Commentary: Despite issues, CanWNT have a fighter's chance in Women's World Cup knockout stages

Canada have rarely looked convincing at this year’s Women’s World Cup, but they’ve still achieved their first goal: winning Group A.

A 1-1 draw with the Netherlands in Montreal on Monday night saw them finish the opening stage with a win and two draws, enough to win the group and, most likely, avoid the tournament’s most dangerous teams until the semifinals.

Of course, getting to the semifinals is no guarantee for the host team. Despite plenty of goodwill from the Canadian public, and proclamations from coach John Herdman about their desire to make the World Cup final, the team’s limitations have been on display so far in the competition.

Still, it’s not all bad news for Canada – after all, they did win their group. So how did they get here, and what’s next?

Herdman’s decisions paying off

The manager made two somewhat surprising lineup decisions for Canada’s opening game against China. Ashley Lawrence, just shy of her 20th birthday, got the start in midfield while Josee Belanger – a striker forced into a defender’s role due to injuries – was in at right back.

Both of those decisions have paid off. Belanger has been solid in her new role, while Lawrence – who scored Canada’s goal against the Dutch – has been the team’s breakout star of the tournament.

These gambits are just the latest successes for the manager who, in his three years at the helm for Canada, has shown a knack for getting the most out of his player pool. Canadian fans will surely be hoping he has a few more tricks up his sleeve.

Changing of the guard

It comes as no surprise to close followers of the team, but Christine Sinclair and Melissa Tancredi are not the same players they once were. Sinclair did score a late winner against China, on a penalty kick, but hasn’t taken charge of games the way she once did, while Tancredi hasn’t scored for Canada in three years.

That’s no disrespect to the two veteran strikers, who led Canada to a famous bronze medal at the 2012 London Olympics. But Canada have struggled to score goals in their first three games, which is what is inevitably going to happen when a team’s top forwards aren’t at the pinnacle of performance.

That’s not to say that one or both of them couldn’t have a momentous scoring outburst in the knockout stages. But the signs are now unmistakable: Canada need young attackers to step up – in this tournament and beyond. Striker Adriana Leon and midfielder Jessie Fleming would be two prime candidates in that respect.

Anything can happen

The great – though some would say awful – thing about short tournaments is that unlikely results are always possible. Knockout games, which bring with them the possibility of extra time and penalty kicks, are even more conducive to shockers.

So while nobody should be penciling Canada in as a favorite to make the final – though, realistically, they probably shouldn’t have been doing that anyway – the hosts simply can’t be ruled out, either.

While they’d go into a matchup with teams like Germany, Japan and the United States as underdogs, Canada have shown themselves capable of hanging around with all of those teams in recent years. And in a World Cup knockout game, when a hard-fought draw can lead into a shootout… well, yeah, just ask Japan. Or the US.