Maple Leaf Forever! Canadian 2019 Women’s World Cup Preview Part 3: Canada

By Benjamin Massey

June 9th, 2019 · 2 comments

Canada Soccer

Because I don’t have the nerve to say it myself, I will passive-aggressively quote Daniel Squizzato.

Squizz is an optimist and a patron of lost causes, but he’s onto something. The 2019 Canadian women’s national team is being called, by serious players who have even watched the games that aren’t on TSN, our best ever. The only serious argument would come from the circa 2003 team, which was mostly too young but featured apex Andrea Neil and was the only major tournament where both 20-year-old Christine Sinclair and 35-year-old Charmaine Hooper were within reasonable range of their primes. That team didn’t beat anybody they weren’t supposed to beat, but they beat everybody they had to and got us our best-ever fourth-place finish at a World Cup. You could argue for our 2016 Olympic team, but since that’s this team with some young players replaced by inferior old ones, it sort of concedes the argument.

Naturally, the rest of the world has not sat still. As we know this is also the best Dutch team ever, the best Australian, probably the best English, and overall maybe the best American, which is a thought to chill the blood. Even last year, at home, this Canadian team was distinctly outplayed by Germany.

Yet sit down, plan Canada’s path to victory, and it is the right side of insane. If we win our group, which is difficult but realistic, we get a round-of-16 match against most likely England or Japan. That’s rough for a round-of-16 game, but Canada winning would arguably not even be a surprise. England is good, but maybe a bit overrated; certainly not off Canada’s tier. Japan seems to be on the way down. We’ve also beaten both teams recently after some long cold streaks. The last World Cup aside, and we absolutely could have won that game, Canada’s had England’s number since 2014 or so. Get through that and the probable quarter-final is against Australia, an easier opponent, or a pupu platter of South Korea/Brazil/Norway-type outfits who could upset the Aussies but aren’t really in our weight class. Then you’re in the money, and the rest of the way every team is either good or on a roll, but the most probable semi-final opponent is Germany and even though it didn’t really count we’ve beaten them too

Intangible-wise, looking for destiny’s choice, there are only two options: France, a brilliant team but infamous chokers, hosting a tournament that’s got the country’s attention by the millions, looking to finally prove that its enormous reputation is merited on the biggest stage it will ever have, and Canada, or more specifically Christine Sinclair, within a couple years of calling time on the greatest career in women’s soccer history but without a single, solitary international winner’s medal to show for it, finally playing on a team worthy of her powers. The women’s soccer gods like teams of destiny. They are sentimental souls.

Not that we’re among the favourites. Maybe it’s one chance in ten, maybe it’s one chance in twenty, the odds are real but they’re slim. We have no glaring weaknesses but no distinct strengths. We have a few players who’d make any roster in the world but not one superstar in her prime. In goal we whisper “if only Erin McLeod was five years younger,” at forward we whisper “if only Jordyn Huitema was seven years older,” and in midfield it’s better because we’re only wishing for another four on young Jessie Fleming. The future is bright, except that when Sinclair ages out it’ll lose a little bit of its purpose.

Today’s problem is, unusually, our attack. So far this year in eight official matches we have scored eight goals, including a 3-0 home win over Mexico. We’ve been shut out by Iceland, Sweden, and Spain. Against Spain in particular we badly outplayed their second eleven, dominating the final half such as you seldom see us outside CONCACAF, and drew 0-0 because we couldn’t get the ball in the net. We’re undefeated in 2019 because we haven’t conceded at all, but you probably can’t pull that off for an entire World Cup. This just isn’t enough scoring.

Mostly it’s indistinguishable from bad luck; we’re clearly generating chances, and it’s tempting to invoke the gambler’s fallacy and say we’re due to score in the World Cup. John Herdman’s teams had spells like this too and it seemed to come right on the day. We need Janine Beckie to recapture her 2016 form, and Nichelle Prince her 2017–18, not miracles. But if they don’t, it gets bad.

Goaltending

Stephanie Labbé was once a question mark, and her recent club history has been weird even by Canadian standards. She spent 2018 mostly sans club after agreeing in principle to join the Calgary Foothills PDL team but having the move blocked by the league. She then played UWS, which is way below her level, and was a late-season addition to a mid-table Swedish team. This year the North Carolina Courage, historically good defensively, gave Labbé the starting job this year in place of 2017 NWSL Second XI ‘keeper Katelyn Rowland. That’s a mighty endorsement, and in four games Labbe’s made five saves on seven shots, because the Courage do not ask a lot of their goalies. In her starts Rowland’s been ventilated, but that’s with seven World Cup players (including Labbé) away. It could mean anything.

