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Canadian Game Day: Women v. South Africa, 6:45 AM PDT

With Canada's big skill advantage over South Africa, John Herdman shouldn't be afraid to let the girls run free. (Canadian Soccer Association)
With Canada's big skill advantage over South Africa, John Herdman shouldn't be afraid to let the girls run free. (Canadian Soccer Association)
3rd in Group F (0W-0D-1L 1GF 2GA)
FIFA ranking: 7
4th in Group F (0W-0D-1L 1GF 4GA)
FIFA ranking: 61
Leading Scorer: Melissa Tancredi (1)
Leading Scorer: Portia Modise (1)
6:45 AM PDT, City of Coventry Stadium, Coventry, UK
Live on (within Canada).

This is a must-win game for Canada, 'tis true, but if Canada fails to win this game they have far greater problems than just elimination from the Olympics.

South Africa is dreadful. Certainly the worst team on the women's bracket. A 4-1 loss Wednesday to Sweden flattered them: Portia Modise's goal from distance got on the highlight reels only because Swedish goalkeeper Hedvig Lindahl was caught off her line, and the Swedes seemed to become bored very early on until Modise's goal wounded their pride badly enough to get an instant reply. The South African defense was caught running around against what isn't a first-class Swedish attack, and seemed to have no tactics beyond sticking a foot out and hoping for the best.

So yeah, if Canada doesn't win this one I'd be walking along the waterfront looking for a pier to jump off of even if it didn't eliminate us from Olympic contention (which it wouldn't, strictly speaking, mathematically do). The question is whether Canada can beat Sweden's +3 goal differential and thus put themselves in an improved position to grab second place in the group.

Canada's seldom been great runners-up of the score. The lazy explanation is that Canada plays down to the level of their opponent, which isn't true at all; the accurate explanation is that Canada, for all its decent attacking pieces, lacks the sort of creativity and pass-the-ball-around-until-the-defense-explodes or run-at-them-to-death style which allows an offense to put ten past a defense like South Africa (Japan, which can do these things, will make a very interesting opponent for South Africa on Tuesday.)

But. South Africa is bad. Their FIFA ranking is 61; to put that in perspective, Costa Rica (who Canada beat 5-1 in Olympic qualifying) is ranked 40 and even Haiti (who Canada beat 6-0) is ranked 57. And these aren't the crappy men's FIFA rankings you may be familiar with; women's soccer uses the Elo system, which while imperfect is unanimously considered more accurate than the men's witchcraft. South Africa's run through African qualifying fooled absolutely nobody as they benefited from a lucky draw, a penalty shootout, and an insane format that prevented them from playing the top opponents in the weakest women's soccer confederation at all.

The probable loss of Candace Chapman and Emily Zurrer for this game, in this light, looks less serious. If South Africa gets a goal it will only be through a serious lapse or the sort of opportunistic, flukey shot Modise got on Wednesday. Even if Chapman were close to 100% I'd be inclined to rest her in such circumstances; a patchwork Canadian defense should be able to handle things. Indeed, if Canada's playing anywhere near how it should, the midfield and forwards should be pinning South Africa back so far the defenders have little to do but sweep up trash and counter the occasional break.

My hope is that John Herdman lets his midfielders run. I realize it's important to conserve energy for Tuesday but, at least until Canada has a big edge, he should allow his more athletic players like Sophie Schmidt, Kaylyn Kyle, and even Diana Matheson to just run at defenders, try to pull them out of position, and either make space for the Christine Sinclair/Melissa Tancredi duo or just finish it off themselves. There's no need to be too fancy; just keep the ball moving and let the South Africans discomfit themselves. They were certainly prone to it against Sweden.