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Long-Awaited Victory

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This is the first time I will have written about the Canadian national women's soccer program on this website. It's an oversight. A hell of an oversight. My modern story as a soccer fan stretches back to the U-19 Women's World Cup in Edmonton, when I stood in the stands to watch our girls defeat Brazil on penalties in what my young mind, ignorant of the women's game, thought was a far bigger upset than it actually was. I did everything short of murder to make sure that I'd get to the final which we lost, in spirited but heart-breaking fashion, to the United States, and from that came the Edmonton Aviators and the rest, as they say, is history.

But I think part of the reason I so seldom write about women's soccer in this space is that it's so depressing. The women's national team is Canada's best chance to win on the international stage and boasts perhaps the greatest female striker of all time, Christine Sinclair. But we once had one of the best development programs in the world for women's soccer, simply because we had a development program for women's soccer. As the rest of the world moved forward, though, we moved back. Worse than simply standing still, the women's program descended into the sort of politics-riddled morass observers of the Canadian Soccer Association are a little too familiar with. Even the high-profile appointment of Caroline Morace over the backroom scrapper Even Pellerud has only helped matters so much. That's much more depressing than simply the men's team lose because they stink. We could have won something on the women's side, and instead our golden generation has been frittered away and we haven't done enough to develop the next.

The manager of our U-17 team, Brian Rosenfeld, is a case in point. I am not intimate with the details of the women's youth program, but Rosenfeld replaced former supremo Ian Bridge in January when Bridge, despite being offered a short-term contract, walked under the belief that "the CSA didn't want [him] anymore" and dismayed at the lack of practice for the team and the lack of communication with Morace. Rosenfeld was a long-time CSA employee and a once-capped Canadian national goalkeeper against Honduras in 1987. He was old guard through and through, and supposedly played favourites a little too freely. Not the sort of world-class boss one would count on to take a program forward, especially mere months before the CONCACAF U-17 championships. The top two teams - which is to say, the United States and the second-place team - would advance to the U-17 Women's World Cup in glamorous Trinidad and Tobago.

Rosenfeld's troops were effective but uninspiring early in the tournament. A workmanlike 4-1 victory over Jamaica, a disappointing 2-1 victory over minnows Panama, and a positively gutting 1-0 loss to a Mexico team that, on paper, we ought to beat. That loss to the Mexicans meant that we'd have to play the Americans in the semi-final and beat them in order to get into the World Cup. And we wouldn't beat the Americans, so why even bother worrying about it?

Do you think I'm overstating things? Let me put it this way. The United States had an easy group of Haiti, the Cayman Islands, and their only potential challenge in Costa Rica. They led off against Haiti, winning 9-0. They then beat the Caymans by the score of 13-0. Finally, those "challengers" the Costa Ricans went down 10-0 on their own home soil. They scored more goals in their worst game than we scored throughout the tournament. Midfielders Morgan Brian and Lindsey Horan each scored as many as the entire Canadian team. The Americans scored 32 goals in those three games; in their last 28 internationals the Canadian men's national team has scored 34. Seldom in the history of international football has one team been so far ahead of all potential rivals.

Then, in front of about twenty fans, including five enthusiastic Canadians flying the Maple Leaf in a section they had all to themselves, les Rouges whipped Uncle Sam's fanny.

I feel like I am offending the soccer gods by saying this, but Canada was the better team on the night and deserved to win in the first ninety minutes. Yes, the Americans were more skilled both individually and as a unit. But Canada, while never exactly parking the bus and falling into the John Limniatis Memorial 10-0-0, played tenacious defense with six or seven women behind the ball and found chances magnificently on the counter attack. Canada's midfield play was the best I've seen any Canadian midfield play since the 2007 Gold Cup, and I've not sure I've seen a Canadian defense that composed at any level. We fouled, we played dirty, we dove, and particularly late in the match we aggressively time wasted. We did all the things that drive me insane when other teams do them to us. It was great.

In extra time the Americans turned up the heat early, perhaps sensing the match turning away from them, but the Canadians hung tough and by the last fifteen minutes their bunker had the Americans utterly off-stride. It must be granted that there was a distinct air of the Canadians playing for penalties, but who can blame them? Then the whistle blew.

At the time of the match I was at work, sitting in my office, watching the game on CONCACAF's web feed. I was supposed to head out and take over for a coworker so he could grab a bite to eat. I called that coworker and told him he'd have to wait. Some things are more important.

There's no point in describing the penalty shootout; there's little point in describing any penalty shootout. There were no audacious lobs, just some young women putting their head down and punishing the ball exactly like the coach tells you to. The third Canadian shooter Yazmin Ongtengco-Hintzen very nearly scuffed it, and the American goalkeeper Bryane Heaberlin got almost her entire palm to the ball, contorting mid-dive to get a piece of the ball as it sliced down the middle. The ball bounced harmlessly away, or so it seemed, as it took a mean turf skip, the backspin sending the ball past a sprawling Heaberlin into the goal.

The soccer gods even smile on Canada, sometimes.

We play Mexico tomorrow for the CONCACAF championship, which could be our first confederation tournament victory of any stripe since 2000. More important, we qualify for the coming U-17 Women's World Cup (good tickets, I'm certain, still available). And most amazingly of all, we condemn the American girls to watching at home with the rest of us. The best team in the world, knocked out of the biggest of all tournaments by a team they ought to beat nine times out of ten.

For once, it's a good day to be a Voyageur.