There are two names that will draw major comment. The first is Diana Matheson, not only trying to come back in a hurry from a left ACL tear but also, according to deVos, a broken bone in her right foot. Matheson is one of Canada’s three best players when at all healthy so fans will be staying up nights hoping she’ll be ready by June. (Remember that she was coming off a serious knee injury heading into the 2012 Olympics and only won us a bronze medal.) However, as Canadian supremo John Herdman pointed out on TSN, he can make changes to the roster up to 24 hours before the opening kickoff against China. If Matheson is even faintly fit she’s an automatic selection, and if she isn’t she can be replaced pretty much up to the last minute. In this context of course she was selected, and seeing her limp down the stone steps of Robson Square without crutches or a walking boot is hopeful.
The inclusion Selenia Iacchelli is the obvious surprise. Sura Yekka, Rachel Quon, and Janine Beckie are all staying home, and a midfielder with four caps who turns 28 the day before the tournament starts is coming. Iacchelli had a spell in the Canadian youth setup but after that fell off the face of the earth, playing part-time in the USL W-League and ping-ponging around Europe, until her return to the program in 2013. She’s had the injury bug bad and actually failed her physical with the NWSL’s Western New York Flash last spring, and while appearing on Canadian rosters she hasn’t actually played in 2015. I have seen Iacchelli play something like twenty minutes in my life; they were okay, but that isn’t much of a sample. Frankly, I doubt anybody outside the coaching or scouting communities knows much more about Iacchelli on the field, though that’s not necessarily a bad thing.
Who loses by Iacchelli’s inclusion? Yekka is a bright young player but you hardly use a home Women’s World Cup as a development opportunity, and with Lauren Sesselmann getting healthy there wasn’t much room for her. Quon got headlines coming from the United States but has hardly seen action and wasn’t seriously expected to get a roster spot. Beckie was probably the best of the bunch: a young forward who was a regular off the bench at the Cyprus Cup, had a good U-20 Women’s World Cup, has scored for the senior team against South Korea, and is still eligible to play for the United States (she spent some time in the American program and, unlike her brother Drew, was both born and raised in Colorado). Canada has a surfeit of decent forwards: from the size and experience of Melissa Tancredi to the younger, quicker Jonelle Filigno. But Sinclair aside there are no stars, and Beckie’s technical quality seems to mark her out in a corps that’s long on all sorts of athleticism, but short on foot skills.
If it was my team I’d have taken Beckie and left Iacchelli. But then I’m not at training or in the locker room. John Herdman had made a catchphrase out of calling his players, including Iacchelli, “outstanding Canadians” (though that would leave Sesselmann out), and she certainly has a good reputation as a personality and a hard worker. The way she’s busted her ass to get back into the national team picture after half a decade in the wilderness, alone, speaks volumes about her character. Iacchelli playing a home World Cup is not only a great story but a suggestion that she has some of those “intangibles” everybody loves to talk about, and since any Canadian success will have to come through being a familiar unit of friends with loads of team spirit, rather than sheer skill, perhaps she can be justified.
The emergence of Allysha Chapman falls into a similar category. At the beginning of last year she was absolutely nowhere, grinding it out in Sweden on a just-promoted team nobody had ever heard of, then John Herdman called her up and “oh, she’s pretty good.” Undersized, aggressive, quick, and seemingly impossible to intimidate, Chapman’s made some mistakes as she adjusts to the pace of international soccer (particularly in Edmonton against Japan) but so obviously deserves to be on this team that nobody even commented when her name came up. She has started Canada’s last six matches, scored against Italy, and will be starting again. Iacchelli is the feel-good story, the stereotypical twenty-third woman who never lost hope and overcame all the odds. Chapman also slipped through the cracks, but has become such an important tool for John Herdman that we forget how quickly it happened.
Also interesting is Ashley Lawrence, one of three players (with Kadeisha Buchanan and Jessie Fleming) from last summer’s U-20 Women’s World Cup roster. Lawrence had a good, lively U-20 tournament, but wasn’t exactly outstanding. So, like Chapman, what’s remarkable about her being on this team is that it’s no longer remarkable. She’s played herself into a more prominent role every month: garbage time in a couple friendlies last fall, a few starts here and there, good minutes in the Cyprus Cup, culminating in the most recent match against France where she lined up against one of the world’s four best teams and didn’t look bad. She’s another good example of somebody who’s played her way into this tournament, and while I don’t expect her to get major minutes she’s got a bit of impact sub-style flair.
Finally, a word on Jessie Fleming. There was never any doubt she’d make this team. She was not only a fine player at the U-17 and U-20 levels but has looked promising on the senior team and was one of Canada’s stars at BC Place against world number ones Germany last year. She broke her international duck at the Cyprus Cup, has six starts in 2015, and only turned 17 years old a couple weeks ago. Most of the rosters aren’t out yet but Fleming will likely be the youngest player at the Women’s World Cup; she was one of the ten youngest at the U-20 World Cup and none of those younger are in any danger of participating this year. She’ll probably get minutes too, particularly if Matheson is ruled out. The hype is starting to build; Fleming has already been singled out for media coverage, and in an environment where relatively few pundits regularly watch the women’s national team there’s a risk of “the next Sinclair”/”soccer’s Connor McDavid” or other such inappropriate labels being applied. Be cautious. Fleming’s looked good against top teams, but had a bit of a rough time against France. She’s still very young and could definitely go either way. Personally I am very high on her, but it’s a long, long way from “prospect” to “Women’s World Cup”.
That said, a 17-year-old Kara Lang made her FIFA Women’s World Cup debut for Canada in 2003, scored twice, and helped Canada to a fourth-place finish. It was a different era, and Lang was a different player, but teenagers can still make a difference in the Women’s World Cup. How about Australia’s Caitlin Foord, who in 2011 put in a terrific tournament for an underpowered Matildas squad at only 16 years old? Or Norway’s Emilie Haavi, who had just turned 19 when she scored against Equatorial Guinea that same year?
Back in December I said Canada ought to finish fourth this summer. I see no reason to change that prediction now. The midfield, anchored by Sophie Schmidt, Desiree Scott, and hopefully Matheson, lacks any individual world-beaters but is a strong unit. The defense will grow stronger as Sesselmann gets fit (she struggled against France but fair enough, that was her return to action), the keepers are no problem. The forwards are the question mark, but we’ve started to see a little more from Christine Sinclair. She’s already scored five goals this year in eight matches; not quite London 2012 form, and generally against B-grade opposition, but an improvement. Last year there were a lot of times when she was creating chances but not putting them away, and while she turns 32 during the tournament and ain’t what she was the tank’s not empty. If Adriana Leon (who scored against Mexico in the Cyprus Cup) and Melissa Tancredi (who did everything but score against Italy) can punish defenders physically, and the midfield led by Schmidt can do its share, Sinclair could be still be a valuable part of an all-round attack. This is not what we are used to from Sinclair, who was once the best one-woman offensive show in world soccer, but given Canada’s easy bracket it might be enough.