On the current FIFA Women’s World Rankings, Canada is ranked number five and Sweden is number nine. In the past five years, Canada’s record against Sweden before today’s Women’s World Cup round of 16 match was two wins, a loss, and two draws (one of which Canada won on penalties). Both teams finished second in their respective groups, though the Swedes’ was the stronger. Betting lines were even. Both teams were healthy. Sweden winning 1-0 is not the upset of the century.
But be honest, Canadian fans: we were looking past that game a bit, wondering how we’d do against Germany. Sweden’s not going to win this tournament and this was supposedly our best team ever. Better than the 2003 Canadian team that finished fourth in a World Cup after losing its semi-final to, er, Sweden. Anyway, we should be losing to first-rate powers, not the Netherlands and the Swedes. And it was agonizing. The first half was dull, but shaped well for Canada, who were doing everything they should have against quality opposition. Then we gave up a goal early in the second, missed a VAR’d penalty on one of those “unnatural position” fake handballs that we were all morally certain would go against us, snatched at half-chances, subbed on Rebecca Quinn for some reason1, and plain got beat.
We weren’t unlucky. Our weaknesses, chance creation and the centre back who isn’t Kadeisha Buchanan, were predictable and cost us in the end. Sweden played Canada at our own game and was better on the day, holding Canada down by every measure. They played without any of the extracurricular crap we’ve seen elsewhere in the round of 16. They’ll be easy to cheer for in the rest of the tournament, or would be if they hadn’t knocked Canada out of the World Cup the absolute bastards.
So we’re disappointed, if not angry, and reacting in one of two ways. One is typified by Toronto FC tweeting “Hearts high, ladies,” whatever the fuck that means: treating the WNT like likable but forgettable short-track figure skaters who Steve Armitage told us might medal and finished sixth. This is probably emotionally healthy.
The other approach could be called “the fifteen-tweet thread,” and I’m not going to link to those because it’s not fair to read such outpourings of grief and fury into the permanent record. Suffice to say we all have great twisted strands of emotion coiled up inside our chests, ready to spring out with everything this soccer team makes us feel, usually good, this time bad.
Of course we’re overreacting. We just got eliminated from a Women’s World Cup disappointingly early, if we don’t have license to overreact now then when?
Christine Sinclair will probably never play a Women’s World Cup game again. Not that it’s impossible for her to make the 2023 team on merit at age 40: she plays more withdrawn for Portland and for a time with Canada in 2012, and succeeds. Middle-aged Sincy could absolutely be our Cuauhtémoc Blanco, fairly motionless but beating midfielders and pinging around balls and drawing way too much attention long after you think she should be past it. But Father Time is undefeated and the odds are against her. For the generation that’s grown up watching her play for teams that never looked as good as this one, this would be a heartbreaking way to end it if we didn’t have the 2020 Olympics to cling to like drowning sailors on driftwood.
And she should have taken that penalty. By now everyone knows that Sinclair told Janine Beckie to take it and Beckie, being both a striker and a mere mortal confronted with Christine Sinclair’s divine will, of course agreed. The kick was decent, too. She placed it too high but not far inside the post, which is usually good enough, and there was plenty of power; that kick goes in, what, nine times out of ten? This was the tenth time.
All that is immaterial, for the same reason Wayne Gretzky should have taken a shootout attempt at Nagano ’98 despite being 37 years old and the worst otherwise-great player on a breakaway that ever laced up skates. You give the legend the chance to do the legendary thing, and if the legend is selfless enough to pass on the opportunity you tell her to do it. Sinclair has the poise and experience to execute in the clutch, as she has so often, and had she missed (she is a good but not brilliant penalty taker) her legend would have survived unscathed, whereas now Janine Beckie will be carrying around redemption narratives until she personally scores a gold medal game brace against the US.
Four years ago in Edmonton, in stoppage time against China, Sinclair just crept her dramatic winning penalty between Wang Fei’s fingertips and the goalpost. That penalty was no better than Janine Beckie’s, believe me. Bottom corner but Wang could have walked over and trapped it if she’d kept her head. Didn’t happen, Canada won, and that goal was all that kept us from real embarrassment. Legends get away with things, if you let them.
There has been much call that this should spur us to create a national women’s soccer league in Canada. We always used to say that when the MNT was eliminated from things so I guess old habits die hard. Nobody is making the claim in so many words but to be clear, no imaginable Canadian women’s league starting on a timeline like that of the men’s league we actually got (i.e. first kick this past spring) would have made any possible difference to this result. The entire 2019 roster is either in a good club situation or is younger than a women’s player usually turns pro. Maybe Jade Kovacevic scores eight goals for York Femi-9, gets Adriana Leon’s roster spot, and poaches a goal off the bench in stoppage time, but given the WNT’s usual reluctance to change around its rosters that seems pretty fan-fictiony. If CanWPL started tomorrow it would start to pay off for 2023.
A CanWPL is a very good idea on many levels, but we may have missed our best chance to get more than “WPSL, but Canadian and not quite as shitty.” I spent years saying the Canadian Premier League should have been for women rather than men and now the money is spent on men’s programs that can’t approach sustainability for five years. A women’s league can come out of that (League1 Ontario and the PLSQ both have them) but it won’t match the top-league-in-the-world potential we had before. We’ll see; forming a quality professional women’s league because we’re so pissed off Adriana Leon skied that shot in the 18-yard box and not because we were thrilled at the successful 2015 WWC would be very like us. Even a Canadian WPSL, like the Canadian USL League One we have for the men, would be infinitely better than nothing and those who put pressure on the CSA to get it are doing the Lord’s work. But it’s no magic bullet. For all the talk of the Mexican women’s league, and their occasional big attendances and competitive games, their national team has never been worse than it is today.
So what do we do, for short-term results? First, resist the urge to panic. Gavin Day said this is “the last hurrah for the core veteran group at the WWC” but only Sinclair is a near-sure thing: Matheson and McLeod are already gone, one of Schmidt (30) or Scott (31) probably won’t make it, and while 32 isn’t old for a goalie Steph Labbé might have been passed as Kailen Sheridan by 2023. Most of these women will be back. Play Sinclair in the hole like in Portland, let Jordyn Huitema get the experience as a target woman she needs while she still has a veteran to mentor her, make Jessie Fleming your creative fulcrum and give her carte blanche to run where she will, and start Rebecca Quinn more. We have probably a friendly or two, plus Olympic qualifying, to fine-tune our approach, and it looks like the shithouse queenery did not leave enough margin for error. Meanwhile we do have, and it’s a credit to our system that we do, a modern team that can play a variety of styles, is naturally fluid, and is lacking only a few things. This World Cup really was very well-played. Now, let’s put our talented players where they can best influence the game and see what happens. I really, really want Christine Sinclair to get that gold medal.
In their first game of the 2019 Women’s World Cup, Canada Shithouse Queened their way to a 1-0 win over Cameroon, a not-very-good team, in efficient if unattractive style. A few days later they beat New Zealand, theoretically better, up and down the pitch, won 2-0, and despite New Zealand’s negative tactics looked plenty dangerous. What the hell gives?
The game was close to perfect. Fifteen minutes in Nichelle Prince and Janine Beckie had already snatched half-chances, Canada had something like 70% of the possession, and New Zealand was out of it. But when a Beckie cross broke C.J. Bott’s wrist by a fluke she was down for nearly three minutes before being helped off. From the resulting corner Sinclair hit the crossbar and Buchanan headed her follow-up into Rebekah Stott, but referee Yoshimi Yamashita was as rattled as everyone else, imposed herself on the game a bit, the fans got stupid1, a few more New Zealanders went down for injury breaks less justifiable than Bott’s, and at the end of the first half the flow died, which suited New Zealand just fine.
In the second half the peace was shattered by Canada’s big guns, we came out on the attack, stayed that way, and made it look easy. A 2-0 loss flattered the Footie Ferns, but the players were not thinking “it could have been four” I think: Jessie Fleming’s delight and relief on scoring her first World Cup goal was obvious from a long way off. That goal and Prince’s meant our first two-goal game in a Women’s World Cup since September 20, 2007, when we drew Australia 2-2 and allowed a stoppage-time goal to Cheryl Salisbury that eliminated us in the group stage. It is also our first two-win performance in a World Cup group stage since 2003, when we beat Argentina and pre-apex Japan, though the groups were tougher in those days. We finished fourth in that World Cup, our best result ever.
Chris Henderson gave New Zealand 0.06 expected goals against Canada. As of close of play Monday this is the fifth-best defensive figure of the tournament so far by Henderson’s analysis2 and the second-best against a real team3. We also generated 3.60, which is high for us, and made for far better statistics than Canada earned against Cameroon, where our 1-0 win was safe but nothing like this good.
Is it because New Zealand is actually worse than Cameroon? It may be (they play on Thursday) but New Zealand has underperformed. Offensively they’re not much but they don’t belong in the category with Chile, Argentina, and Thailand that the Canada game placed them into: they so nearly got a point against the Dutch in a much closer game with 0.63 expected goals and 2.70 expected goals against. The Dutch, on the other hand, handled Cameroon easily despite conceding a goal and some other half-chances. Group E has sorted itself into a top half of Canada and the Netherlands, and a bottom half of Cameroon and New Zealand, which was predictable, but the gap between those two halves and the closeness within them was not.
Partially the New Zealand game was a justification of Cameroon’s tactics: their aggressive early press against Canada punished them in end and did so even more severely against the Netherlands and Vivianne Miedema, but it kept the game closer than New Zealand’s unimaginative bunker. Partially I think it was the conditions: a rainy day, like that in Montpellier, can favour a team pouring out its energy and sliding into everything, but while there’d been a veritable monsoon earlier on game day in Grenoble, by kickoff time it was the most perfect evening and even the pitch was drying out. It was also late (the local time at kickoff was 9 PM), and New Zealand had the crowd against them while Cameroon had the crowd on their side, and the ref called a better game, and when you’re outclassed those mental issues add up. Finally, Canada just played better against New Zealand than we did against Cameroon.
