Canada is going to win a gold medal in Olympic women’s soccer.
That’s not a guarantee for Rio, it’s a thought experiment. Let those words swirl around in your head, like the little plastic cup of mouthwash at the dentist’s office.
The idea may have seemed preposterous mere weeks ago, when Canada was coming into the Rio Olympics with a transitional squad, realistically looking ahead to the 2019-2020 cycle as the time to peak.
The intersection of last-hurrah veterans and first-hurrah kids would have flashes at these Games, many thought, but the team was going to ultimately be too disjointed to do much more than scrape into the quarterfinals with second (maybe even third) place in their group.
Now swirl those words around again: Canada, Olympics, gold medal.
From preposterous to perhaps inevitable, all in the span of 10 days.
But let’s spare the “team of destiny” proclamations. Canada is where they are—within two wins of the top of the mountain—not because of divine intervention from the soccer gods, but because of the confluence of a few very important factors.
Starting at the back, Stephanie Labbé has thus far defied the critics who presumed she’d falter in her new role as Canada’s top ’keeper. Aerial crosses can still be a bit of an adventure, but contrary to the worries of cynical supporters, she’s managed to concede just one goal (a penalty kick) in three games.
While Kadeisha Buchanan’s bona fides are well established by now, her comrades in central defense, Shelina Zadorsky and Rebecca Quinn, have both performed admirably in their first Olympic Games. Both have had an “uh oh” moment (Zadorsky’s red card against Australia, Quinn’s role in Zimbabwe’s goal), but neither have let those moments drag them down in subsequent games.
Ashley Lawrence has been a revelation at fullback, demonstrating a versatility that will make her a linchpin of the team for years to come, while Jessie Fleming is beginning to live up to the hype she’s received in recent years, showing her astute playmaking abilities in midfield.
And up top, Canada’s attacking star has undoubtedly been Janine Beckie, who leads the team with three goals and whose audacity made Canada’s goal against France possible. Complementing her has been Deanne Rose, a newcomer who showed astounding maturity in the final moments against France, declining the opportunity to go for goal and instead expertly killing off a minute all on her own.
Yes, the veterans—such as Christine Sinclair and Melissa Tancredi—have also stepped up. And yes, Canada has been the beneficiary of some good fortune, including the referee’s confusing decision not to award Eugenie Le Sommer a penalty in the early going of the quarterfinal. A quick French goal from the spot would have no doubt changed the tenor of the game immensely.
And yes, if we’re looking further down the road at potential match-ups in the final, Canada has been aided greatly by Sweden’s unexpected ousting of the No. 1-ranked Americans earlier on Friday.
But let’s, as an another thought experiment, go through the ages of some of the above named players, starting with Buchanan: 20, 23, 21, 21, 18, 21, 17.
All were playing in their first Olympics, and all played their part against a French team that, just like in the bronze-medal game at the 2012 Olympics, held the lead in most statistical categories but couldn’t produce in the one that matters most: goals scored.
So now, this youth-rich squad is heading for a rematch against Germany, a team that had beaten Canada in all 12 previous meetings prior to these Olympic Games.
Despite the warm-and-fuzzy feelings of the France victory, and the fact Germany has hardly looked at their prime throughout this tournament, Canada will still head into that game as underdogs.
That’s hardly hampered the No. 10-ranked Canadians so far in Rio, as they’ve knocked off the No. 2 (Germany), No. 3 (France) and No. 5 (Australia) teams in the world. But let’s not anoint them champions just yet.
Yes, Canada is going to win a gold medal in Olympic women’s soccer. It just might not be in Rio.
But looking at the development of this young core, they might already be one of the favorites for Tokyo 2020.