But international fans have it figured out. Canada’s most pleasant soccer surprise since Desiree Scott has been that we can trust Stephanie Labbé after all. Prior to the 2016 Olympics, when we learned Erin McLeod had suffered her then-latest career-threatening knee injury, I got drunk and belaboured Karina LeBlanc to come out of retirement. Labbé had a decent tournament, better than feared, and since has clearly improved. Maybe training with Foothills helped her; they have been a goalkeeping factory lately. But the terrifying “oh god you can’t get to that” runs have almost stopped, when Labs punches a ball these days odds are it’ll go to a better place than it was before, and her decision-making has maybe doubled or tripled.

As her shot-stopping was always fine, though not McLeod-in-her-prime good, and her distribution fair (long on power, sometimes short on accuracy), this means that, when McLeod was briefly healthy last year, nobody called for her to start. One would not rank her with the best keepers in the world but she’s good enough to start for a contender, and that was the best we were hoping for three years ago.

If something happens Kailen Sheridan or Sabrina D’Angelo steps in. D’Angelo is older, but the third-string: she was a backup in North Carolina last year, posting decent numbers in an easy situation including a playoff shutout, and now starts for Sweden’s Vittsjö GIK ahead of fellow Canadian, and Scottish international, Shannon Lynn. Sheridan walked out of Clemson to become the starter for Sky Blue, which for the past three seasons has been a difficult job. In both 2017 and 2018 she led the NWSL in shots faced; in 2019 she’s fifth despite having missed three games. Her save percentages have been mid-range at best, so don’t give her Steph’s job, but at 23 years old she’s getting lots of reps against world-class attackers. We aren’t back to McLeod/LeBlanc by any means and Sheridan has mistakes in her but she’d do.

Defence

Everyone in Canada loves Kadeisha Buchanan, and there’s a lot there to love: quality technique, physical dominance, just the right side of being a dirty player. But realize that, while she is high-class, she is not world-class. She does not start the big games for her club, Olympique Lyonnais, ranking behind French internationals Wendie Renard and Griedge Mbock Bathy. Nobody would start ahead of Renard and Mbock Bathy is a domestic, so this might still leave Buchanan inside the international top ten. But we’re talking about the core defender on a team we hope will win the World Cup, and that means she’ll have to be at her very best for us to win.

Rebecca Quinn is listed in this category mostly out of hope. She’s a very good defensive midfielder, capable of both defending and lying deep to distribute the ball, and could start there. But Desiree Scott is a perfectly adequate defensive midfielder herself, with Sophie Schmidt able to provide cover. At centre back, Shelina Zadorsky… would be better suited for a lesser role. We saw in 2015 how a lack of centre back depth can murder you stone cold dead in winnable games. Quinn came up as a centre back, her versatility moved her up the field, she’s been a great success there, and moving to France will only do her good learning those arts, but let’s get back to basics for a few years and put Quinn beside Buchanan like it used to be.

That aside, we should be good here if nothing goes wrong. Ashley Lawrence is a world-leading full back, who can play on either side, defend responsibly, outdribble many, outrun most, and provide comprehensive, consistent, world-class play. Unlike Buchanan she plays almost every day for her French team, Paris Saint-Germain. Across from her is Allysha Chapman, my current favourite Canadian player. She is a “modern full back” mostly in terms of exuberance: she’ll attack you but more with eagerness and guts than skill, dribbling like a fawn on roller skates. This works more often than you might think. And defensively she is a terrier, hard-nosed and dirty and disinclined to take prisoners. She is enormous fun to watch, if not to play against, and though I make her sound like some crappy all-guts-no-glory typical Canadian try-hard she is actually very effective, like a female Paul Stalteri but with a greater sense of joy. Not up to Lawrence’s standard but holy moly she’s good to have around. If you are new to this team, watch Allysha Chapman and be enlightened.

So the starters are acceptable, but things drop off fast. At full back we have the options of Lindsay Agnew, Jenna Hellstrom, and Jayde Riviere, all of whom are native forwards and emphatically experiments. Moving Lawrence to full back worked out great but that doesn’t mean you can do it every time; Hellstrom and Riviere lack experience at this level and in her cameos Agnew has been at best awkward. The centre is bolstered by Shannon Woeller, an exceptional story: she was on the taxi squad for London 2012 but did not enjoy a high reputation and was not missed when John Herdman stopped calling her. As the years passed she moved to Scandinavia, then Germany, and kept her career quietly on the boil, until in April 2017 Canada was holding a camp in Germany and needed some warm bodies. Woeller was both known and available, so she got called in to help with training, and since then has made an additional four caps, looking much-improved in short minutes. If she plays much something’s gone wrong, but if she plays some that’s perfectly all right and she’s a terrific “dreams do come true” story.