After a conventional kickoff Kenneth Heiner-Møller ran out essentially a 3-4-3, with Shelina Zadorsky, Kadeisha Buchanan, and Sophie Schmidt in the back, a middle four of Ashley Lawrence, Desiree Scott, Jessie Fleming, and Jayde Riviere, and Janine Beckie, Christine Sinclair, and Nichelle Prince up top, though it was very fluid. Against a team that wanted to bunker for its life against the Canadian attack (!!!) it paid off handsomely. Buchanan and Schmidt between them give Canada a lot of defensive ball-playing ability. Lawrence pretty much did whatever she wanted and was very effective. Beckie and Sinclair both could have scored; Prince, after an appalling start, did. Despite the theoretically-attacking setup New Zealand had neither the ability nor the inclination to create anything against it; when a coach loads up his attack and not only scored a few but gets his best defensive result in some time, you should give the coach a little credit. New Zealand boss Tom Sermanni worked with Canada and John Herdman in 2015, so maybe Heiner-Møller wanted to hit the old man with the unexpected. If he did it worked.
Not that the coach foresaw everything. First half Nichelle Prince was bad. She wasted runs, wasted balls, wasted everyone’s time. It looked like Heiner-Møller was going to bring Adriana Leon on to start the second half, probably for Prince: Leon was warming up separately with her pinnie off in the style of an impending change. But she went back to the locker room during the break to emerge, still pinnie-less, after play had resumed, then took sprints on the touchline to warm back up. The next stoppage in play was from the Fleming goal, assisted excellently by Prince, and the substitution was canceled. Prince of course was beyond New Zealand’s level for the rest of the game. Credit to Prince for rallying but sometimes a coach has to be lucky to be good.
Riviere made her sixth senior cap, her second senior start, and her first senior tournament appearance. An eighteen-year-old Canadian woman never really has a fixed position but Riviere’s historically been a winger, so this was a change. But she looked terrific, discharging her light defensive duties perfectly and playing the ball with élan that recalled a higher-energy Lawrence. The change from Riviere to Allysha Chapman was effective as well, the stiletto replaced by an athletic sock with a brick in it. Sinclair did not have her finest game and made some mistakes but deserved a goal; it was that sort of night. Finally Desiree Scott, omnipresent, was man of the match; at times she looked like scoring a goal, which would have been the crowning glory given that in 145 caps she’s never managed it. Still, though we all want Sinclair to break the record and Scott to break her goose-egg, those were the only flaws in a performance to gladden the heart of any Canada fan.
Well, there is one other problem. You can’t really play that way against the Netherlands. As good as Riviere looked, Shanice van de Sanden and especially Lieke Martens would expose her defensively; she’s played maybe an hour of her life against talent like that. Perhaps if you throw Chapman back in for Riviere, you get away with it, but even then your back three is spending less time freewheeling creatively and more time babysitting a far more dangerous Dutch attack, and the first time Vivianne Miedema gets a break against Sophie Schmidt hearts are going to enter throats. In an abstract way I do think Canada should expose itself a bit more even against good teams, and the indifferent Dutch defense means that we could surely give as good as we got, but part of the reason the New Zealand game looked so stirring is that Canada has so infrequently played that way. Let’s keep it in our back pocket as a reserve tactic, and let’s be glad that Sarina Wiegman has one more thing to worry about, but likely the Dutch—and most games in the knockout stages, very likely—call for more classic Canadian Shithouse Queenery. Sorry, viewers.
Historically, the Cameroon women’s national team is bad at soccer. They have qualified for one Olympics and two World Cups despite only having to get out of Africa, which some of my readers could do if they found ten equivalent friends. In 2015 they won two games in the group stage, somehow, over Switzerland and worst-team-alive Ecuador, but those were their first and only points in major competition. That aside, on the rare occasion they play non-African competition they lose heavily including a 2018 6-0 friendly loss to France. Their FIFA ranking is 46th, which is well into the disgraces.
Yet, in their opening game of the 2019 World Cup, Cameroon held Canada, who have an outside chance at winning this thing, to only a 1-0 win. Worse, that seemed fair: Chris Henderson had Canada leading the expected goals 1.31 to 0.68. This is impossible to look up but I doubt any team outside Africa has ever generated as few as 1.31 expected goals against the Cameroonians.
In mitigation we would say, first, that there was never any thought Cameroon might actually win this thing, and second, that the battery of uncalled fouls against Jessie Fleming in the final hour, some of which didn’t even pretend to try for the ball, cut down the chances Canada could create almost as much as Kadeisha Buchanan chopping down a Cameroonian attacker like a Christmas tree and somehow getting a foul called in her favour early in the game did the other way.
Third, and most importantly, Canada played the game to win it by one. Cameroon came out of the gate pressing as hard as ever they could and generating some decent results. They are not that skilled but they’re skilled enough, they’re not Thailand at all, and they’re quick and strong. Buoyed by a crowd that was modest but rambunctiously in their favour (the Cameroonian population in France is extensive), they challenged the Canadians to the best of their abilities and, very briefly, made the game look even. The rain in Montpellier, which at times was truly torrential, probably made things easier, encouraging aggressive tackles and making running seem less painful than disciplined positional play when the cold and the wet make inactive muscles tighten up. Of course you pay for it in the end, and Cameroon did: towards the end of the first half they were flagging, and at the end of the second Cameroon was trying their hardest but effectively unable to complete and the game was functionally over.
Cameroon’s one apparently high-class scoring chance, the header wide by Claudine Meffometou, was actually marked out perfectly by Allysha Chapman, who kept outside on Meffometou as she went up and prevented her from ever getting a header on target. Canada generated probably the sum of one good chance: Kadeisha Buchanan’s headed goal usually doesn’t go in, but Christine Sinclair’s header wide on the second-half break by Deanne Rose usually does1. Every stat other than expected goals showed Canadian dominance: passes, possession, challenges, tackles, name it. From the terraces the Voyageurs watched that game and worried Cameroon would snatch it because soccer is a stupid old game, but we also weren’t really.
To an extent Canada’s offensive ineptitude is bad luck. From the Fleming fouls to the balls not quite rolling our way or onto Cameroonian shins, we weren’t exactly loaded up on breaks Monday night. On the other hand, the same Chris Henderson who gave us 1.61 xG against Cameroon gave us 0.39 for our preparatory friendly against Spain “B.” On the other other hand Spain got 0.05, and if your opponents can expect to score on you one game in every twenty that will, generally, do. We can be better but for now, this is who we are, and we shouldn’t start trying to open the floodgates at a World Cup because fans think we’d be so much more attacking if we’d only apply ourselves.
It’s time to accept Canada’s nickname as the “Shithouse Queens” (♫ having the time of our lives… ♫). This is how we’re playing and has been for a while; notwithstanding the fact that we were playing true super-minnows, it’s even what we were doing in Olympic qualifying. Scott and Schmidt in defensive midfield clogging everything up, Buchanan running wild, a lot of attacks based off individual excellence like Rose running past everybody in Montpellier. There are things to tighten up, without a doubt: we passed too much in the first half, given the demonstrated long-range chops of Sinclair, Schmidt, and Beckie we wouldn’t do any harm if instead of going for the perfect lay-off we just let ‘er go once in a while. And I reckon that, in general, an over-focus on crosses has served us badly every time we’ve tried it. Christine Sinclair is big, strong, and heads the ball well, but actually she isn’t nearly at her best trying to get service from crosses. We certainly have the ability to take on teams south of France and the USA up the middle.
These are the sorts of criticisms fans always have, though. We know our team is amazing and want them to prove it, like… well, the United States against a hopelessly demoralized Thailand, with a goalkeeper no longer bothering to move into the way of shots by the 60th minute. However, if we put down the rosé-coloured glasses2 and consider this objectively, Canada’s current tactics have been effective. They are, moreover, the sorts of tactics that are tailor-made for playing top teams. The TSN panel and television viewers and, really, those of us in the stands in France might want more attacking tactics against a team like Cameroon that shouldn’t be able to resist no matter what we do. But the smart thing to do is to play Cameroon more-or-less like you’d play the United States, give-or-take things like squad rotation (and if we are to criticize Canada and Kenneth Heiner-Møller for one thing, let it be that we made one substitution when vital, high-energy players like Sinclair or Lawrence could easily have been given 30 helpful minutes off). Coaches say, “practice as you mean to play,” and they’re right. There’s room to improve but what Canada does has been winning us soccer games and, though it reads lousy in the post-match reports, tense 1-0 wins over everybody are exciting enough in the moment.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
The 2015 Women’s World Cup had some teams that really didn’t belong. How well we remember results like Germany 10-0 Ivory Coast, or Switzerland 10-1 Ecuador, or Cameroon 6-0 Ecuador. Ecuador was really bad. But it’s 2019, women’s soccer has developed for four years, and Ecuador didn’t qualify. Instead we have Chile, and Jamaica, and Thailand and Cameroon are back!
Fans in France will get to enjoy some hilarious blowouts, making all those Ligue 1 Féminin fans feel at home.
Usefully previewing a whole 24-team women’s soccer tournament is impossible. How’s Thailand’s depth at fullback? Any writer not actually Thai will neither know nor care. In the men’s World Cup even bad teams have a few guys playing in the Eredivisie or something so you’ll know a guy who’s seen him on DAZN or at least have a good, instinctive feel for the level? The Women’s World Cup does not play that way.
Let’s divide the field in four. We’ll start with the last one, the no-hopers: Cameroon, Chile, Thailand, Argentina, Jamaica, South Africa, Nigeria. That’s seven teams, two of which are in the same group, so we can literally guarantee they won’t all finish with zero points. In fact, soccer being a sport, over the course of 20 combined games there’ll be one big upset in there. It’s perfectly possible that one of them will get out of the group stage and get the stuffing beat out of them by Australia or something. There’s too many teams in this category for them all to fail spectacularly in a 24-team tournament. But none of them are going to medal. If any of them reaches a quarter it’ll be the upset of the century. They aren’t worth dwelling on.
