Jaclyn Sawicki and Rachel Melhado were both expected to play big roles for Canada this U-20 World Cup. Melhado did, but Sawicki... (Canadian Soccer Association)
After the Canadian women's national team's fantastic bronze medal in London, it almost feels good to have some familiar ol' disappointment to cling onto.
Last week, Canada began the U-20 Women's World Cup in Japan. They had a tough group; not the group of death or anything (Group D of Germany, the United States, China, and Ghana was filthy) but a tough one. Norway might be on the decline but boasts some good young players including Emilie Haavi, who is future FIFA Player of the Year material, North Korea is definitely on the way up, and Argentina were doormats but good enough to be potential spoilers. Canada had a strong roster: goalkeeper Sabrina D'Angelo doesn't always get the hype but has been meeting every challenge, forward Jenna Richardson and midfielder Jaclyn Sawicki were already excellent USL W-League and college players, and forward/winger Adriana Leon has gotten results with both the Toronto Lynx women and her university team.
But at this level almost every group is a tough one. Canada ought to reliably beat Norway and hang with North Korea. It didn't happen. A promising 6-0 opening win over Argentina led to consecutive losses to Norway and North Korea, both after Canada took 1-0 first half leads. As such Canada is out of the U-20 Women's World Cup at the first hurdle, finishing third in Group C.
It's unanimously agreed that Canada has some fine players this U-20 cycle, and not just the ones I named. Even in defeat you could see this wasn't the Canada of the early 2000s: there was technical talent at every position and plenty of bright young players we can pick out as stars for the future. My favourite was Wu, who I knew little of prior to this tournament but played an excellent Diana Matheson-style game, tenaciously defending and trying to link possession in a central midfield that was crying for it.
In a developmental tournament, that's probably what matters most. But we need to look at the small picture as well as the big one; Canada did underperform. What excitement should we have for the future, and what lessons can we take away to ensure the senior team doesn't fall into the same traps?
It is interesting that the Canadian Soccer Association hired such an inexperienced coach to run the women's U-20 program through this tournament. Andrew Olivieri is only 31 years old and has been a full-time coach for only three years since retiring as a goalkeeper. He's worked with the Canadian national program as a goalkeeping coach and has done some local coaching; head coach of the Lakers du Saint-Louis senior women in 2005 and the U-18 men starting in 2010. But he certainly hasn't got the resume you'd associate with a major coaching position like national U-20 head coach, and his inexperience did show at times.
Canada managed seven goals in the first half of their games while conceding only one. But in the second half they scored one goal and conceded three. The Canucks consistently flagged after the break, and what was especially noticeable against Norway was that their opponents were making sound adjustments but Canada simply wasn't able to respond. In the first half of the Norwegian game Canada was giving a bit up on defense but dominated midfield and could have been two or three up with better finishing. But in the second Norway focused on carving Canada with long passes and darting runs from the likes of Caroline Hansen. Canada's staff simply had no reply: they shuffled fullbacks ineffectively, made an extremely weak change to bring off the effective Wu for Christine Exeter, and wound up earning the loss. The same story played out, though on a smaller scale, against North Korea: I say a smaller scale because Canada was behind the mark from kickoff in that game but just got worse until North Korea got their winner from the spot and settled in to dive, waste time, and bunker the game away.
The underuse of Jaclyn Sawicki will be a talking point. Sawicki was arguably Canada's best player against Argentina (I say arguably because, well, she did have a hat trick), played both regularly and effectively for Canada during the qualifying campaign, and has also delivered the goods for both the University of Victoria and the Vancouver Whitecaps W-League team. But she did not get so much as an appearance for Canada in their two biggest matches against Norway and North Korea, not even when the team was crying out for a ball-moving, shifty offensive midfielder. Combined with leaving off U-20 star and promising senior national team performer Amelia Pietrangelo, Oliveiri's selections will lead to a lot of head-scratching. Olivieri may be an exceptional young coach, but there's no replacement for experience and he simply didn't have it at any serious level.
Most players were individually fine but a lack of familiarity showed with passes to nowhere under pressure and an inability to judge each other's speed. Not all the players were up to the mark technically. Fullback continues to be a weakness. Christine Exeter scored Canada's goal of the tournament against North Korea: she did a simply remarkable job catching a pass with her back to goal, using one touch to curl the ball towards the centre of the park while turning off her defender, and finishing excellently. However, while that strike was truly a thing of beauty, she lacked the refinement to employ it consistently and spent most of her time on the field trying to batter down defenders Even Pellerud style. I was not wholly impressed, although the raw material for a quality player is there. I have a natural fear of seeing brute-force players in an otherwise technical lineup; bad memories of a development system that prioritized athleticism over skill and set the Canadian women's program back for a decade.
Then again, there were other players such as Christabel Oduro who were full of tricks with the ball at their feet but never went anywhere with them. This is a relatively new problem for Canada to have, and not a bad one; experience and quality coaching could turn such players into real dominant forces.
Even criticisms of the players have to be couched in such positive terms because, again, the players are generally of quite a high standard. When players like Oduro and Exeter who stood out as needing work still have such obvious ability, that's a good sign for your grass-roots development. The trick now is developing a structure and acquiring the coaching that will let those players iron out the flaws in their game and meet their potential, and it is there that Canada sometimes falls flat.
Canada suffered in Japan and has much to learn: once again, there is a need to emphasize coaching beyond the "senior national team head coach" level and ensure there are quality, experienced teachers all the way down. It certainly would have been helpful if the players could spend more time together, although that's not entirely within the CSA's control; still, the U-20 women played not a single game between qualifying in March and this tournament, and more of an effort could have been made. These problems are structural and will haunt Canada if they continue.
But at least the players are there. We can take that rather comforting fact away: Canada is no longer being left behind technically.