Midfield

Diana Matheson is injured! Oh no!

Matheson, in her salad days, was a very good player. She remains a leader and a class act. But her salad days are over. When Matheson is in the lineup she doesn’t look like she belongs anymore; the knees have gone, she’s neither as shifty nor as quick as she used to be, and because she’s such an infrequent part of the squad it’s developing without her. It is my impression that when Matheson is in, the somewhat naturally-diffident Jessie Fleming withdraws into her shell, and Canada is worse for it. Matheson could probably be useful as depth, but Gabby Carle might not be a lot less. So no, except in terms of team friendship and the hopes of fans who’d like to see Matheson collect more silverware, losing her won’t cost Canada.

The hope is that this is the tournament where Jessie Fleming blossoms into the player we all know she should be. No longer is she wearing herself out covering for inferior fullbacks, or deferring to Matheson, and she has a little more age and experience. 2023, not 2019, will be the big World Cup for her, when she’s turned pro and hitting her physical prime, but in the 2016 Olympics she looked like she was on the verge of tournament best XI, and if she can get there this year that would be very good.

Fleming has scored once in 2019 after getting three in 2018. It’s an artifact of that attacking drought more than anything, and of playing decent teams rather than CONCACAF shitholes, but we haven’t seen her best. She certainly needs to bring it more consistently against the big teams. She’s a fine player and only 21 but in her third major tournament she’s earning expectations besides “being good for a kid.” Jessie Fleming at her best is formidable, an all-around attacking and defensive threat that very few, if any, teams can really contain. Playing at UCLA she is way above the level and her international performances suffer, but hopefully the concentrated preparation of a World Cup overrides that. We need it to.

Beyond the big dog, Canada has a solid deep unit here. Desiree Scott lost some of her mojo when she went to Notts County but is finding it again and should be safe. Sophie Schmidt, between nagging injuries and an overlong period not playing regular soccer, is unlikely to be the core piece in 2019 she should have been in 2015. She has too much rust. But the same benefit of a concentrated camp applies to her as Fleming, and even at her least good she’s a versatile option across midfield and sometimes in the back who you always notice on the field, if only because of the hair. There’s a solid chance that, thanks to concentrated training, good health, and the resumption of her NWSL career, we’ll get Good Sophie back this tournament, and that’ll be a draw turned into a win right there.

Julia Grosso, 18 years of age, is not a Fleming-esque phenom, but she’s an interesting young attacking midfielder who’s going to make the bench on merit, probably see a few minutes, and has greatly improved how she thinks the game in the past year. Gabrielle Carle is another attacking midfielder, a forward much of the time but not for Canada, who is quick and sly and unlikely to play much. It’s a short list of players, but really Quinn is more likely to line up here than defensively, Jenna Hellstrom can line up wide, and in the Herdman/Heiner-Møller system the fullbacks and forwards chip in here. I realize it looks a lot like a donut formation, especially with anti-midfielder coach Danny Worthington among the assistants, but top to bottom this is probably our strongest position.

Forwards

To answer the big questions: no, Christine Sinclair is no longer the best forward in the world, of course she isn’t, she turns 36 during the World Cup. She is arguably not the best forward on the Canadian national team, though I heavily stress the “arguably.” The chances of a vintage, London 2012-style taking over of the world are slim to none.

But she’s still an exceptionally, maybe even a surprisingly, good player. Last year she was shortlisted for the Ballon d’Or and came 15th out of 15, which was probably about right. Her scoring rate seriously revived in 2018, eight goals or her country placing her ahead of Sam Kerr, Vivianne Miedema, and other big names, while her NWSL production was star-level. In 2019 she’s kept it up with four goals so far. Not only does Sinclair obviously deserve to start for Canada but she’d be a starter for most World Cup teams, old lady or no. It’s really impressive how Sinclair, who has been injured and was once ragged for indifferent fitness, has been playing at such a high level into her mid-30s, which is why #ChasingAbby has gone from “wouldn’t it be nice” to a near-certainty barring injury.

Thank God for Christine, as we’ve said a few times in the last twenty years. It looked like we were getting past that, with Janine Beckie scoring more often for her country and Adriana Leon and Nichelle Prince settling in to nice complementary roles. But after scoring nine goals in 2016 and eight in 2017 (in fewer matches), Beckie slumped to four goals last year and has only one so far in 2019, against Nigeria. She hasn’t become a bad player. Joining Manchester City as part of a powerful strike force, she’s been an impact substitute with a goal in the league and a bunch in the cup. She’s generated chances for Canada too. It should come around for her, in principle. But a Beckie who’s not scoring is a Beckie who’s not doing enough.