For the sake of versimilitude, if your team gets to play one of these trash teams, here are the names to drop at the pub so you look knowledgeable. Chilean goalkeeper Christiane Endler is Honestly Good; she turns out for Paris Saint-Germain and is reigning league Goalkeeper of the Year. Canadians can score points by pointing out Jamaica’s Tiffany Cameron, who’d be playing for us if she was better, and if you’re curious the very white girl starting in goal for them is named Sydney Schneider, she’s from New Jersey, she’s 19, and she’s done quite well at the youth levels. Feel like talking up an African? Pick South Africa’s defender and captain Janine van Wyk, their most-capped player who was semi-regular with the Houston Dash for a couple years.
Then there’s the mushy middle. They won’t disgrace themselves, most to all of them will make the round of 16 because that’s how numbers work, and I’m sure to their players and fans their games are the most important things in the world. But in historic terms they will only count because of how they hurt somebody else. South Korea, Spain, Brazil, Italy, Scotland, New Zealand. Some former middle powers on there, and maybe a couple future ones, but no teams worth setting the 4 AM alarm for. There are still individual players in this group who are well worth seeing. Scotland’s Kim Little may be the best female player in Britain and at 28 years old is reaching the height of her powers; add in Utah’s Rachel Corsie and the Scots are blessed with fun names anyway. Marta, of course, plays for Brazil, and while some people talking about women’s soccer love her because she’s the only player they’ve heard of she is an all-time great and saves her best stuff for big games. Maybe even better, somehow a 41-year-old Formiga is still hanging around the Brazilian squad; her first cap was for the Portuguese Empire, and her last might be on the Day of Judgement. Spain is definitely on the way up, and will not be this much of an also-ran in four years. Actually, they might well break out of it by the Olympics. They haven’t got the horses yet, but their 20-somethings are already making UEFA Champions League finals so watch out. New Zealand was harped upon earlier. Italy and South Korea also exist; the Italians have had very good results recently, and if only they’d played anybody real they might be worth considering as dark horses.
The three top contenders qualify for real analysis. These are the United States, France, and Germany. Cumulatively they probably have even odds of winning the World Cup. 538’s Sudbury-Thunder Bay office makes their combined chances 49%. At press time Bet365 gave 3.5-to-1 odds on France and the USA and 5.5-to-1 on Germany. Germany and the United States have won World Cups and Olympic gold medals before, France has never gotten better than a fourth-place finish but is France.
American lives are made easier by how hilariously trivial their group is. They’re near-certain going to win it; when the US chokes, which ain’t their way, it isn’t by dropping points to Thailand. Hope Solo is gone, giving up the soccer field for the boardroom (and not as a defendant), but Chicago Red Stars standout Alyssa Naeher has spent half a decade as an understudy and is probably better now than a 37-year-old Solo would have been in any event. If you want to find something to complain say that Adrianna Franch, the two-time defending NWSL Goalkeeper of the Year, might be better, but you can’t say Naeher isn’t good.
The defense is aging, apart from defender-only-by-default Crystal Dunn and Emily Sonnett, who thanks to semi-regular exposure to Thorns games I have come to like. But while you might exploit Becky Sauerbrunn or Ali Krieger for pace here and there, we’ve had that exact hope of every American defense going back to London 2012 and it hasn’t panned out. We have to admit that, helped by the benefit of the doubt from referees, the Americans play a savvy defensive game that rewards experienced players.
Further up the field brings more age. The Carli Lloyd Story continues long after the writers have stopped caring, Megan Rapinoe is still around, and Alex Morgan puts the ball in the net often enough that like a 2015-era Wambach you can’t write her off no matter how much you want to. Even some of the newer spear-carriers in this phalanx, the Christian Presses and the Allie Longs, are in principle over the hill. But their younger players, like Morgan Brian, Abby Dahlkemper, Rose Lavelle, and Lindsay Horan, have proven themselves in hard schools. I love nothing more than saying that this is the tournament the Americans will finally stop being good, every single tournament. So far my record is 0% and it’s time to stop reinforcing failure. The United States is going to be dramatic, their lineup decisions will be questionable, fans will call for the coach’s head and a goalie change and a different starting striker, and they might well win the World Cup anyway, because beyond all the crap they actually are good at this game.
Germany, like the Americans, are always there or there-abouts. I wonder if the Europeans hate the Germans like the rest of us hate the Americans. Probably not; at least in UEFA you get the occasional 2012 Olympics or something where the Germans can’t even qualify.
They aren’t even old. With the post-Olympic international retirement of Melanie Behringer and Annike Krahn, Lena Goeßling is the only player 31 or over. Sara Däbritz is still just 24, with 60 caps and the official MVP of the gold medal-winning Olympic team. Dzsenifer Maroszan is 27, Alexandra Popp is 28, and they are top players anywhere. If I were to name a weakness, which I wouldn’t like to, it would be a relatively patchwork backline that after all made mistakes against Canada last year. They have conceded three times in four games this year, once to Sweden and twice to Japan. Could be better. Is probably still good enough, especially given that they are still learning the ways of new coach Martina Voss-Tecklenburg, who did a commendable job in Switzerland.
While they’ve been up to the job for decades and aren’t Olympic champions for nothing, Germany doesn’t terrify opponents as much as the Americans, the French, or even the English. They’ll probably beat you, however they have to do it, but (at risk of playing dreadfully to stereotype) they give the impression of being an exquisitely-designed, highly reliable machine that will all the same degrade fast when conditions are outside the spec. If they win the World Cup expect them to do so in a thoroughly unremarkable way. Teams always leave a game against the Germans thinking they did well, all things considered, but usually having lost. Yet in a hard-to-define way there’s the urge to mark them a little lower this year, certainly a step behind the U.S.
Defining France’s negative intangibles, on the other hand, is easy. If you’d forgive a cheap rhetorical trick I’d put them in their own category. They are unquestionably one of the best teams in the tournament and have home-field advantage. Virtually their entire roster plays at home and the exceptions, backup goalkeeper Pauline Peyraud-Magnin and defender Aïssatou Tounkara, aren’t important. Amandine Henry is a long-dominant defensive midfielder in her prime who earns individual honours at a position that’s usually neglected. Their two old attacking stars, Louisa Cadamuro (née Nécib) and Camile Abily have both taken early retirement from the national team, but we still have Gaëtane Thiney, the icon of Paris FC (formerly FCF Juvisy, and long the Other Team in France) and one of the most versatile, accomplished attacking players in the game. Eugenie Le Sommer gives them an excellent veteran striker. Youngster Valérie Gauvin got her first international goal in 2017 and since then has scored on Germany, Japan, and China as well as the crap countries, showing every sign of being good support.
The defense has a solid core but weakens beyond it. Wendie Renard, the tallest woman in the world, a physical, ball-playing defender who starts ahead of Kadeisha Buchanan for Lyon and makes sure nobody complains, is unimpeachable. None of the other players are bad, but they aren’t as terrific as you feel they necessarily should be; Renard’s partner in the middle seems to usually be a flavour-of-the-month (currently her OL partner Griedge Mbock Bathy) and their fullbacks have always attacked more flamboyantly than they defend, which is how Janine Beckie was able to peg the only brilliant cross of her career in to Sophie Schmidt back in 2016. Then there’s goaltender Sarah Bouhaddi, who is both very good and completely insane, capable of both winning and losing matches on her own. France, who is extremely good in international soccer, and Olympique Lyonnais, even better domestically, have both ensconced Bouhaddi as the more-or-less undisputed starter for a decade. She’s worth it. But you’re never quite sure with her.
France has been very good for a long time but they’ve never medalled in international competition. It’s like the opposite of the United States, who even when they’re bad pull it out somehow. Just look at the past decade.
Euro 2009: not really France yet (Abily was 24, Necib was 22, Le Sommer was 21, Henry was 19, Bouhaddi was a backup), but all the same, getting a tough group, fumbling it even by those standards, then losing on penalties to a heavily pre-apex Netherlands was, in hindsight, absolutely an omen.
2011 Women’s World Cup: get drawn into the Group of Death, hammer everybody who isn’t the host Germans, really hammer Canada, proving their ascendancy over those Canucks once and for all. Beat England on penalties in the quarter, which I bet was fun, and then get eleven kinds of Gallic crap beat out of you by the United States, who’d go on to lose to Japan in a really good final, so all’s well that ends well.
2012 Olympics: get drawn into the Group of Death, probably earn a point against the United States at Old Trafford but lose and finish second. Survive a quarterfinal scare to handle Sweden easily enough but drop the semi to Japan despite a ferocious fight in the last half-hour. In the bronze medal match play Canada and let’s be honest, no team has ever deserved to win a match they lost more than France deserved to win that one.
Euro 2013: wreck their group, as France bloody well should at Euro. In the quarter-final, go out to Denmark on penalties, and only get that far because Louisa Necib got a freebie late. This was the tournament where people began to think that France somehow blowing it might be a thing.
2015 Women’s World Cup: win the tough games in their group against England and Mexico easily; somehow lose their tap-in putt game to Colombia by two. Beat South Korea in the Round of 16 then lose on penalties to Germany in one of the best games I’ve ever seen when Nadine Angerer stops Claire Lavogez. They’ve called Lavogez up since then, which is kind of them, but she isn’t on the 2019 roster. The least France-y of the things France has done, with only Colombia as a blip; if this had happened to Canada we’d have all been perfectly happy.
2016 Olympics: Group of Death with the US, again, beat everybody but the Americans, again, lose to Canada, again, this time in the quarter-final, and this time with Canada finally outplaying them. You tell me if that’s better or worse.
Euro 2017: As discussed in the last post this was the Euro That Didn’t Really Count, but all the same dropping points to both Switzerland and Austria in the group then going down to England did not give Napoleon anything to get excited about.
