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It's true, I don't pay much attention to women's soccer. Most soccer writers don't, unfortunately. It's less glamorous with less famous players and (let's be honest) less exciting action. Earlier this month, Canada's senior women played a friendly in Germany and I completely ignored it while obsessing about whatever minutiae I could physically dig up regarding the men's team. There are plenty of blogs that talk about the women once in a while, but too many of us consider them an occasional diversion or a way to fill a slow news day and I am among that number.
It is brutally unfair, though, because the women's program is the main reason I'm a Voyageur today at all. I attended a men's game in the last century and didn't much enjoy myself (it was a World Cup qualifier against Trinidad and Tobago in the absolute peak of the "T&T gets whatever calls it wants" era), but as a player in the St. Albert Soccer Association I got a free pass to the U-19 Women's World Cup in Edmonton during the summer of 2002. Women's U-19 soccer? It could not have less appealed to me. But Canada got off to a roaring start, winning their first two games by a combined score of 7-2. Teammates who attended the games extolled them in the strongest possible terms: there were fans cheering for Canada at soccer, and Canada was winning, and it was happening right here and I had a free tournament pass and I wasn't even using it. So, with reluctance but a creeping fear I might have been missing out on something, I attended Canada's next match. Erin McLeod and Christine Sinclair put on a show, we beat Nigeria 2-0, and from that moment on I haven't missed a Canadian national game if I could help it. That tournament pass wound up getting some use after all, and I still rank watching Canada defy Brazil in a semi-final penalty shootout (Brazil! I know they're not as good with the women as they are with the men but to a kid my age it was like we were playing the soccer gods themselves) as one of the most thrilling sporting events I've ever seen in person.
That long-winded personal story is my way of saying the women's teams should matter far more to me than they usually do. I can't think of a better time to correct that than a home friendly, the third by a senior Canadian national team this month, against a staggeringly evenly-matched team when Canada is trying to overcome one of the toughest friendly losses in the history of either gender's national program. It would be a tough, exciting match even if it didn't matter and even if it wasn't being played at home. It does and it is, so it might wind up a classic.
First and most importantly, to any of my southern Ontario-based readers, go to http://www.canadasoccer.com and buy a ticket for this game right now. Good seats are still available and the atmosphere for a Canadian women's game is something any fan ought to experience: less hardcore in general but with a gathering of young players, families, and general fans which make the stands terrifically pro-Canadian. And that's without considering the good soccer you're likely to see.
Canada's women's program remains one of the world's strongest, but our margin is slipping. Our current spot in the FIFA rankings is tied for our worst ever at thirteenth in the world, and those rankings came out before our most recent friendly. In front of a 20,000-strong crowd at Dresden's Rudolf Harbig Stadion, Canada took on the second-ranked Germans in front of a raucous pro-German crowd and suffered an embarrassing 5-0 loss. The FIFA Women's Rankings are different from the men's rankings and are released quarterly rather than monthly: their composition is far closer to the men's Elo rankings which I advertise as an alternative to the flawed FIFA men's system. Carolina Morace's troops haven't won in four games and have only one victory against a top twenty country since March 2009.
But things can turn so quickly. Canada had 1,946 ranking points on the last table, ranking thirteenth. But the field is tight: ninth-ranked England has 1,967, while Italy and Australia are tied for eleventh with 1,949. The Germany loss hurts, but if Canada can bounce back with a strong win against China they ought to be able to at least hold onto their ranking and probably move past the mostly idle Australians. On the other hand, if China prevails, we're almost certainly looking at a new record low.
China has some extremely solid players but the sun has been setting on many of their best. On paper, Canada looks like they ought to be better. Striker Han Duan, most recently of WPS's Los Angeles Sol, is one of the finest female strikers in the world, having already buried 101 goals for her country at age 27. She will be up against another 27-year old star striker, Christine Sinclair, who also turns out in WPS for FC Gold Pride and happens to have an international goal total of... 101. Most importantly, according to the most recent roster released by the Canadian Soccer Association, Han Duan isn't even on China's roster, although that would be a surprising omission. It would be like Canada leaving Ali Gerba off its roster for a major international friendly (oh, right).
The serious issue for China is that, since the retirement of the legendary Sun Wen, they have starved for secondary scoring. That's been a major part of the decline of Chinese women's soccer: from almost automatic AFC Women's Asian Cup and Asian Games champions, China has recently placed an all-time worst fourth at the 2010 Asian Cup and have seen their results slip in other recent competitions. The second-leading active scorer for China today, and the leading scorer on their current roster, is Xu Yuan of Shanghai with a mere nine career goals. By comparison, Canada's second-leading scorer is Kara Lang with 33 international goals and the team boasts a handful of others in the six to eleven goal range. Combined with Canada's axiomatically strong goalkeeping and this should be an easy one at home, right?
Of course not. Canada boasts a staggeringly average back line, with only Trinidad-born Candace-Marie Chapman approaching real international quality and the currently unattached Brittany Timko aspiring to that level at times. Canada has also left most of their veteran goalkeepers at home, opting to carry Karina LeBlanc and two rookies. But LeBlanc was tagged with all five German goals in Dresden earlier this month and, while she's terrific when on her best form, recent games for her country have been erratic.
With the recent decline in Chinese fortunes and the fact that they haven't even brought their best scorer, I doubt that China will be able to exploit Canada's weaknesses. But they have the technical ability to give us a real fright and the opportunity certainly exists for them. This could be a breezy win against a worthy adversary, or it could be a difficult test against a stern opponent. The women got their wake-up call in Germany, now let's see if they heard it.
News and Notes:
- Any Vancouver Whitecaps fans reading? Then you'll be interested to know the lady Whitecaps have sent a staggering eight players to this Canadian team: defenders Melanie Booth, Robin Gayle, Chelsea Stewart, and Emily Zurrer, midfielder Kaylyn Kyle, and strikers Kara Lang, Desiree Scott, and Melissa Tancredi. Contributing eight players to a 26-woman roster, or 30.8% of the team, from a ladies team that's in the North American second division can only be described as a "holy crap". Congratulations to all the women involved.
- Next to the Whitecaps, which team is the biggest contributor to this Canadian squad? Actually, it's the Ottawa Fury, whose men's team may be an amateur USL PDL squad but boasts a far more successful and more professional women's outfit. Three member of the Fury are representing their country in Toronto today.
- Before kickoff, the CSA will recognize two of Canada's female soccer legends, Diana Matheson and Amy Walsh, who since Canada's last home game have both broken the 100 cap milestone. Matheson, one of our better midfielders, is only twenty-six and currently plies her trade with Lillestrom in Norway. She reached the mark in that embarrassing German game earlier this month. Meanwhile, the 33-year-old Walsh made her 100th cap in March of 2009 against the Netherlands in the Cyprus Cup and is, in fact, not even in this international squad: she's making the trip to BMO Field just for the presentation.