Canadian national team's opening Olympics win shows anything's possible

Christine Sinclair celebrates after scoring the winning PK vs. China

It was a classic Canadian performance — gritty, gut-churning and, ultimately, providing observers with almost as many questions as answers.

Grabbing a 2-0 victory over the frazzled Australians in their Olympic opener on Wednesday was, of course, the ideal outcome for John Herdman’s side, what with the game serving as the crucial variable preceding a pair of mostly-known quantities (a likely win against Zimbabwe and a likely loss against Germany).

It sets an optimistic tenor for the tournament, putting the defending bronze medalists on a more favorable presumptive path back to the podium.

That’s, of course, putting the cart several towns ahead of the horse. But the tournament-opening game against Australia did showcase the predictable rhythms of a Canadian national-team performance — an environment in which seemingly anything is possible, for good or for bad.

It began even before the opening whistle, with Herdman (as he tends to do) dropping a surprise starter into the 11. On this occasion, it was Melissa Tancredi, the 34-year-old striker who’s never recaptured her form from the 2012 Olympics and picked up a minor ankle injury in a pre-tournament friendly.

The point was rendered moot when Tancredi was subbed out in the first half (more on that in a second), but one wonders how things looked in the alternate universe in which she played the majority of that game.

Next up for the “classic Canadian performance” file: a promising start. Now normally, a promising start just means “some nice possession in the first 15 minutes”; but no, we’re talking a record-setting, narrative-exploding, glass-shattering kind of start.

That start entailed Christine Sinclair feeding Janine Beckie for the game’s opening goal after just 20 seconds, in case you missed it. Full credit goes to both for being primed to punish the Australians’ dawdling.

Going down the “classic performance” checklist, we have… aha, yes, a heart-sinking moment that scuppers the early optimism. This usually comes in the form of a scary back pass, a potential injury or a wave of opposition attack. On this day, it was defender Shelina Zadorsky’s 18th-minute red card, necessitating a change in approach (including the early withdrawal of Tancredi) and, yes, expectations.  

Then came the grit and the gut-churning. Oh, the grit and the gut-churning. Seriously, it boggles the mind that the Canadian Soccer Association doesn’t by this point have a sponsorship deal with any nausea medication manufacturers, given the internal distress that fans are obliged to endure on a regular basis.

However, the players, drawing on the grit accrued from the mandatory childhood ritual in which every Canadian is forced to fight a polar bear, dug deep.

Rebecca Quinn, the 20-year-old central defender unexpectedly tossed into her Olympic debut, did great. Ashley Lawrence showed why she’s so valuable as Canada’s newfound super-utility player. Desiree Scott stood tall in her role protecting the back line. Stephanie Labbé, in the end, earned her first Olympic clean sheet.

And in classic Canadian style, there was Sinclair to put a definitive stamp on the game. Whatever can be said about her shifting role within the team over recent years, you don’t get to 163 international goals without regularly being the one to knock the opponents out in dramatic fashion.

The mood for Canadians after that result is, and should be, jubilation. However you get there, a win is a win — and in a short tournament such as this, the preciousness of those three points can’t be overstated.

But the two goals were both, in their own ways, anomalies. A red card is an anomaly. And while Herdman’s halftime adjustments factored into Canada’s ultimate triumph, so too did the performance of an Australian side that, in many ways, failed to live up to their recently-acquired rank of No. 5 in the world.

So that brings us to the final element of a classic Canadian performance: the uncertainty about what it all means.

Can Quinn repeat her heroics? Will Lawrence continue to perform in her new role as a fullback against tougher opposition? Is Tancredi going to be a regular starter? Will Labbé assert herself in the starter’s role? How many minutes can Sinclair’s 33-year-old legs handle at this level?

For now, all we can say with certainty is that, as ever, it’s going to be a thrilling ride for Canada through a major tournament. Hold on tight.