The French have lost once in the past year, to Germany, and usually put up big scores. They beat the United States 3-1 in Le Havre. What’s more they’re scoring by committee, which is always the sign of a good French team. They change head coaches every day at 2 PM in France but the current one, Corinne Diacre, is a former first-rate international player turned average Ligue 2 (men’s) coach, turned national team boss who on playing pedigree alone was an upgrade on the hapless (but otherwise equally-qualified) Olivier Echouafni. It all looks good for France, except a strong team at a home World Cup is surely the God-given moment for the greatest French choke of all time.
Those are the really big teams. Then there are the ones who still have enough of a chance that it’s worth hoping but not so much that it’s worth buying tickets to the final: roughly in descending order England, Japan, Canada, the Netherlands, Sweden, China, Norway, and Australia. The Dutch have already been discussed, and Canada will get the full treatment later, so, briefly, the rest.
There are those who would put England in the top category, and they’re not wrong. They’re defending champions of the (withering scorn) SheBelieves Cup. At Euro 2017 they embarrassed themselves less than most of the other major contenders. Their attack has no single overwhelming star but is terrific in depth; they have a half-dozen forwards capable of scoring against top opposition. Jill Scott and Karen Carney are still going in midfield, and their defense of Lucy Bronze, Steph Houghton, Abbie McManus, and Alex Greenwood is as good as anybody’s. McManus is the least familiar name, a journeyman who in a short period of time worked her way up from Sheffield City to a core part on newly-free-spending Manchester City, got her first call-up in February 2018 while she was out buying eggs and has become a regular at centreback next to former club teammate Houghton.
So why short sell on England? Carly Telford, the 2014–15 FA WSL 1 goalkeeper of the year, appears to have taken veteran Karen Bardsley’s job as starting goalie, which will be interesting to watch; at 31 to Bardsley’s 34 it’s not like she’s part of a youth movement, and neither was anything like the best English keeper in the club game for the past few seasons. Key midfielder Jordan Nobbs is missing the tournament; another knee injury, and she’s been in the press suggesting women’s menstrual cycles might be linked to their rates of ligament damage. Also out is Izzy Christiansen, with an ankle problem sustained at the SheBelieves. Fara Williams MBE, the grand dame of English soccer, is aging out of the team and wasn’t included by Phil Neville. And they do have a nasty habit of losing to teams like Canada, Sweden, and New Zealand at home. Their SheBelieves triumph was down to the weakest field in the cup’s history and Japan snatching a stoppage-time equalizer against the US rather than much England did in that stupid thing. They have proven they’re good; little more.
Japan, always likable, appears to be on their way down. They had a perfect record at the Asian Games but other recent results have been indifferent. Large, awkward goalkeeper Erina Yamane is out with a (stop me if you’ve heard this one) knee problem, leaving the gloves for young Ayaka Yamashita, who appears to have taken the starting job anyway. Virtually an entire generation hung up the boots in 2015 and 2016, from 83-goal scorer Homare Sawa through superstar attacking midfielder Aya Miyama. If one doesn’t count the Asian Games then several starters will be making their debuts in a major tournament, and Japan is embracing the kids wholeheartedly: they are bringing two teenagers, a 20-year-old, and four 21-year-olds. Veterans Saori Ariyoshi and Nahomi Kawasumi appear to be healthy but were dropped from the squad.
This can be a good thing, and if Japan sticks to the plan and develops talent as they always have they may be back for 2023. But this year they have not been setting the world on fire against non-Asian competition. No doubt they’ll do well enough, though they have always been prone to the odd, short-lived, but devastating total collapse. Some of the mid-20-something players we’re seeing for the first time will doubtless open our eyes. But it’s hard to see them mounting a serious title challenge yet.
Sweden has an important advantage few other teams possess: at the 2019 Algarve Cup they went to penalties against Canada, using the A-B-B-A format, and everybody got good and confused but though Sweden lost they know what the format looks like now and have heard all the jokes. They still have the same old Caroline Seger, the same old Nilla Fischer, Hedvig Lundahl still between the sticks; Pia Sundhage finally hung up her hoodie but otherwise this is good ol’ Swedish woso and you know what that means. Good, and often good enough, they’re one of those teams that will always win on their day. But not seriously in contention unless they go on the run of their lives or Stina Blacksteinus looks like what she looked like she’d be a few years ago.
Four years ago China looked like they might be building to 2019 as their cycle. They had a good 2015, and a decent 2016, and were runners-up at the 2018 Asian Cup, their best result since 2002. Midfielder Wang Shuang has made it to PSG and the rest of the team is domestic, but it seems like a good league. Unfortunately it hasn’t quite come together yet. They reliably beat the teams they should beat and reliably lose to the teams they should lose to. Some little spark of brilliance or something is missing, and now those 26-year-olds of 2015 are 30, this is their window, and it’s not as wide as they hoped it would be. All the coaches they’ve gone through, including former French disappointment Bruno Bini, might not have helped; they seem to expect more from themselves too.
Norway is stuck in turbulence. They’ve got their seatbelts on but the food cart stopped at the row before theirs and they’re getting hungry. Ada Hegerberg, who should be one of the favourites for the Golden Boot, has been boycotting the Norwegian national team since 2017 because she wants better treatment. This leaves a decent team, including 60-goal scorer Isabell Herlovsen, but nobody even in Hegerberg’s league. World Cup qualifying was easy, and they distinguished themselves with a 2-1 home win over the Dutch, but that’s their only really impressive result in a few years. They don’t play the best teams and lose to the second-raters. Also, while I’m including South Korea in the tier below this one, Norway’s margin to avoid another embarrassing elimination in the group stage is awfully thin. They’re in a bad place right now.
As for Australia, I can’t do better than to quote a regular women’s soccer observer I know: “they can outscore their problems for a while.” Their group shouldn’t be overwhelmingly tough. Sam Kerr is a great finisher, probably the best in the NWSL, and that’s doubly-impressive when you consider that she goes home to the Perth Glory most winters. Her international record is actually not that great, but with Lisa De Vanna around the Australians presumably feel they need Kerr to drop back and get more touches while De Vanna can take care of the pure poaching. Beyond that they have a terrific, aggressive young attacking fullback in Ellie Carpenter, who should be the young player of the tournament, adequate veteran depth, and two attacking wild cards in big, tough, awkward handful of trouble Caitlin Foord and little, gritty, foul-happy, bow-wearing cult favourite Hayley Raso. They are going to be a darned fun team to watch as a neutral.
They chose a middling-tough warm-up schedule, against the United States and the Netherlands twice, and lost ’em all. They lost to Chile at home last year and even if they won the rematch 5-0 that is absolutely unacceptable. The Australians look like they should be better than they are. Give them respect, they have the punch to beat anybody on their day, but their day is not that often.
The Women’s World Cup happens every four years, and soccer teams change a lot in that time. Comparing one World Cup team to the previous World Cup team is just the sort of lazy, valueless sportswriting that is typical of women’s soccer but informs nobody about anything.
So comparing Canada’s group in 2015 to that in 2019 is obviously insane, but in fairness, the soccer gods really really want me to.
In 2015 Canada, who were not really one of the best six teams in world women’s soccer, were seeded A1 for the World Cup draw because we were the host country. As a result we got a softball group of us, New Zealand, the Netherlands, and China; no minnows but three teams we should beat most of the time. We won one, drew two, didn’t concede, won the thing; not fun, but effective. In the round of 16 we beat Switzerland in a really good game, then lost in the quarter-final when our depleted defensive depth finally caught up to us and the odd break didn’t go our way.
In 2019 Canada might be one of the best six teams in world women’s soccer and the FIFA gods smiled upon us, placing us in Pot 1 for the draw on merit1. As a result Canada was placed in a group with New Zealand, the Netherlands, and, um, Cameroon.
We couldn’t have gotten China again, for tedious reasons I’ll relegate to a footnote2. Cameroon 2019 is a big downgrade on China 2015. They lost a friendly to the Chinese in April, 1-0, and by all accounts looked worse than the score. 2016 Olympic qualifying was an ignominious failure. The last time they beat anyone real was actually 2015, when they somehow got past Switzerland 2-1. They nearly brought former Canadian youth international Easther Mayi Kith to this, and Easther Mayi Kith is not very good. Their pre-World Cup prep was pummeling lesser Spanish league teams and getting shredded, 4-0, by Spain itself, who you might remember Canada drawing boringly at 75% speed a couple weeks back. Canada saw Spain bad because half the heart of their team was with Barcelona for the UEFA Women’s Champions League final, but so did Cameroon: the Barça players were still absent and of the Spaniards’ four goalscorers in that game, three got their first international goal3. It’s off-putting to think how you could manage to lose 4-0 to that Spanish B team and still make a World Cup.
It’s soccer, anything can happen. But it really shouldn’t. Let’s call Cameroon three points and move on.
How about New Zealand? Four years ago they were up-and-comers, with 21-year-old Rosie White showing promise, 21-year-old Katie Bowen having a couple interesting cameos off the bench, and 21-year-old former Australian youth international Rebekah Stott walking right into the Kiwis’ starting eleven. They had a 23-year-old starting goalkeeper, Erin Nayler, a teenager getting meaningful minutes off the bench in forward Jasmine Pereira, and two more who were rostered but did not play: defender Meikayla Moore and midfielder Daisy Cleverley. Their captain, Abby Erceg, was only 25 and surely had many years left. Only two New Zealand players were older than 30 and they were the two backup goalies. And they played well: fourth place in the group, but the best fourth-place team in the tournament without a doubt who would have gotten to the round of 16 with a little luck.
