A ton of pressure has been placed on the slim, but fit shoulders of these twenty or so young ladies. They are carrying the hopes of an entire nation. We have begrudgingly accepted the fact that our men’s soccer program is no way near what it should be and until it is the soccer aspirations of Canada will be entirely assumed by the women’s team. Almost since the beginning the women’s soccer program has been a successful one on the world stage for Canada. Since the 2002 U-19 Women’s World Championship in which led by the likes of Christine Sinclair, Kara Lang and Erin McLeod, Canada ended up as finalists to the USA up to their country uniting bronze medal at the 2011 Olympics in London, Canada has been in love with these talented soccer ladies. Now, as many from that 2002 team (Sinclair, McLeod, Carmelina Moscato, Robyn Gayle) are now in the twilight of their careers, they are going for one last kick at the can. They were to bear the burden of their Round of 16 game against Switzerland being arguably the biggest soccer game, men or women, in Canadian history.
Despite the fact that they ended up winning their group going undefeated and only allowing one goal it seemed like the soccer fans in Canada were not satisfied. Twitter, newspapers and on sports talk radio people were grumbling that they were not playing well. Our expectations are high for the 8th ranked team in the world and we seem to be expecting them to not only win but to destroy the competition. Many a rant has been issued about the lack of scoring punch of this team. Moaning occurred about Ecuador being the only side that scored fewer goals than Canada over the Group Stage. We seem to have missed the trees for the forest. We seem to have forgotten that to advance in difficult tournaments like a World Cup that you only have to outscore your opponents by only one goal. If you are like Canada and are solid defensively allowing precious few goals then you only have to score once. Ease up, people!
After having won their group, Canada had an “easier” opponent in the Round of 16 and luck was also on their side in that the women’s soccer powerhouses (USA, France and Germany) were on the other side of the draw. So Canada was to play Switzerland, a team they have never lost to with 3 wins and 1 draw. The Swiss are ranked lower than Canada at 19th in the world, so Canada definitely came into the game as the favourites. Next up for the winner of the game would be the quarterfinals. In other words, lose and you go home.
Canada’s coach John Herdman made four changes to the Canadian side that started the last group game against the Netherlands. Veteran defender Rhian Wilkinson, just coming back from an injury, was reinserted along with central defender Lauren Sesselmann, striker Melissa Tancredi and holding midfielder Desiree Scott. With these changes it meant that Josée Bélanger, who had previously played as a right fullback, was moved back to her more familiar midfield winger position. To be effective she had to use her pace.
All that veteran experience was probably to counteract the fact that the Swiss side is capable of offensive outburst courtesy of their two strikers, Ramona Bachman and Lara Dickenmann. Through the Group Stage, Switzerland scored 11 goals. Bachman is full of pace and also not afraid to go down easily to get the call she wants.
The entire stadium was a sea of red and the crowd was boisterously behind Canada. Feeding off that energy and support, the Canadian women seemed to lap it all up. Vancouver is pretty much the Canadian side’s home base as it was where they trained over the past two years, so they must feel quite at home there. Canada was in all red while the Swiss was in all white.
Despite being the home side, Canada was the team on their heels in the 1st half. Canada had to do most of the defending over the first 45 minutes of the game. When Canada did get into the final third it seemed like they had run out of ideas. They were neither moving the ball quickly nor playing the ball out wide to stretch the Swiss defense. Switzerland looked completely comfortable defensively. The only sniff that Canada had at the Swiss net was in the 16th minute and was not on purpose. From her position way out wide on the right side, Bélanger attempted a cross that deflected off a Swiss player and changed directions. This caught Swiss keeper, Gaelle Thalmann, out of position and it struck the far post to come out and hit Thalmann in the leg then roll harmless away from danger.
After making some adjustments over half time the Canadians came out of the break with a renewed sense of purpose. It only took 7 minutes for the change in strategy to pay off. Wilkinson, on an overlap, helped out offensively and launched a cross from the right-hand side. Showing her skill, Sinclair’s first touch was deft and she toed the cross over towards and unmarked Bélanger. Johnny on the spot, Bélanger used her weaker left foot to put the ball beyond the outstretched hands of Thalmann and into the back of the net from 15 yards out. This was Bélanger’s first goal in 4 ½ years. 1-0 Canada.
The crowd and Canadian bench exploded. This was the goal they had been biting their nails waiting for. Now, Canada, after going up 1-0 in the 52nd minute, could not drop into a defensive block meaning they must keep up the pressure on the Swiss rather than inviting them to come forward.
They were mostly successful at that buoyed by the energy of subs Kaylyn Kyle (76th minute), Janelle Filigno (69th minute) and Marie-Eve Nault (88th minute). Switzerland did manage to make things tense for Canadian fans a couple of times over the last 40 minutes of play. In the 61st minute off a free kick an unmarked Swiss player ballooned a header over the net and the best chance to tie the game up came in the 78th minute. Erin McLeod was forced to make one of her game saving saves. Bachman beat Wilkinson along the left side and crossed it into the box. The ball bounced off Kyle to Vanessa Bernauer. Bernauer’s quick shot was parried away by an even quicker, diving McLeod.
Offensive star of the game, Bélanger, almost had a second goal in the 68th minute. There was a spurt of plenty of Canadian pressure. A cross came in from the right via Tancredi to Sinclair. It was just a little too high. Chapman smartly stepped up and crossed it from the left side into the box. A scramble ensued in front of the Swiss net. Bélanger pounced on the ball and her shot was past Thalmann, but was cleared off the line by a Swiss defender. Substitute Filigno played well and should have had a goal in 82nd minute. Sophie Schmidt found her alone in close. Filigno redirected the ball with her instep from 8 yards out, but was wide of the far post.
Canada’s defense (though I am not convinced that Sesselmann is the best option) must be applauded for its stinginess. Allysha Chapman has emerged as the unheralded star of the back four with Kadeisha Buchanan announcing her claim as the best central defender in the world. She was charged with shutting down one of the best strikers in the world in Ramona Bachmann and she did just that. This despite the fact that she picked up an undisclosed injury in the game against the Netherlands and whether she would play at all was touch and go right up until game time. Buchanan has become the star of the Canadian side.
This was only Canada’s second appearance in the knock-out stages of the Women’s World Cup. The first time was a 1-0 victory against China in 2003. Despite what we in Canada might feel or hope for this team, they are not favourites. Canada is not expected to win the World Cup or even challenge for the title. As a result, the fact that they are going to be one of the last 8 remaining teams competing for the title of best in the world has to been seen as a success. This is a team that did not even make it out of the Group stage and lost all three games in the last World Cup in 2011. The players on the team have to be applauded for picking themselves up after that disaster and continuing on to make themselves a stronger team. Much of their success is due to the master motivator that is John Herdman.
Was not easy, but Canada moves on. It is now on to the quarterfinals for the home side. They will play on Saturday, June 27 once again at B.C. Place against the winner of the England-Norway game.
-On-Field Officials: Referee – Anna-Marie Keighley (New Zealand)
Linespeople – Allyson Flynn (Australia) and Sarah Walker (New Zealand)
-Goals: 2nd Half:
52nd minute: Canada – Josée Bélanger
-Shots on Goal: Canada – 2
Switzerland – 2
-Corners: Canada – 0
Switzerland – 5
-Player of the Game: Erin McLeod – Canada
-Final Score: Canada – 1
Switzerland – 0