If you were watching on Saturday, you saw Japan send out their best lineup (minus longtime goalkeeper Miho Fukumoto, who sat in favour of the unrefined but enormous Erina Yamane) and shoot Canada painlessly in the back of the head. Wearin a colour I can only describe as “Fukushima yellow”, Japan scored early, got another midway through the second half, and finished the game with a third, 3-0 final. Erin McLeod, playing before what is technically her hometown crowd, was forced to make some good saves in the Canadian goal, and while Big Red generated some first-rate chances through Melissa Tancredi and Christine Sinclair it was clearly Japan’s game.
Canada’s performance was better than the score. There was a good forty-minute stretch between Japan’s first goal and the hour mark where the Canadians bossed the game, creating most of their best opportunities and holding meaningful possession. The initial goal came (in my books) from a mistake by first-timer Alyssa Chapman, caught up-field after a Rhian Wilkinson giveaway and not hastening back to cover Yuki Ogimi, number one in the Buzzfeed article “You Won’t Believe These Japanese Players Fullbacks Should Bust Their Asses to Mark After Turnovers.” But from Chapman’s audacity the rest of the way that was débutante jitters; she provided not immaculate but invariably lively left back play. After the hour mark Canada seemed to have shot their bolt, but that was still a sustained stretch of excellent soccer against a top team. Oh, Japan was much the better side, but 3-0 looks just a little harsh. And one of Canada’s most essential players, midfielder Desiree Scott, started the game on the bench. If you think that wouldn’t make much of a difference, you should have watched the Vancouver game.
We lost that match on Tuesday, by the way, 3-2. Six goals conceded in two matches is appalling, especially when all the goals were “good”. The defensive breakdowns in both games were a running theme. Wilkinson, Chapman, Kadeisha Buchanan, and Emily Zurrer were all caught in first-rate breakdowns at some point and that’s just off the top of my head. These were forced by Japan’s high pressure, but good teams know to press Canada. The Americans will do it, the French will do it, the Japanese clearly have it down to a science. Canada’s defense, never exactly a strength, needs to work on its poise at once.
But elsewhere on the field the Canadian performance had much improved. Initially the Canadian midfield, which looked so overwhelmed in Edmonton, played some terrific soccer. You could see the difference between Canada With Desiree Scott and Canada Without Desiree Scott, clear as crystal. Her central partner, Jessie Fleming, had eyes like dinner plates and jelly feet in front of goal, but she was doing a marvelously composed job just getting into those positions and with the ball at her feet the Japanese soon learned to respect her skill.
One of the obstacles for young players who aren’t pure goalscorers, like Fleming, is learning the confidence and audacity to make the aggressive play. Fleming had one or two moments where she apparently expected to defer to one of her more experienced teammates; with good coaching and more exposure to those situations she will hopefully learn how to drill a shot first-time rather than faff around waiting for Sinclair or Tancredi to pop up for a low-percentage cross before, maybe, trying to get a shot off when the best of the opportunity has already gone by.
If Fleming wants a lesson in that sort of confidence she couldn’t do better than to look at Yuki Ogimi, whose play on Japan’s second goal was postcard-perfect. Kadeisha Buchanan bobbled a backpass and it went straight in front of Ogimi, one of the world’s more polished strikers. I firmly believe that, in that position, Fleming (or Josée Belanger, or Adriana Leon, or most of the Canadian roster really) would have settled the ball, tried to round the recovering Buchanan, and tried to generate a play. Instead Ogimi realized the situation at once, knew that Stephanie Labbé wasn’t in perfect position, and took a crack, first time, a marvelous looping goal that would have been an automatic entry on a lesser striker’s highlight reel. Had we players with the guts to try that sort of thing we might have a rather brighter team.