And now? New Zealand is fine. Most of those young players have turned out pretty good. Pereira has walked away from the game but White is a competent NWSL player, Moore hangs around the German first division, Cleverley’s college career was derailed by a knee injury as a freshman but seems back on track. Nayler is a starting goalie in France, and Stott lives out of a suitcase but whereever she signs, if she’s healthy she plays. Erceg retired from international soccer like three times or something, I frankly stopped paying attention; she’s back now and does work on a very good NWSL back line in North Carolina but somehow has lost the captaincy to Ali Riley. Riley deserves mention, the best of a bunch of 30+ veterans that is otherwise at a pretty low standard. Amber Hearn, the former Ottawa Fury standout, would have been another quality veteran if a knee injury hadn’t ruled her out of the tournament.
None of them really panned into stars, though. Rosie White, for example, would make Canada, but wouldn’t start. There are a lot of decent pros with good European careers, but almost all on the second-tier teams, and in the European leagues once you’re out of the big two or three you’re nowhere. There are Canadian players in Scandinavia or the French first division who you have fully never heard of and won’t make the WNT until Ebola hits. Some of the New Zealanders play domestic amateur, and Unattached FC makes a strong showing. It looks a lot like the Canadian team used to look, minus the Sinclairs and Schmidts who made it all come right on the day.
The sight of three strikers with 25 international goals or more, against two for Canada, might strike fear into your heart. But New Zealanders put up pinball numbers in Oceanic World Cup qualifying against the likes of Tonga and Fiji, scoring more easy goals than even CONCACAF teams. Hannah Wilkinson is coming off a serious ACL injury in October, her second in four years. Sarah Gregorius is often the focus of their offense, which given that Gregorious is 31 years old, has no particular club record, and produces only occasionally at the top international level, is a bad sign. 17 of her 35 career international goals have come in various Oceanic qualifiers against super-minnows, compared to (for example) Christine Sinclair’s 42 out of 181 at various CONCACAF tournaments.
Pick On Somebody Your Own Size
“Conf. Goals” refer to goals scored in confederational competition: for New Zealanders, Oceania Olympic Qualifying and the Oceania Nations Cup are counted. For Canada, CONCACAF Women’s Gold Cups, Championships, World Cup qualifiers, and Olympic qualifiers are counted. All statistics are reconstructed as best as possible as of June 5, 2019 and may be inaccurate by one or two, particularly for the New Zealanders.
Oh, and New Zealand is not quite a year removed from accusations of bullying and mistreatment which spurred at least one of Erceg’s international retirements and cost head coach Andreas Heraf his job. They replaced him with veteran Tom Sermanni, a name North Americans know and respect but not exactly an overachiever.
In a pre-tournament tune-up, New Zealand beat England, who are at least as much in contention as Canada, 1-0 on a Gregorious goal. The English tabloids melted down like Heraf at a press conference and a good time was had by all. Then, a couple days later, New Zealand lost 1-0 to Wales, who didn’t even come close to qualifying for the World Cup, and we all went “what the hell?” They’ve recently beaten Norway, who are decent, and lost to South Korea, who are about in the same class. A 2-1 win over Mexico in the United States, effectively an away game, was good; a 5-0 thumping by the Americans the previous week was not.
New Zealand could easily sneak a result against the favoured Canadians or Dutch; they could get two. Nobody would really be surprised to see them advance from the World Cup group stage for the first time in their history; on their best day they have the quality and have shown it, recently and repeatedly. But short of handling Cameroon (which they absolutely should) you can’t really expect anything from the Ferns. Fans should actually be happy: like Canada in 2012 this is a team with everything to win and nothing to lose. Such teams can be a lot of fun. Canada in 2012 was coming off coaching drama and a player revolt and our success that year meant we forgot the whole thing. The same may happen again, though hopefully not at Canada’s expense.
As to the Netherlands, in 2015 they were just some ladies who drew Canada and looked pretty good. In 2019 they are the reigning European champions. We aren’t the only team that’s grown up.
The Dutch win at Euro 2017 was a bit of an accident. Hosting the tournament for the first time, they exploited the unimaginable Norwegian collapse in the group stage, which was like Canada at the 2011 Women’s World Cup but worse, to run up a perfect record, and in the knockout stage whipped Sweden and England before, in the final, getting… Denmark, their group-stage opponents and an even more improbable finalist than the Dutch themselves. The Netherlands fell behind 1-0 and 2-1 but won 4-2 in the end, rather effortlessly given the drama. It was a tournament of massive upsets: Austria, woso nobodies, somehow won a group with France and Switzerland in it, then beat Spain on penalties. Denmark beat Germany. France went out to England back there somewhere, the whole Norwegian thing happened and sent Ada Hegerberg into self-imposed exile, I seem to remember Scotland lost to England 6-0 then beat Spain… a bizarre tournament. One could not say, based on that performance, that the Dutch had arrived. One really couldn’t say anything.
In the two years since the Dutch have been mostly good, just not quite in the first rank. At the 2018 Algarve Cup, where Canada was poor, the Dutch shared the title with Sweden when the final was canceled due to heavy rain4. Qualifying for the 2019 World Cup went the hard way, including a draw at home to the lowly Irish Republic and a loss away to Norway, but smashed Denmark and Switzerland in the last-chance playoff. They do seem to be indifferent travelers: lowlights on the road include losses to Spain (not great) and Poland (unacceptable) at the Algarve, a mere 2-1 win over the lousy South Africans in Cape Town, and a 1-1 draw in Switzerland during European qualifying (admittedly, with a 3-0 first-leg home win in their pockets). Highlights include running the table in three home World Cup prep friendlies, converting a touchdown against Chile and shutting out both Spain and Australia. If the Dutch travel badly but are first-class at home, and the World Cup is abroad but within driving distance of their houses, is that good or bad?
The name on your lips should be Vivianne Miedema. It once looked like whichever of Christine Sinclair and Abby Wambach held the all-time international goalscoring record when Sinclair retired would have it indefinitely, for the age of the super-productive single striker had passed from women’s soccer. Maybe not. At 22 years old Miedema has 57 goals for her country; at the same age Sinclair had 53 and Wambach had two. Last season she led the English top division in goals and was second in assists, being named Player’s Player of the Year despite missing three games. She is probably the best female striker alive and certainly the best female striker active in international soccer. Canada has faced Miedema at the senior level twice before, in 2015 and 2016, and held her in check both times, but she was not yet at the height of her powers. Her 13 international goals in calendar 2017 are as good as anybody, given a lack of minnows to beat up on, and though she got only four in 2018 her action was limited. She scored in every one of her international starts save a January friendly against Spain. So far in 2019 she has five goals in seven appearances. Sinclair, Canada’s top scorer so far, has four in eight.
It would be nice to say that the Dutch, like Canada in Sinclair’s hey-day, are basically a one-woman team, but they are not. Lieke Martens is a thoroughly brilliant attacking midfielder, Golden Ball winner of Euro 2017, FIFA women’s player of the year the same year, and shortlisted for the Ballon d’Or in 2018. She is not at Miedema’s level but she is awfully good, probably the best attacking midfielder in the group unless Jessie Fleming picks a very good time to make the leap. Forward Shanice van de Sanden plays club soccer at Lyon and is at least good enough to give Miedema support. The Dutch are relatively weak on defense and in goal, regular midfielder and Adriana Leon teammate Tessel Middag is down with a knee injury, and while a lot of their midfield depth is good it’s seldom exceptional. They haven’t played a really good team in a while; Japan, who they beat 6-2 at the 2018 Algarve, arguably no longer counts. On the other hand they did just shut out Mexico and Australia, and have conceded more than one goal only twice in the past year.
Canada and the Netherlands will be very close-matched teams. We’ve shown some signs of adjusting to Dutch-style attacking creativity; look at the difference between our win against France in 2012 and that in 2016. When Germany beat us in Hamilton last year it was not because of their superior technique and passing us into the ground, but because they were quicker players and a better team that just ground us down until we broke. Miedema, with her succession of little niggling hurts, and the Dutch are not meant to play that way. Moreover, our own defensive record lately has been pretty decent. So the Canadians should get at least a point, and yet a team with that level of attacking quality is a team that will beat absolutely everybody if it’s their day no matter how you try to stop them. Christine Sinclair’s opponents will be familiar with the phenomenon.
Congratulations are due, I suppose, to the Canadian Soccer Association for their part in winning the right to host the 2026 FIFA World Cup. I’m honestly not sure how much they had to do with it. The Canadian contribution is expected to be three cities and ten games, including maybe a round-of-16 match or two, in an 18-city, 80-match tournament. Applying to “co-host” 12.5% of the largest World Cup in history probably amounted to not defecating in the hallways while the Americans provided the everything.
If Edmonton, Toronto, and Montreal disappeared from the tournament nobody north of the 49th parallel would miss them. Commonwealth Stadium and Olympic Stadium are, all things considered, the worst facilities in the bid. Toronto’s BMO Field is a handsome ground but, even in its temporarily-expanded World Cup configuration, will be the smallest venue involved. And while the World Cup is still eight years away and things can happen, if you think Canada won’t be the weakest team among the hosts I love your optimism. Assuming all three hosts automatically qualify, which they might not.
At least hosting shouldn’t be expensive; the stadia are built. Then again, imagine hosting a World Cup game at today’s Commonwealth Stadium while the Americans are filling gorgeous ultra-modern NFL palaces. A men’s World Cup, that is. Back in 2015 Abby Wambach said that FIFA and the CSA would never dare put a men’s World Cup on artificial turf, we all went “pooh-pooh,” and now we’re tearing artificial turf out of 2015 host stadiums in Edmonton and Montreal so the men can get grass. Whoops. This is embarrassing but I’m sure the Canadian Soccer Association will apologize with appropriate humility.
No, renovations will be expensive and pricey. Then there are endlessly-escalating costs for security, hospitality, “legacy” projects, and simple corruption. Apparently Olympic Stadium is getting a retractable roof; how could that possibly go over budget?
And yet we get to see a World Cup, live and in person. For a certain definition of “we.” Soccer in Canada is an incredibly bourgeoise sport, none other compares, but even so, ticket prices will drive away many patrons. According to the bid guide, while 7% of tickets fall into the lowest US$21 price bracket, the other 93% start at US$174. Some diehards with good incomes will have to decide between an Argentina – North Korea match or rent.
