers. The expectations and superlatives being heaped on Buchanan now would be more realistic if we were heading into the 2019 World Cup and she had four more years experience under her belt.
Lauren Sesselmann is a converted left back made into a centre back. Not the ideal partner for Buchanan who will need a steady, experienced head next to her. If her knee holds out though, she is going to be critical.
Alyssha Chapman is a gamer and may be one of the players that surprises fans most. More than capable in 1v1 defending situations she will allow Sesselmann to stay more central rather than having to come out to the left to deal with mistakes and at the other end of the field she is already the best attacking fullback we’ve had in a long time.
Desiree Scott is very good but plays a critical position on this team and has to regain the dominant form that she showed in Olympic qualifying and the Olympics. Plain and simple. Especially with a new pairing at centre back (remember Sesselmann missed playing while Buchanan’s star was rising and she earned a starting role) Scott has to truly shield them and not require either of them to have to jump into midfield to deal with situations best left to her. She needs to allows them to keep their shape and reduce gaps that opponents will exploit. Her job is to break up attacks and quickly look to move the ball to Schmidt and Matheson.
Sophie Schmidt is the best player on the team and the only one with the ability to both provide penetrating balls to strikers that they can finish from and also get forward and score herself. If they are to go deep, she has to play almost every minute, create good chances for Sinclair and score a few herself. For the first time since she started playing, this team is more dependent on the form of a player other than Sinclair to do well.
A healthy Diana Matheson takes the load off Schmidt and doesn’t allow opponents to focus on her as they will. The supply lines from midfield to forwards need to be worked by Schmidt and at least one other and Matheson is really the only other one with the credentials. Game fitness will clearly be an issue though.
Jesse Fleming has the technical ability and vision that so many others lack. It would tempt me to play her in midfield if Matheson can’t play. Again…17 years old. If she can hold her nerve and put in performances that rival her best she will work well with an overlapping Chapman to both penetrate, get sight of goal herself and also provide service in the box to Sinclair and Tancredi.
Christine Sinclair is responsible for the single strongest memory I have of a female soccer player. When she scored her hat trick goal her celebration carried her towards the bench but the clenched jaw and thousand yard stare never wavered. It was the picture of resolve and the sense that she really would go through a brick wall to win that game. She was robbed, the team was robbed, we were all robbed by what happened after that but the nature of sport is that players age and their gifts diminish. Sinclair needs to have good service and it needs to find her in advanced, central positions. If we’re going to force her to pull into channels to get balls at her feet with two defenders between her and the goal, she is simply not going to score. This lack of service has been the biggest concern I’ve seen since the Olympics.
Melissa Tancredi pulled performances out of herself in the Olympics that laid the groundwork for Sinclair’s heroics in the semi-final. Her early round goals were critical and her physical play worried opponents to say the least. Can she do it at the World Cup? It’s a lot to ask and current form suggests it’s unlikely. What does have to happen though is if she gets a cross that is anywhere close to her head she has to bury it. That whiff in the first half against England last week from Ashley Lawrence’s wide ball in to her is a concern.
Josée Bélanger – Started at right back vs England in recent friendly. Yes, she put the ball in to Schmidt for the goal but was otherwise unconvincing.
Jonelle Filigno – Likely first off the bench. Has been in the set up for years. 11 goals in 43 starts.
Robyn Gayle – Experienced but odd that Herdman went with Belanger at right back ahead of her when both Wilkinson and Nault were injured
Selenia Iacchelli – Utility player; unlikely to see much time
Kaylyn Kyle – Darling of the fans but reality is that she is limited. Decision making on the ball questionable and I still can’t figure out why she was five yards offside when Matheson scored the winning goal against France in 2012.
Stephanie Labbé – Not much experience but likely to be second choice to McLeod if you look at playing time she’s had compared to LeBlanc the past 18 months
Ashley Lawrence – Another good option off the bench. Young but doesn’t look out of place
Karina LeBlanc – Been a big part of teams in the past but likely third on the gk depth chart here
Adriana Leon – A bit over her head at this level at this point in her career
Carmelina Moscato – Steady, experienced but is not going to frighten opposing forwards
Marie-Eve Nault – Been with the squad on and off since 2004. I still have memories of her dropping several yards behind her centre backs in the opening game of the 2011 World Cup game vs Germany, allowing Garefrekes to stay onside and score an easy first goal for the Germans.
Emily Zurrer – Discomfort on the ball playing out from the back perhaps best illustrated by the late goal conceded to Japan at BC Place last year highlight the concern. Likely behind Moscato in pecking order so unlikely to play.
So what’s the likely outcome for this team at the World Cup? This is one of the more challenging groups if you go by current FIFA rankings. What does help is the fact that China are still in transition and have what may be the youngest team at the tournament. Factor in that they are without their top scorer due to injury and the adrenalin rush of playing the opening game at home should carry them past the Chinese comfortably. New Zealand, who must surely have had the easiest qualifying route of any team, men’s or women’s, to a World Cup, will make it difficult as their recent results in friendlies suggest. New Zealand’s prep for the World Cup was considerably more challenging than Canada’s with games against many top countries including Brazil (twice), France, Norway (twice), USA and Japan.
The Dutch are another team that is in the ascendancy. This is their first World Cup and they’d never even qualified for a European Championship until 2009 but they came third there and also qualified for the 2013 tournament as well.
I see seven points from these games with the only blemish being a possible draw against New Zealand.
However, if we assume Canada stays injury free, has some luck befitting the home team and wins their group as most expect, they get a cozy second round opponent (3rd place from Group C, D or E; likely Cameroon, Switzerland, Costa Rica, Spain, Australia or Nigeria) at BC Place. While we did lose to Nigeria in 2011, losing to any of these teams this time around would clearly be greeted with massive disappointment.
The real questions should get asked when the quarter finals come around but home field advantage comes into play again as the winner of Canada’s second round game (again, assuming they win their group), has the good fortune of playing the winner of one of only two of the eight second round games that does not feature a group winner. If Canada reaches the quarter final they will play the winner of the two second place teams from Groups B (likely Norway, assuming Germany win the group) and F (likely England, assuming France win the group). Again, this game will be at BC Place.
Logistically, Canada can have no complaints. Aside from their game in Montreal against Holland, they will play all other games in either Edmonton (China, New Zealand, semi-final) or Vancouver (2nd round, Quarter Final and Final). Add in a six day rest period between the game in Montreal and their second round game in Vancouver and you quickly realize the huge bonus that awaits whichever team wins Group A.
Prediction: Canada win Group A, advance through second round to quarter final and win if it’s against England. If we end up facing France, Norway or Germany our tournament is done.
If the wheels fall off though it could look a bit like this…
- A nervous draw against China due to uncertainties in the back leading to a preventable goal
- A doubling of nerves means an inability to score against a resolute New Zealand who set themselves the goal of a 0-0 draw and get it
- A loss to the Netherlands because he have some injuries and not enough depth to overcome them
And we’re out again in the first round. Is it likely? No, but it’s feasible and guarding against the possibility is the first step to ensuring they avoid it. This team is fallible. It needs to guard against the irrational optimism of the Canadian soccer market or it could be due for a big fall. Success favours the teams that play to their strengths and mitigate their weaknesses. Let’s hope Herdman can steer this team to their best individual performances and keep the key players healthy.
I’ve bought my tickets and am really looking forward to seeing the standard of play. With some luck I’ll get to see Canada play and when they are I’ll certainly get caught up in the hype but in this calm before the storm, an objective look at this team points to the need for many things to fall into place for them to have the success that has eluded them for all but one World Cup and one Olympics.