I'm sure Canada's 2-0 win over Cuba was much more frustrating on television than in person. The Cubans put ten women behind the ball from the start, the Canadians had a bevy of scoring chances, they got one goal from the spot and and one goal from the run of play, and that was it. A Cuban team that made Haiti look competitive got away with a relatively decent 2-0 defeat.
Canadian fans are worried, because we're Canadian fans and that's what we do. "Too much of the offense goes through Christine Sinclair!" "We couldn't break down a team that terrible!" "We beat Cuba 2-0; the Americans beat a higher-ranked Dominican Republic team by 14. We're fucked."
Well, Canada was playing the middle leg of a three-games-in-five-days stretch. They rested a number of key players. Canada's three best players, in my books, are Sinclair, Sophie Schmidt, and Candace Chapman: they went 45 minutes, 45 minutes, and no minutes respectively. Alyscha Mottershead and Chelsea Stewart both made their first starts for their country. Canada hit crossbars, had shots that would go in four times out of five slip wide, and put in their fair share of scoring chances despite playing at two-thirds speed against an opponent bunkering for ninety minutes. There was never, ever, and I mean not for one minute, any doubt that Canada would win the game.
Canada wasn't perfect last night. Their performance on set pieces was miserable. They could have worked it wide a little more aggressively, could have gotten the fullbacks more involved for the first hour. Their intensity level was low to match the quality of their opposition. Oh, well. Canada won, they looked fine doing it, and now a draw against Costa Rica still hands Canada first place in Group A.
We all wanted Canada to win by a couple of touchdowns, to make the Americans sit up and take notice of us as we took notice of them. Instead, Canada handed in a dominant but unspectacular performance. Oh well. Ultimately, the performance against schmucks like this isn't what matters: Canada's failure to finish their chances against a hell-bent-for-leather bunkering Cuban team doesn't indicate what they'll do against a Mexican or American team that actually wants to play some soccer. They got the required result; that will do.
Cuba's bunkering, of course, sealed their own elimination from the tournament. Their players dug their own graves and smiled while they did it. It's counter-intuitive, counter-productive, counter-competitive, counter-everything, but it's an observable fact that minnows are happier to lose by a dignified margin than to go all out for a necessary win. When the final whistle blew to eliminate Cuba, head coach Jose Elejalde actually stuck his arms out to restrain his bench players from running out and celebrating. The Cubans on the field looked every inch as thrilled as the Canadians, saluting the small pockets of their support and grinning from ear to ear.
I'm not sure what Cuba, or any other team (hello, Puerto Rico from men's World Cup qualifying last year) gains from this. You don't advance in world soccer with respectable losses. It wasn't "Cuba kept it close and tried to snatch a goal on the counter"; they never gave themselves any chance of winning and, down 2-0 by the end of the first half, they made no adjustments to get either goal back. As a fan it's frustrating; as an armchair coach it seems pointless. Cuba has a developing program; what did those players learn last night? Give me Haiti instead, who played some soccer against Canada, came out worse for it, but at least learned some lessons (and looked spirited in an unlucky 2-0 loss to Costa Rica yesterday afternoon).
Canada's offense stopped after Sinclair left the field, and I can understand why that's worrying. Sinclair scored from the spot (although she didn't create the penalty) and set up Melissa Tancredi's goal; with her gone Canada failed to score. Throughout the past several years Sinclair's been, by far, the focal point of the Canadian offense. There's no doubt that Canada is immensely superior with Sinclair on the field than with her off it.
I'm not worried about that. Do you know why? Because Christine Sinclair is one of the three best female soccer players in the world. When one of your forwards is one of the very, very best players in her sport who has ever lived, that will tend to ensure she plays a prominent role in your attack.
This isn't a secret. Canada's Plan A has been "get it to Christine and let her be a genius" for, what, five years now? Some exceptional teams and players have set entire game plans around shutting down Christine Sinclair, but only Germany and the United States have succeeded on even a semi-consistent basis. Canada's other primary attacking players are the likes of Kelly Parker and Melissa Tancredi: decent talents who'll have their moments (hell, Tank had the greatest assist of 2012 on Thursday) but who are not nearly as good as Christine Sinclair because almost nobody is.
With only one half worth of Sinclair, Canada managed 26 shots, 14 on target. Cuba was playing with such offensive élan that they had zero shot attempts. I can't remember the last time I saw an international team at this level finish with zero shot attempts; even the Dominican Republic managed three.
At least the crowd was great. 12,417 was the announced attendance; the highest for a women's game in Canada since July 11, 2008 when Canada drew Brazil 1-1 at BMO Field before 13,554. The crowd was actually larger than for the Canadian men's last three home World Cup qualifiers, all in Toronto: 10,235 fans for St. Kitts and Nevis on November 15, 12,178 for Puerto Rico on October 11, and on September 2 there were 11,500 for the opener against St. Lucia.
Those fans didn't get a great show, but they did get a great result. That's what counts, and my confidence in this team remains sky-high.