I am cynical but not resentful. I want it to be a tremendous success, really. The 2015 Women’s World Cup was one of the great experiences of my life even though Canada disappointed. Heck, the Canadian team at the 2007 U-20 World Cup was an actual embarrassment but what a time it was all the same. If the Canadian men’s national team plays three games and loses them all in front of 45,000 screaming maple-leaf-waving partisans, that would still be a lifelong highlight for any of us. And much though taxing waitressing single moms to pay for our hobby should make us sick this bid, explicitly, was based on saving money. The bid book, the document put in front of FIFA for them to vote on, promises “no major public expenditures.” Sure the tickets are expensive, but it’s still cheaper than flying to Marrakech and watching games there.
But this 12.5% of a World Cup exposes all that is most awful about Canada. The public cost, to taxpayers who mostly won’t get anything out of it, is probably going to be ludicrous, and the only people arguing otherwise have an interest in us getting those ten games1. We’re asking for a huge subsidy for our hobby. Not a full World Cup, with the attendant prestige and international attention, but just some soccer games. Prestige is worth paying for; in 2026 we will be America’s hat. Remember, the Americans host 75% of the total games and every single fixture in the quarterfinals or later. Given how diluted a 48-team World Cup will be, Canada’s participation will be truly ancillary.
Our role in this bid was to get the Americans a tournament, and we are expected to be grateful for it. And we have been! This isn’t a shot at the United States; the Canadian soccer community has been debasing itself for this chance to pick up the Americans’ garbage, why should they refuse? The contrary idea that we should build something on our own and decline to be a branch plant is unthinkable. We’re only now getting to the point where a few of us timidly accept that a vast Dominion of 35 million can probably have a soccer league outside the American aegis. A World Cup? Say “yes, sir, Mr. Gulati, sir” and accept what we are given. It’s better than nothing, right?2 Even the name of the bid, “United,” practically begs the observer to mouth the suffix “States.”
And what do we get for it, this expenditure of scarce public money and scarcer civic pride? The Canadian government has produced a lot of probably-computer-generated crap about how Canada is so diverse and how wonderful it is that people move here and cheer for their homelands in the World Cup, so if you like that you got it. The soccer fans boast of all the infrastructure we’ll build, notwithstanding that we’re also told this World Cup will be cheap because we hardly have to build any infrastructure, and also notwithstanding that while some practice fields are great they don’t solve Canada’s shortage of 10,000-seat stadia and don’t achieve anything that couldn’t be done at a fraction of the cost. I suppose we’ll “inspire the youth.” My own cansoc awakening was at the 2002 FIFA U-19 Women’s Championships. But when you look at a World Cup where Canada is trotted out as a token, while the national team does poorly if it participates at all and the meaningful games take place across the border, what do we think we will be inspiring the youth to do?
Telling young Canadians that we are North America’s third fiddle and mean nothing except in relation to other nations is in tune with the past sixty years of our history, yes. But you will forgive those of us left unenthusiastic.
To the Canadian this is a mixed blessing. Should we get an automatic spot Canada’s players will probably be humiliated, because after thirty years getting worse at men’s soccer there’s no sign we’ll be any better in the next nine. Our men’s U-20s, who will be in their primes in 2026, just got the everloving hell beat out of them at the CONCACAF championships. On the other hand, to play is to have a chance. Eddy Berdusco scored against Brazil once. Richard Hastings scored the golden goal against Mexico. Anyway even in defeat it would be a hell of an experience.
There’s the overhyped development angle. Mythology says that, after the ill-fated NASL, the 1994 World Cup kickstarted professional soccer in the United States. Well, in 1993 the Americans had 43 professional soccer clubs between the fully-professional APSL and the weird-hybrid USISL. By an equally generous count Canada has five. 2026 is a long way away, but unless there’s a revolution comparing ourselves to the 1993 Americans is honestly embarrassing. The generation which grew up in the shadow of Canada’s success at the 1986 World Cup happens to be the current one; it is vile.
Hosting ten games worth of World Cup couldn’t hurt of course. If the Canadian Premier League is limping along, maybe it’ll even be the vital shot in the arm, but for the money surely to Christ we could do a lot more. Because that’s the only real objection to this plan: money.
It doesn’t have to be that way. Canada could host ten games tomorrow. Shove teams into BC Place, Olympic Stadium, Commonwealth Stadium, even SkyDome if Toronto isn’t busy with the North American synchronized diving championships. Buy new artificial turf maybe, but all those buildings meet structural requirements and are in cities that have trains, airports, and hotels. Sell ’em out for Belgium – Botswana, it’ll look respectable, total cost six bucks. This is more-or-less what we did for the 2015 Women’s World Cup and that was great!
But that’s bullshit, we both know it, it absolutely does have to be that way. Abby Wambach and Sydney Leroux were wrong that artificial turf is a misogynist plot but right that it is impossible in any sense but the physical for a first world country to host the men’s World Cup so efficiently. For 2015 Canada’s only hosting competition was Zimbabwe and even they dropped out. In 2026 we’ll face a lot worse, including comparisons between us and the Americans with their trillion-dollar taxpayer-subsidized gold-plated NFL palaces. If Canada cheaps out we’ll look second-class before the world next to the Americans. It is inconceivable that FIFA would approve us hosting our games on artificial turf in CFL-calibre stadiums, but equally inconceivable that our governments would have the strength of character to let us.
Can you honestly imagine FIFA, or the Canadian government, letting a billion people watch a World Cup game at SkyDome? On artificial turf? Cathal Kelly’s head would burst like an balloon full of blood. We’re going to have to build, or rebuild, everything. None of our existing facilities, save Commonwealth Stadium, are even theoretically capable of taking real grass, which you can bet your life will be a requirement. Even a token role in this tournament is going to cost a fortune.
2026 is a long way off and even if the World Cup doesn’t happen we’ll have something new by then. No doubt paid for by irresponsible public servants capitulating to pro sports owners, like the already-crumbling new Winnipeg Blue Bombers stadium. But that is no reason to invite even more expensive mistakes for the sake of an eighth of a World Cup.
With 48 teams playing between three countries, disconnected bureaucracies, and participating regions not known for probity, the opportunities for graft will be colossal. Maybe no single event in the history of the First World will give as many opportunities to the crook. Huge “public works” not meant for much more than looking pretty for a month, spread out between ridings. The semi-legal embezzlement of environmental impact statements, First Nations consultations, economic benefit analyses, that already put insiders’ kids through university. The knowledge that, whatever happens, we daren’t look like the poor cousins, and that the chequebook always has one more page.
I am a great soccer fan. The Canadian men have never made the World Cup in my lifetime and to experience that, even on television, would be the sort of sports pleasure I can barely imagine. Moreover there ain’t nothing wrong with taking it through a host’s spot in an inflated tournament. They don’t ask how, just how many. But none of that justifies me asking that the 99.99% of this country that doesn’t care about Canadian soccer be compelled under threat of force to pay enormous sums for my hobby.
Even if you don’t think maybe Canadians should keep their own money, surely (to pick one of a thousand examples) a Toronto downtown relief subway line would be cheaper, generate more jobs, help more people, and have more benefits than 12.5% of a soccer tournament, and I don’t even live in Toronto. Compare it to what proponents will call the “once-in-a-lifetime” chance to host part of a World Cup, though at age 30 I’ve seen four World Cups we hosted by ourselves. It could be justified if all we needed was to repaint what we’ve already paid for, as in 2015, or if it was a self-confident country in a spirit of vigour and celebration splurging on a luxury, and here I can’t help but cite the Montréal Olympics though even they went pearshaped. Neither describes Canadians spending billions of dollars to play third fiddle to Mexico and the United States, as if we didn’t live that every day for nothing.
In 2012, after the greatest season in her own and her country’s history, Christine Sinclair was nominated for FIFA’s women’s player of the year award. She probably deserved it: the leading scorer and most valuable player at the Olympics captained a perennial underachiever to its best-ever international finish, winning world-wide admiration for skill and guts. Instead she finished fifth, behind the winner Abby Wambach (a one-dimensional goalscorer with fewer goals), Marta (who was, honestly, terrible), Alex Morgan (also good, also outscored), and Homare Sawa (another forward on another good team without much to scream about individually).
Wambach wasn’t a bad winner but what hurt was how Sinclair lost. Among peers her value was more-or-less appreciated, but in FIFA a country with no real women’s soccer program gets just as many votes as Germany. It was the their uninformed votes that relegated Sinclair to fifth place while elevating the average Sawa and the famous-but-worse-than-Melissa-Tancredi Marta. It was proof that the FIFA women’s player of the year award was devoid of merit.
2016 was the franchise’s unoriginal sequel. Once again, Canada’s women beat France and won an Olympic bronze medal. Once again, captain Christine Sinclair played an important role for a team that beat expectations. Once again, Sinclair was nominated for international player of the year, now called “THE BEST” by semi-literate cretins, and once again her opponents included an American player with a probably-inferior season but a huge international reputation (Carli Lloyd), a notable Japanese player who didn’t do anything this year (Saki Kumagai, whose team failed to even qualify for the Olympics), and a fabulously-overrated Brazilian striker coming off a unremarkable season, presumably on the list because people have heard of her (Marta, again, harder to kill than Jason Voorhees).
The plot twist was that Sinclair didn’t deserve the award either. She had a good year for club and country, putting her in Camille Abily/Amandine Henry/Lotta Schelin nice-but-not-enough territory. She was not one of the three best players in world women’s soccer, nor one of the three best out of the ten nominees. The only hope was that Sinclair would scoop up reputation votes as a fabulous player approaching the end of her career who everybody should know has never gotten her due. It wasn’t enough and she finished eighth, ahead of Abily, behind Schelin, and pretty much tied with Henry.
