This is the sort of moment that few teams ever get to experience—and it’s one that should fully be savored by everyone with their eyes on the Canadian women's national team.
Canada’s 1-0 win over Switzerland on Sunday puts the hosts into the quarter-finals of the Women’s World Cup. But this wasn’t any old win; it was a tight-fought, single-goal victory in front of a record-breaking home crowd of nearly 54,000, and it came after plenty of criticism was surfacing about the team’s play in the group stages.
The lack of goals—just three in four games—is a problem. The team’s inability to produce cohesive, prolonged attacks is a problem. The team’s reliance upon veteran players who simply aren’t getting the job done in this tournament is a problem. And the fact that Christine Sinclair is a human being, and therefore incapable of replicating the prime of her life indefinitely, is a problem.
And yet, here Canada sit in the quarter-finals.
There is a concern that Canada forging a deep run in this tournament could actually be counter-productive in the long run. It would, the thinking goes, gloss over the deep-rooted problems in the program and set up expectations that couldn’t possibly be sustained over the next decade. This is not an unreasonable point of view.
A deep run was always a possibility, given Canada’s very (some would say mysteriously) favorable draw. Really, from a neutral’s perspective, the fact that either Canada, England or Norway will be in the World Cup semifinals, while either Germany or France will not, is surely an abomination in the eyes of the soccer gods.
But hey, it is what it is in a short tournament. You play the teams that are put in front of you, and you do what you can to win. Style points don’t matter; having more goals than your opponent at the final whistle is what does.
Canada could very well beat England or Norway and end up in the semifinals. From there, they’re guaranteed two more games and no worse than a fourth-place finish, which would match their best World Cup result ever (2003). For the Canadian public, who loves viewing its teams as scrappy underdogs, it would likely be viewed as a success.
And yes, it would breed another round of feel-good narratives about the team and its players (as we saw after Canada’s unexpected run to the bronze medal at the 2012 Olympics). It would feed into the idea that Canada is indeed one of the top few teams in the world, and is trending in the right direction.
The reality, as it currently stands, is that head coach John Herdman had to coax Melissa Tancredi, Josée Belanger and Kara Lang to rejoin the team for this World Cup, because he just didn’t see better available options. (Lang reinjured her knee and re-retired prior to the tournament.) The reality is that 31-year-old Lauren Sesselmann, just off major knee surgery, continues to start for Canada because Herdman sees her as the best available option.
Herdman has identified newcomers who’ve stepped up in their roles, most notably fullback Allysha Chapman—and youngsters Kadeisha Buchanan and Ashley Lawrence, both just 20, have undoubtedly been Canada’s stars of the tournament to this point. Those two, along with fellow World Cup debutante Jessie Fleming, will form the core of this team for years and years to come.
So the future’s not entirely grim for the Canadian women; it’s also not entirely bright, regardless of this competition’s outcome.
But then, should the focus truly be on anything other than this tournament’s outcome?
This, after all, is the pinnacle of the sport. This is the reason the players play and the fans pay attention. That’s not to say the team is beyond criticism—but whatever the failings of the team, of the program or of the competition format, the reality is that Canada is three wins away from being World Cup champions.
Is that likely to happen? With Japan sitting on our side of the bracket, well, probably not. And if did happen, would it be proof that Canada is indeed the best team in the world? Again, probably not.
But hey, wouldn’t that be so freakin’ unbelievably amazing if it did happen?
All along, the close observers of this team have said that an appearance in the quarter-finals would be a success for Canada. Here they are, in the quarters. So if we’re considering anything beyond this point to be gravy, well then, we may as well just kick back and enjoy the ride.
After all, when are we ever going to have another one quite like it?