Most of my readers are casual observers of the Canadian women's national team at best. So don't take it personally if I go over the recent history our most successful soccer side.
Coming into this year's Yongchuan Cup, Canada was on a ten-game undefeated streak with eight wins dating back to our 3-1 thumping of China at BMO Field in September. We hadn't lost a competitive match, as in "a match which was part of some competition that had a trophy at the end of it", since going down 3-1 to England at the end of the 2009 Cyprus Cup. We had scalped our share of minnows, of course, but we'd also bagged Mexico three times, China, and Trinidad and Tobago: none world powers but all capable of giving an unprepared side fits (as the Americans could relate in detail).
None of this was making us favourites for the World Cup, of course, but you can only beat the opposition in front of you. The Yongchuan Cup would be a much sterner test. The Chinese were the weakest team in the tournament, but they were also at home and by no means uncompetitive. Canada was actually third favourite, behind two of the top five countries in the world in the United States and Sweden.
Well, Canada sure held up their end. We were within a quarter-inch on a 90th minute Christine Sinclair volley from winning the whole tournament. As it was we finished second, tied with the Americans on six points but losing on head-to-head record. We comprehensively beat Sweden, stormed back ferociously against the plucky Chinese, and gave the United States all they could handle. Canada won't fly out home with any hardware (apart from tournament MVP Christine Sinclair), but they proved yet again that they deserve to be included among the absolute upper echelon of international women's soccer.
A far cry from Even Pellerud's hoof-and-hope. A far cry from anything we've known in this country, actually. The current incarnation of the Canadian women's team is unique in Canadian soccer history, and if you're ignoring them because "it's just chicks' football" you're missing out.
Even apart from the quality of the team, we're lucky to have one of the transcendent stars in the game today. You can't discuss the Canadian women's national team without discussing Christine Sinclair. Sometimes I want to: there's a lot of great players on this team and reducing it to the Christine Sinclair show is the most degrading sort of simplification. But she's developing the aura of the true superstar: even when she's having a quiet game it's like she's lurking in the reeds, waiting for her opportunity. In the tournament opener against China, Canada was down 2-0 at halftime before Melissa Tancredi pulled a goal back. Sinclair had been utterly neutralized: the Chinese defensive game plan seemed to be "eliminate Sinclair; isolate Tancredi" which was working as far as it goes because Tancredi was having trouble doing it on her own.
But Sinclair was always there, waiting for her chance, and when the Chinese gave her a sliver of daylight left she pounced. Slipped between the defenders, knocked a ball home before you were sure what was happening, and the Canadians had miraculously equalized. Lest you think Sinclair was done there she caught a breakaway in the dying breaths of stoppage time, simply running past the Chinese defense and softly, confidently finishing her opportunity to give Canada a last-gasp winner. You could see the Chinese sag, even in front of their home crowd. It recalled the famous quote from Tarcisio Burgnich regarding Pelé: "I told myself before the game, he's made of skin and bones just like everyone else — but I was wrong."
She's always been brilliant, of course, but in the past two years Sinclair's taken her game to a whole new level. She was never all that quick as a younger player, but now she leaves defenders in her dust without sacrificing an iota of her old strength. She used to shoot with power, sometimes too often, but her finishes have grown more delicate, more accurate, more keenly-timed. Most glaring, her conditioning had always been poor as she relied on her immense skill and obvious athletic gifts to get her through. Today, she might be the best-conditioned player on the team. Sinclair played every minute of every game in the Yongchuan Cup: three games in six days in ferociously cold conditions on a mediocre-at-best grass pitch, and her last minute was just as effective as her first. In our final game against Sweden, Sinclair scored the only goal with a display of raw athletic ability: she ran, she muscled, she got past three professional soccer defenders, and she scored without missing a step. It was ridiculous, considering how many tough miles she'd put on her legs through the rest of the tournament. Over 200 minutes of competitive soccer in less than a week, plus training, in lousy conditions, and yet Christine Sinclair could still score a goal like this:
After such praise, I'm almost obliged to bring Sinclair down to earth. She still has her flaws, like every player. She remains an absolutely hopeless crosser of the ball and a mediocre passer on the ground. Poor Melissa Tancredi: she's a weaker player than Sinclair but she sure doesn't get any help from her captain. If Sinclair isn't getting the sort of service that allows her to get into open space and take shots from good angles, she isn't effective.
Luckily she's getting that sort of service. The Canadian midfield has been a team effort, and I'm hard-pressed to name any one member as better than the others. The game against Sweden could have been Kaylyn Kyle's coming out party: she was my pick for woman of the match. Except I think she's already had a few coming out parties, as Kyle is the sort of player who seems to rise to the big occasions. Josée Belanger struggled against China but was one of Canada's better players against the United States and played solid, no-nonsense soccer against Sweden. Jonelle Filigno had no stand-out moments, and yet her pace and aggression on the wing meant that a defense could never take her for granted and opened up just enough room for her teammates. Without any one of those ingredients, Canada would have been markedly less effective.
Goalkeeping, which has long been a fear of mine with the Canadian national team, is also coming on strong. Erin McLeod was poor against China, but she's coming off a nasty injury and probably isn't in match form yet. Karina LeBlanc, meanwhile, played a blinder of a second half against the Chinese and also looked very good against the Americans, while Stephanie Labbé was equally superb against Sweden. They both looked confident, which is so often missing on the Canadian team: they charged out for balls with abandon knowing they'd get there and trying to turn it around immediately for a counter-attack.
My one area of concern is the defense. They are not the most disciplined lot: they chase the ball carrier too often, are caught out of position, and allow scoring opportunities that players of their quality just shouldn't. It's not the first time I've had complaints about the women's team's defensive positioning: it threatened to sink them in the CONCACAF qualifiers. Both of the American goals against Canada came because our defenders just weren't in the best position to force the Americans to the outside or clear the ball when it came loose. Late against Sweden, the girls were hurrying almost frantically and hoofing the ball away with neither rhyme nor reason, leading to some terrifying scrambles that could have turned out a lot worse than they did.
Our defenders have all the athleticism and most of the skill required; they simply lack discipline. I shouldn't be all that surprised. They're mostly a young bunch. The veterans, Candace Chapman and Rhian Wilkinson, are both under thirty years old (and both probably the most reliable defenders on the team). I fully believe they'll learn, but for now the Canadian defense is a dangerous weak point that the likes of the United States or Germany could exploit.
I end on the only negative I can think of. Canada still has some work to do. But most teams do. What we have is an absolutely world-class team that could make some noise at the World Cup this summer. Other countries watch Canada play soccer and they fear us. We play a beautiful, attacking style of soccer that knocks world-class team onto their back foot and doesn't let them recover. It's such a thrilling, overwhelming novelty for the Canadian soccer supporter that I couldn't possibly care less what gender the players are.