Fitter, confident and in a better place than before last’s year World Cup debacle, an experienced Canadian women’s soccer team is primed for this summer’s Olympics.
But captain Christine Sinclair acknowledges it’s time for the seventh-ranked Canadians to deliver against top opposition.
“We’re a very confident team right now and we feel that on any given day we can beat the Japans, the U.S.A.’s, the Swedens,” Sinclair told a media conference call Monday.
“But realistically we haven’t shown that in a huge tournament like the Olympics or World Cup in quite some time. We’re a confident team and we fell that we can beat them, but that’s just words. We have to actually do it.”
Coach John Herdman agrees.
“They’ve gone on this podium adventure on a number of occasions and never seem to cross the line,” said the Englishman. “They get close but they never cross the line.”
To get there, he says his players have had to identify and address the weaknesses that have let them down.
“There’s no hiding, there has to be a commitment to new behaviours,” he said.
Experience won’t be an issue. The 18-woman squad announced Monday has a combined 1,374 caps.
Sinclair (180), Diana Matheson (131), Rhian Wilkinson (121), Brittany Timko (112), Candace Chapman (108) and goalkeeper Karina LeBlanc (100) each have more than 100 or more caps to their credit.
Twelve of the women are veterans of the 2008 Olympics, when Canada lost 2-1 after extra time to the U.S. in the quarter-finals. And all but defender Lauren Sesselmann have appeared in at least one World Cup.
The Canadian women are looking to erase the memory of a dreadful World Cup last summer, when Canada came into the tournament with high expectations and left with an 0-3 record, outscored 7-1.
Coach Carolina Morace quit midway through her review session on the tournament with the Canadian Soccer Association.
In the absence of a women’s pro league, the Canadians have been preparing for the Games at a residency camp in Vancouver. Herdman says that has allowed them to develop as a team, although he believes the players progress more with club sides where they are fighting for starting positions with games each week.
“They are certainly pros and cons, but we’ve done everything we can to make sure that the players are getting the best of both worlds,.” he said.
Herdman says the camp has allowed his staff to improve the players’ fitness, which had been one of his concerns.
“I think the players are where they need to be,” he said.
Sinclair, who has 134 career goals for Canada, says the mood is good.
“We’re in a completely difference space right now,” Sinclair said when asked to compare how the team is prior to the London Games as opposed to last year’s world Cup.
“Heading into the last World Cup, players were away from their homes for a long period of time being (at a residency camp) in Rome. Whereas players this time round have had that balance. They’re excited to play, and focused and ready to go.”
The team feels like it’s part of the country, as opposed to being removed from Canada last year, she said.
“We train hard and then we live our lives,” explained Sinclair, a native of Burnaby, B.C., who plans to take the fall off from soccer. “That’s what we’ve been doing in Vancouver and it’s been very nice.”
Still, she insisted that coming out of the World Cup, the players “weren’t as low as people thought we were.”
Herdman, who took over last September, says Canada’s challenge is to take it to the next level.
“If we’re going to move from good — which this team has been good, they’ve been ranked from seven to 10 for a long time — but moving to greatness is going to need another shift. And it needs a total buy-in to those players knowing they’ve got to accept responsibility for every action in every game that we play.”
Canada opens the Olympics on July 25 against World Cup champion Japan, ranked third in the world, before matches against No. 61 South Africa and No. 4 Sweden.
Canada wraps up its pre-Olympic program on Saturday against the top-ranked U.S. in Sandy, Utah. The Canadian women are coming off a 1-0 win over No. 18 China in Moncton on May 30.
Additions from the squad that finished runner-up to the U.S. at the CONCACAF Olympic qualifying tournament in Vancouver in January are defender Emily Zurrer, midfielder Matheson and forward Jonelle Foligno.
Matheson (knee) and Foligno (ankle) were injured and unavailable for qualifying. Zurrer won her job back with her performance on the field.
Herdman called Zurrer a “seasoned campaigner” who has raised her game during the selection period.
“She worked hard on her game and she’s showed some real promise in the last six months where she’s been impossible not to select,” Herdman said.
The coach says the Olympics will mark the end of one cycle and signal the start of team preparations for the 2015 World Cup in Canada and 2016 Olympics in Brazil.
“There will be some players that will retire after this Olympics, I’m absolutely sure of that,” he said.
And some will find that the game has moved beyond them, he added.
“With that, around 400, 500 caps could disappear,” he added. “I think if that’s the case, it’s a new beginning for Canada. It’s a new start, it’s a four-year cycle building into the next Olympics where we’re going to have get new player through, young players invested in, and an exciting future.”
Forward Chelsea Buckland is not on the Olympic roster after injuring her knee.
“Probably the hardest decision to make was (forward) Christina Julien,” said Herdman. “She’s been a big part of the team, helped us through the qualifiers, played nearly every game in my tenure.”
He called it a “football decision,” saying Foligno “showed that little bit more.”
“I’ve got no doubt that Christina will come back fighting and this will be a great learning curve for her,” he said of the Ottawa Fury forward.
Goalkeeper: Karina LeBlanc, Erin McLeod.
Defenders: Candace Chapman, Carmelina Moscato, Emily Zurrer, Robyn Gayle, Lauren Sesselmann, Chelsea Stewart, Rhian Wilkinson.
Midfielders: Kaylyn Kyle, Diana Matheson, Kelly Parker, Sophie Schmidt, Desiree Scott.
Forwards: Jonelle Filigno, Christine Sinclair (capt.), Melissa Tancredi, Brittany Timko.