It was a terrific game in general, both teams contributing a maximum of excitement. Ogimi’s goal, opportunistic but marvelously taken. But it was Asano Nagasato who had the goal of the game with a first-rate left-footed volley from twenty-three yards that curled into the top corner and wasn’t being stopped by Stephanie Labbé, Erin McLeod, Manuel Neuer, anybody anywhere. The 25-year-old Nagasato had been very much a fringe player in the Japanese setup, but has been working her way into the lineup and has a couple goals for her country this year. Her wonderstrike today must be the best of the bunch: the undisputed highlight of a back-and-forth, mostly very even match. Besides that strike it’s the ending that will be best remembered: three minutes of stoppage time called for and Canada snatching the most Canadian of scrappy, workmanlike equalizers on 90’+2. Then Japan turning it around, capitalizing on yet another Canadian defensive blunder, and winning it on 90’+2.9999999999.
For me at least, that goal was too pre-ordained to be heartbreaking. The Canadian defensive mistakes had been coming in bunches. The Japanese, having started with a B+ team, brought on Aya Miyama in the 65th minute, and Miyama’s arrival coincided with Canada succumbing under pressure, making bumbling mistakes, giving Japan too many opportunities. There were… what, three or four appalling giveaways in the Canadian third in the last twenty minutes? When Aya Sameshima beat Labbé what was there to say besides “fair enough”?
From a development perspective it might have been better to lose rather than draw undeserving. There’s no euphoric high from the fortunate point snatched from a better team before a screaming home crowd; instead John Herdman can bust out the VCR and really emphasize to the women why those sorts of turnovers are going to kill us if we repeat our mistakes in money games.
How about Sophie Schmidt? Schmidt has scored Canada’s last three senior goals, all in Vancouver; it’s nice of the women to limit scoring to one of the four or so players the supporters have a chant for. (And a classy chant it is.) We were talking about Fleming needing confidence earlier? Both of Schmidt’s goals Tuesday were raw confidence and
balls ovaries. Letting fly as soon as she had a sight of the net and reaping the rewards, with her first tally deflecting off a defender’s head and initially being called an own goal. We’re seeing a bit more of the Sophie Schmidt from 2011 that was such a promising supporting threat in the attack, combined with consistent guts and aggressiveness. I can’t help but feel the NWSL has been very good to Schmidt; on Sky Blue FC she’s asked to be a key player on a team that’s badly underequipped offensively and the challenge seems to have given her a shot in the arm. I swear she’s turning over the ball less than she used to, too. I like everything about this Sophie Schmidt except the haircut.
The injury to Diana Matheson is terrifying; she’s going to be on everybody’s ballot for Canadian Player of the Year and at the top of many, but she went off on crutches in Edmonton with a knee injury. The good news is that, during the Vancouver game, she was walking around the field with her teammates; the bad news is that this morning the Canadian Soccer Association tweeted that she’s torn her ACL. She knows how to recover from these things, at least: the last time we were missing Matheson for an exciting game in Vancouver due to a lower body injury, it was during Olympic qualifying and Canada went on to a bronze medal. The omens aren’t bad.
Many people will be discussing Christine Sinclair in the days to come. She hasn’t scored for her country since December 12, 2013 against Scotland in the Torneio Internacional de Futebol Feminino; that is twelve matches without troubling the statskeeper. There was a time when, even when she wasn’t scoring, Sinclair was reliably generating scoring chances; that is no longer particularly the case. She’s also played the best teams in the world. Those twelve games include Japan (twice), the United States (twice), England, and Germany, but those are the teams we need her against.
Oh, she still looks reasonably dangerous, but not like it used to be. Sinclair gets the ball in an interesting position, the defense swarms her like termites, and unlike in the old days she no longer has the speed or the power or the will or something to get out of it and make a scoring chance. The ball comes out to her on the break and it turns into a tussle rather than an automatic excellent shot. Of course she still does reasonably well in the NWSL, but she isn’t the dangerwoman on the Portland Thorns. Alex Morgan is. When she plays for Canada as undisputed top dog Sinclair looks every minute of her thirty-one years. Not to get all narrative-pushing mitten-stringer but I swear I caught glimpses of the wear and tear in her facial expressions, an irritated look of “that used to work.” She’s frustrated. Wouldn’t you be?