Canada played the women's soccer champions of the world pretty evenly, and they did it without climbing on Christine Sinclair's back and letting her do all the work. That has to be promising.
Certainly, Japan was good value for their 2-1 win. Their first goal, where Shinobu Ohno danced around the Canadian defense before knocking an absolutely magnificent backheel to Nahomi Kawasumi for an almost-as-excellent finish, will find its deserved place on the highlight reel. The second goal had more of an odor about it... but we'll talk about that later.
Japan did not dominate the game but they did win it, fair and square. Canadian fans might have hoped for more but certainly nobody expected it, and this 2-1 loss is a far cry from their World Cup-opening defeat where they hung on for dear life against Germany and rode one scintillating Sinclair free kick to a respectable-looking scoreline. Even late in the game, with Candace Chapman out with a worrying-looking injury, Canada had a few decent looks at goal and were just missing the last killer ball.
So much for being no-hopers, eh?
With the United States storming back to beat France 4-2, Canada's by no means in an excellent position: they'll still be looking for an immense result against Sweden to propel them into second place in Group E and avoid that fatal date with the Americans. This is not a great start. But it is a fair one, and a -1 goal differential and some positives to build on at least gives Canada more than hope.
Contrary to what I hoped for this morning, Canada did largely play Japan on the ground. It wasn't the disaster I feared, though. Canada's midfielders, particularly Kaylyn Kyle and Diana Matheson, played an extremely tenacious, aggressive, ball-winning game which prevented Japan from getting the space in which they are so dangerous. Some excellent plays by Rhian Wilkinson and Lauren Sesselmann also eliminated my worries that Canada might be exploited down the flanks. Still, Japan's superior skill did tell and Canada had an awful case of turnoveritis from all the midfielders; it would have been nice to see more of an attempt to get Canada's muscles into the game.
The problem with Canada's tactics was that they didn't exploit their best player. We're going to hear more rambling about Christine Sinclair not showing up for the big games: well she's a forward, and to get goals someone kinda has to give her the ball. She actually checked back and played a fair bit of defense, particularly in the first half, but she's never been a woman who'll go into her own half, get the ball, run into the attacking half, and score a goal. This has never happened. And Canada's midfield, whose only decent attacking moments came down the wings, weren't able to do anything with one of the world's five best players.
I should give credit for Canada's goal, which was excellent: Wilkinson's cross in to Melissa Tancredi showed what makes Wilkinson so interesting worthwhile even when she struggles defensively, and Tancredi's touch was an unusually soft one from her. It was the Tank's nineteenth goal for her country and, in my mind, one of her better ones. Not just because of the quality touch but because of what it means to Canada's potentially-key goal differential.
Losing to Japan by only one goal could make a big difference if Canada draws Sweden in the final game. It's early on against South Africa and Sweden already has a 3-0 lead with two simply terrible goals: Canada will need to turn on the offense against the South Africans. But we already knew that and a mere one-goal loss to Japan will be helpful if Canada is going to nip the Swedes on goal difference. We'll be counting on Japan to do us some favours but so far it could be much worse.
Finally, the reason why it wasn't a draw: Erin McLeod coming out to punch away a cross headed for Aya Miyama. Miyama is a 5'2" midfielder: not the sort of woman you think should be winning headed goals. Not against centre backs Carmelina Moscato (5'9") and Candace Chapman (5'7").
But Miyama had position. Moscato and Chapman were either side of her but neither was in a great position to defend the header, and as it turned out neither really could. In those situations, it's surely better for a keeper to be too aggressive rather than not aggressive enough. Had Miyama enjoyed all the time in the world she may have flicked quite a good header on goal and people would be criticizing McLeod for standing still: instead, at least McLeod put some pressure on, was unlucky not to get a fist to the ball, and Miyama did very well to get a goal out of it.
Canada will need to step up against Sweden. It'll take some excellent play. But we saw the seeds of excellent play this morning: that start could have been so much worse.