Nichelle Prince was showing very good attacking impetus off the bench in 2018, scoring four goals against Brazil (real soccer country), Costa Rica (semi-real), and a brace against Jamaica (I mean they’re in the World Cup). But in 2019 so far she’s been shut out despite making seven starts. Worse, unlike Beckie, she isn’t creating much.

Jordyn Huitema, the very good 18-year-old who just joined PSG, is tall, talented for her age, and unlikely to play much of a role. Lately, particularly in the friendly against Spain, she’s shown signs of growing into a useful option off the bench as she matures both physically and mentally, and her spelling Sinclair in a couple games would be a bonus. All the trends are good, but we won’t want to count on her in 2019. She’s reached the point where she can light up bad CONCACAF teams, but our best lineup has Christine Sinclair in it, and with Sinclair on Huitema goes out wide, and that just isn’t her game. She definitely has “future international target woman” potential and this will be a good experience for her but her impact on Canada’s immediate fortunes will be marginal.

Last, and sadly approaching least, is once-phenomenal winger Deanne Rose. Unlike Huitema, Rose is more comfortable the wider she plays, and so during her coming-out party in 2014 and 2015 looked like an exceptional attacking talent for a 16-year-old. Now, four years later, she looks like an exceptional attacking talent for a 16-year-old. There have been few signs of development in any area I can see. In 718 NCAA minutes at the University of Florida she scored twice, and that was a bad team but she was part of why. Rose was not the best Canadian attacker playing college soccer in Florida last year, and it was not even close, but Evelyne Viens has never been called up and Rose keeps getting the nod on her rep. Every minute Rose plays outside of garbage time indicates a problem.

As to Leon, she lit up the useless countries at CONCACAF World Cup qualifying, including a four-bagger against Cuba. She also scored in our send-off friendly against Mexico. She has got value beyond pure scoring, because she’ll usually be coming off the bench to hip-check girls and run at everyone in sight, destabilizing defences with energy and her definite opinion that she should always be attacking from everywhere. Next to Sinclair she has the least improvement to do; we don’t need more than the occasional strike from her. She can’t score for her clubs either, but clubs keep subbing her on, because she’s a handful.

Finally: as of tournament’s start Christine Sinclair is on 181 goals, three back of Abby Wambach’s 184. She scored three goals in the 2003 World Cup, three in 2007, one in 2011, and two in 2015, so it’s unlikely the record falls in France. But if Cameroon has an off-night she could get a brace there, and then watch out. If Sinclair wants her record goal to be the winner in a World Cup final that would be fine.

The Prognosis

This is the best chance we’ve ever had.

Canada can not only beat everyone in the world but, apart from the United States, recently has. We didn’t win those two Olympic bronze medals for showing up and the winning habit is becoming ingrained. The surprise coaching change from John Herdman to Kenneth Heiner-Møller, with Christine Sinclair and the players finding out about it from the press release, could have been destructive. But Heiner-Møller was already known to the team and, both tactically and in terms of his personal approach, has continued a lot of what Herdman started. He has even assumed Herdman’s old habit of watching the first minutes of friendlies from high up in the stands. If the players have a problem today then they’re keeping it quiet. Show video of Canada 2019 under Heiner-Møller next to Canada 2017 under Herdman then, give-or-take things like Jordyn Huitema being two years more mature, even experts would be hard-pressed to tell the difference.

At their best, Canada will be a handful. The good news is that, aside from our offensive bad luck, Canada has been reliable lately. Our last really disappointing performance was a 3-2 loss at home to Germany, and even that was still a 3-2 loss at home to Germany which we could have won had we been sharper. There have been a few losses to teams we should be better than at Algarve Cups and so on but that’s what Algarve Cups are for. We can be confident that, even in the worst case, this doesn’t end with the Netherlands passing us off the park and Sweden humanely destroying us in the round of 16. Whatever happens we’ll put up a fight.

It would be reassuring to say better about what truly is the best CanWNT ever. Unfortunately that’s just life in the growing world of women’s soccer: the fact that we’ve not only held our ground but improved against the rest of the world as more traditional soccer powers have embraced the women’s game is a powerful tribute to our talent pool. But we’ve got the best we could realistically hope for: a fighting chance at a trophy. And this team has given us so many magical moments in the past seven years it’s hard not to keep our hopes up.

2 responses to “Maple Leaf Forever! Canadian 2019 Women’s World Cup Preview Part 3: Canada”

  1. canadafan says:

    Fleming has scored this year — she scored the first goal in the game against Mexico.

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