Canada couldn’t complain, but the results were still stunning. Marta, once again, wound up in the final three for no obvious reason. Her 2016 was not nearly as appalling as her 2012, as she bagged a couple goals against Canada and one against France in friendly play, plus two against the Swedes at the Olympics. She was also effective with Scandinavian superpower FC Rosengard, though there’s something not-quite-World-Player-of-the-Year-flavoured about the phrase “joint-leading scorer with Ella Masar*.” The Germans had three nominees in tremendous all-round midfielder Sara Däbritz, retiring sentimental favourite and long-time talent Melanie Behringer, and young forward Dzenifer Marozsan, threatening to split the vote. France’s Henry and Abily were also present.
Maybe that’s why Carli Lloyd won. Carli Lloyd, who was the bona fide 2015 world player of the year after scoring about a billion goals in the World Cup and tearing Japan to bloody ribbons in the final. Carli Lloyd, still in her prime and now, technically, an award-winning author. Carli Lloyd, who in a jam-packed 2016 managed one and a half goals against real teams, knocking a rebound into an empty net against France and scoring a pretty good header against New Zealand (that’s the half). Carli Lloyd, who captained her American national team at the Olympics to, er, a fifth-place finish, the worst in their history. Carli Lloyd, who ran off from the Houston Dash to chill and go on a book tour, while her coach literally did not know where she was. Carli Lloyd, who was outscored by Behringer at the Olympics despite Behringer being a traditional midfielder and Lloyd a very attack-oriented number 10. Behringer took penalties and played more games but she out-open-play-through-the-quarter-finals-scored Lloyd three to two.
Then there was the coach of the year award. Canada’s John Herdman was nominated, as in 2012. As in 2012 there was a very good argument that he deserved to be among the contenders, and as in 2012 he came up short, finishing fourth in a bewildering field. Of the ten coaches nominated three (Brazil’s Vadão, France’s Philippe Bergeroo, and South Africa’s Dutch boss Vera Pauw) had been sacked in disgrace before the finalists were announced. Another (the United States’s Jill Ellis) is unpopular with fans for the whole “leading the team to its worst major tournament finish” thing. The winner was Germany’s Silvia Neid, who absolutely deserved it and ran away with the voting. Sweden’s Pia Sundhage was third, and also a good pick. But Ellis, the catastrophic underachiever, was second, despite the fact that her team blew its brains out in Rio and—very sorry but I’m going to have to run wild with the formatting here—Sundhage outcoached her into the ground the only time they met.
At least Neid’s victory was justice at the end of a long and legendary career. But Lloyd was less deserving than the top Germans and the idea of Marta or Ellis in their respective top threes is laughable. To make matters worse, FIFA has introduced a fan voting component to their traditional format. The votes of the captains of each national team, the coach of each national team, selected media members from each national federation, and the overall fan ballot each account for one quarter of the result.
The fans did some damage. Their votes bumped Ellis ahead of Sundhage and lifted Marta ahead of both Behringer and Maroszan, who among captains, coaches, and media were still behind Lloyd but ahead of the Brazilian. As it was Marta beat the Germans handsomely, making one wonder what sorts of idiots vote for these things.
Yet the mathematically-gifted of you will have realized that if fans get 25% of the say, that means the “experts” get 75%. No amount of Marta-worship from ballot-stuffing Brazilians, no number of Tumblr campaigns for Carli 2017, would have mattered if the professionals had voted intelligently. And when you break down the voting you see that, just like in 2012, countries that don’t even really play women’s soccer dragged the whole award into the mud.
Below is a table showing each nominee, her final position in the actual player of the year award, the proportion of the vote she received from all the participating captains, coaches, and media (both raw and weighted one-third each), and the proportion of the vote she received from countries ranked in the top however-many of the most recent (December) FIFA women’s soccer rankings. Also shown are the votes for all countries with a FIFA ranking, which means any country that has played a single official match in the past eighteen months, and the votes for all countries without a FIFA ranking, which haven’t. There are a few countries that are not even “not ranked” by FIFA, but regardless sent in votes; they are lumped in with the “inactive.” And advance apologies to my mobile users†.
This table raises questions. Questions like “when Marta dies is she going to get 10% of the vote, or 15%?” and “how did countries that don’t play woso develop such a girl-crush on Saki Kumagai?”
Though the top 10 isn’t a lot of countries, it amounts to 29 voters picking three winners for a total of 81 points in ballot strength (North Korea somehow neglected to appoint a media representative). 29 people is not an overwhelming sample but major awards in sports and entertainment have been decided by fewer. For Christine Sinclair to finish third among that elite 29, including her coach and her media rep, is a tribute from the very competitors Sinclair has been trying to lift Canada up to.
Carli Lloyd starts gaining ground early, driven by a strong coach’s vote in the top 20 and top 30. Of course Jill Ellis voted for Lloyd but the coaches of England (5), the Netherlands (12) China (13), Italy (16), Switzerland (17), South Korea (18), Iceland (20), Austria (24), Belgium (25), and Mexico (t-26) also put Lloyd first. Many of those countries played the Americans in US-based friendlies this year, and Lloyd scored on not a few, so thinking they were sunk by the player of the year must be a great consolation. Italy’s Antonio Cabrini completed his confusing ballot with Marta and Lotta Schelin, then for good measure listed Jill Ellis and Philippe Bergeroo first and third on his coach’s list, suggesting there may be a reason Italian woso has on the downturn lately. Pia Sundhage had Lloyd nowhere.
Maybe they just liked her book. Anyway, what counts is that, in the real woso world, Lloyd is in no danger of catching either Marozsan or Behringer and Marta is an also-ran. The top 30-ranked countries include everyone of even minor consequence in at the senior international level, save some token Africans. Had only the top 30 voted we would have finished with Marozsan and Behringer exactly tied with Lloyd a good step behind, and that would have been an excellent result. If you don’t hold her Houston Magical Mystery Tour against her it’s easy to defend Lloyd as the third-best player on this list.
However, that’s not how it works. Among both minnows ranked below 40th in the world and the teams that aren’t active at all, Lloyd had a decisive lead. Of the 3,321 points allocated in the player of the year ballot the top thirty countries disposed of 774. Inactive countries—national teams which literally do not exist—cast 819 points worth of votes. If you want this award you’re better off being a household name with a book deal.
You can follow Lloyd’s share of the vote rising as the calibre of the voters declines, and very satisfying it is. But Carli Lloyd is nothing next to Marta. Even as far as the top 40, as minnows fill the water, Marta was incapable of cracking 9%. But add in the true nobodies and Marta is on the podium: between them and the fan vote the Brazilian Ella Masar was anointed the second-best player in world women’s soccer for 2016.
If you have the endurance, this chart shows how players’ votes changes as we descend the rankings. Select a player to highlight her, and hover over a point to see which ranking that is. Each point is a player’s ballot position among voters within a set of ten ranking places (which usually doesn’t mean ten countries), with the last point being the not-ranked and not-even-not-ranked voters.
The coach of the year ballot, thank God, was simpler from both ends. At the top, except for us homer Canadians supporting John Herdman, Silvia Neid was a fairly obvious choice both on the basis of Germany’s gold medal and as an acknowledgement of one of the best coaching careers in women’s soccer history. You might chisel her out of first place, on the grounds that she did get beat by Melissa Tancredi in a game she didn’t really want to win and that Herdman or Pia Sundhage had done more with less, but leaving Neid out of your top three altogether would have been negligence. Sundhage was the obvious contender for best of the rest, with Herdman hanging around but probably impossible for a Canadian to neutrally rate.
On the other side of the vote were, well, the guys who’d been fired already. It’s a good bet you can’t be the best coach in the world if your employer decided they’d prefer anyone else. Except for French captain Wendie Renard, who loyally put Philippe Bergeroo third on her ballot, voting for France’s fall guy was a sign of mental illness. And he might still have been better than Pauw, obviously listed only as African representation, or Vadão, whose Brazilians beat nobody in particular and needed a win from the penalty spot just to reach a home bronze medal game in which Canada, a team he had met in two pre-tournament friendlies, destroyed him.
And the fired guys weren’t even the only randoms! Gérard Prêcheur, head coach of the Olympique Lyonnais women, winner of the last season’s Champions League and Division 1 Féminine as well as a favourite in both this year, would have been a excellent nominee if you could find anybody who prioritized European club play in an Olympic year, which you can’t. A notch below were Swiss boss Martina Voss-Teckleburg and Bayern Münich’s Thomas Wörle, both of whom are probably good coaches and neither of whom had much of a 2016. Switzerland dominated a European Championships qualifying group that had nobody in it and wasn’t at the Olympics. Wörle won the last Bundesliga but ain’t gonna win this one and went out of the 2015–16 Champions League to Twente, which is even worse than it sounds. It is, apparently, hard to find ten decent women’s soccer coaches in the world; Paul Riley must be throwing Heineken bottles at his television.
So, with such an obvious top four of Neid-Sundhage-Herdman-Prêcheur, how did Ellis get the silver medal? Oh boy here comes that big table again.
Neid is never not winning, so the victor was the right one. But witness, friends, the Rise and Fall of Jill Ellis. From less than two percent of the vote among the top ten (one of whom was Ellis herself), she gets a boost as she rolls downhill from support that included the reliably-mental Italians and Swiss but was in no danger of bothering the top picks. Ellis is well above the three coaches who have actually been sacked, which is fair enough, as well as oddballs Voss-Teckleburg and Wörle. Then get down to the nowhere countries and all hell breaks loose. Among the minnows only does Ellis whip the superior Prêcheur and Herdman, pass Sundhage, and storm into the medals but, in the inactive countries, she very nearly catches Silvia Neid, which by itself proves they should have their votes taken away.
Yet, again, the American is not the only recipient of minnows’ largesse. At the bottom of the rankings Vadão outpolls not only the rest of the fired brigade but Herdman and Prêcheur! In the very last tiers Bergeroo passes Herdman as well; our Geordie John apparently doesn’t have great name recognition in Argentina. Prêcheur’s work at OL makes him a bit of an insider’s candidate, and he does very well all things considered among the elite, but his little rally doesn’t last long when the obscure countries get in. Wörle, Pauw, and Voss-Tecklenburg, lacking either big names or achievement, are basement dwellers all the way, though the minnows prefer the sacked Pauw to the useful Voss-Tecklenburg in only the least of their capricious whims.
Want to see it? Too bad; I just have another one of those crappy charts.
On the men’s side, where four billion people know what Claudio Ranieri did for Leicester City, these problems don’t arise to the same extent. Complete information is available to even the most sheltered voter. Women’s soccer is much more of a niche event, and huge chunks of voting power are handed to nobodies because they captain a team that, even if it bothered to get together for a game, wouldn’t win a decent Canadian metro league. You have to look for women’s soccer, you can’t just absorb it as with the men.
There’s no question that some captains, coaches, and media from the irrelevant nations took their duty seriously and came up with ballots at least as well-informed as a random Vancouver blogger’s, and from the US to Uzbekistan the media vote was “fair” at worst. But a statistically-obvious number voted for the people they’d heard of. It wasn’t a Canadian who got screwed this time; Herdman wasn’t going to win no matter how you divided it up and Sinclair wouldn’t have deserved to. But the essential truth has not changed in four years: the FIFA women’s awards are voted on in ignorance and therefore meaningless.
I’ve waited a few days to write this. Why was I not sprinting for my laptop, getting the words out of my burning fingers, screaming with joy at the Canadian women’s national team defending its bronze medal? Especially when it was not a London-style demifluke but a comprehensive dismantling of the well-matched-on-paper Brazil in Brazil, when Brazil’s best eleven recently beat Canada’s best eleven fairly easily in a Toronto friendly.
Because it didn’t really matter.
By the time the Germans beat us we’d proven what we needed to prove. Our young players had taken that decisive step in a major tournament, with Ashley Lawrence, Jessie Fleming, and Janine Beckie fighting over team MVP honours. A gold medal would have meant everything, obviously, but another bronze is, from the perspective of the long-time fan, a cherry on top of a sundae that would have been perfectly delicious without one. (I do not say the players felt, or should have felt, this way; both London veterans and first-timers were quite rightly starving for the podium. But for a fan, things are different.)
Well, we got our cherry. It was good. It was totally deserved; in his excitement John Herdman put Canada into bunker mode prematurely, Brazil got a goal back on a defensive miscue, and we had a few minutes of uncertainty that did not reflect the 75 minutes Canada spent running Brazil’s show, or the obviously-superior Canadian cohesion and conditioning that would have made us favourites in extra time anyway*. Josée Bélanger, Sophie Schmidt, and Deanne Rose killed the game to death and in hindsight we were stupid to worry. The women did their leap off the podium, posed with their bronze medals, and even those who already had one seemed perfectly pleased to get another. I can think of one better way for soccer to start a Friday… but only one.
It wasn’t the same on the other side. The Brazilians needed victory so badly, to the point where a desperate, heart-broken Marta went on Brazilian television and almost desperately begged her countrymen to keep the faith. The Brazilian women have always been the poor relations for their soccer federation, usually playing in men’s-cut kits without enough training camps and limited exposure to first-class competitive environments. This isn’t the first time Marta and her comrades have briefly taken off in Brazil, but in the past momentum petered out and it was back to the same old institutional inadequacy. Medalling at home could have made all the difference and the players knew it. Instead, a Brazilian media outlet reported that the team’s funding is now in doubt [Portuguese]. This is one time when the old Canadian cliché of “who wanted it more” definitely doesn’t apply.
But we’re happy. Five wins, no draws, one loss in the Olympics. Beat France and Germany, beat the hosts, beat Australia. A significantly better performance against the French than we got in London, with the same happy result. A full team effort, not “Christine Sinclair and Erin McLeod punch in cheat codes and turn superhuman.” That was the best major tournament Canadian soccer has ever had, and you can’t ask for more than that.
No, I lie. You can. You have to.
Christine Sinclair said it in a Facebook video with Karina LeBlanc. LeBlanc asked “what’s going to keep you going?” and after only a moment’s thought Sinclair replied “I’m kinda sick of the bronze medal.” And if she’s sick of it, so am I.
At the end of the 2015 Women’s World Cup it looked like our window had closed. As tournament hosts we had home-field advantage and a favourable draw, the best opportunity to actually win a major international trophy we’d ever get, while our stars were on the tail-end of their primes. Despite playing well we went out in the quarterfinal. There was nothing for the team to be ashamed of, that loss to England was harsh, but it didn’t matter. Yet both fans and officials kept the faith. For all the disappointment and debate over selections there was never any suggestion that John Herdman’s job was under pressure. So Herdman could take the risk of integrating youngsters when running his veterans into the ground would have been safer. Beckie got into the first team, Lawrence was transformed into a fullback, Fleming became an automatic starter, Rose and Shelina Zadorsky went from obscurity to surefire Olympians in about ten months.
When you run five experiments like that you’re lucky if two pan out. Either John Herdman is even more brilliant than we thought or he took all the bad luck from 2015 and cashed it in for 2016, because so far he’s five-for-five. Lawrence turned out to be one of the best fullbacks in women’s soccer and is my vote for Canadian player of the year, Fleming was at her best in the most important matches and is making the leap before our eyes, Beckie not only scores but generates chances and gets in beautiful positions, Zadorsky has been perfectly respectable, and while you have to call Rose a prospect she had a serious early impact. There are more young players who haven’t yet broken in but have every chance in the next two years: Victoria Pickett, the Sarahs Kinzner and Stratigakis, and Gabby Carle being the most prominent, with Sura Yekka still lurking. Suddenly, and who saw this coming, Canada’s selection for the 2019-20 World Cup/Olympic cycle looks stronger than that for 2015-16.
So if Sinclair is sick of bronze medals there’s a small but real chance that Canada will be well-positioned to get her an upgrade. A World Cup or a gold medal for Canadian soccer would, under any circumstances, be an unprecedented national achievement, but in 2019 and 2020 there’ll be more on the line than mere triumph, glory, immortality, and eternal celebration. There’ll be Christine Sinclair’s place in the history of the sport.
Whenever she scores we talk about #ChasingAbby, and becoming the all-time leading international goal-scorer would be incredible, but nobody has ever doubted that Christine Sinclair can put the ball in the net. The only question, mostly from outsiders who don’t watch her day after day, is her record with her team. “Sure, Canada spent hundreds of games lumping the ball up to Sincy and letting her knock it in, but what’s it gotten them? It’s one thing to be the alpha dog on a team that’s never in the running, it’s another to lead a team to victory like Abby Wambach.” The highest honours in her international career are these two bronze medals and silver in the 2002 U-19 Women’s World Championship. It’s not fair, but you see it in every sport: when ranking the all-time greats, winning counts.
It’s because Sinclair has bled and fought and broken bones for a team that was not always worthy of her invincible talents that we, and now I do mean both fans and players, have such an obligation to get her one big prize. She is the best player in women’s soccer history. She represented soccer in this country during some of its darkest, most obscure days. She began her career swinging from 55,000-strong crowds at Commonwealth Stadium for the U-19s to 550 people watching senior friendlies at the University of Victoria, because the country had not yet learned to embrace this team unconditionally. Only Sinclair could teach us. Not because she’s some huge media presence (she is, deliberately, a notoriously indifferent interview), not because she was pushed on us as some human interest story, but because she kept performing, in thankless obscurity, for years and years and years and years, scoring, scoring, scoring, fighting, adding one page after another to her developing legend, until even the most casual sports fans couldn’t tear their eyes away. The quintessential episode will always be the 2011 World Cup, where Sinclair scored a scorching free kick goal against the host Germans, broke her nose, came out in a ghastly face mask, and fought like a goddamned Greek goddess before the astonished eyes of the world even as her team, badly chosen and badly coached, comprehensively decomposed around her. The Canadian women’s national team emerged from that tournament with not even the slightest trace of credit, except for Sinclair, who earned the Order of Canada. Never, not even the 2012 Olympic semifinal, could you so literally say of an athlete that “she was worth the price of admission on her own.”
For most veteran players, no matter what their contributions and how great their personalities, there comes a point when they must be gently eased out of the picture. That point should never come for Christine Sinclair. Not because she is immune to the ravages of age, but because she is an exception to the usual hyper-competitive rules.
Daniel Squizzato wrote that “Sinclair deserves to lead this team for as long as her body will allow her.“ Right now that’s easy to say, because Sinclair just scored three goals at the Olympics with two from open play, including the bronze-medal winner. Though not the focal point of Canada’s attack anymore, no longer the best forward alive, there’s no doubt among the sensible that Sinclair is still worth a starting spot. In strictly on-field terms we could live without her (actually a good thing) but I wouldn’t want to. However, over the next cycle, as she goes from mid- to late-thirties, time will exact its inevitable toll. The injuries are slowly accumulating already. Christine Sinclair can beat a lot of opponents single-handed but not that one. Nobody believes that Sinclair would stick around long after she’d lost her last trace of quality like some Americans of the past, but, especially when there’s one last tournament ahead, athletes tend to go too late rather than too early.
So be it. It’s possible that Sinclair will be capable of playing a useful role at age 37, but if she isn’t, bring her anyway. Cheer her on and support her without condition, do everything in your power as a fan or as a player to ensure that she can get that precious championship. The kids will get their chance regardless, we can afford to show the loyalty due to the ultimate legend. Spare nothing to get her that title, whether it’s playing 90 minutes for the senior WNT or buying tickets to local women’s soccer teams that get our players games. Sinclair carried us single-handed for so long, if we have to carry her for a moment, let us smile while we do it. Because if Christine Sinclair can stand proud and finally hear the Canadian anthem at the end of a game as well as the beginning, we’ll know that even this cruel world can be just.