Nichelle Prince has a photo of herself with Kara Lang at a game several years ago at BMO Field. Prince figures she was 11 at the time. Lang was starring for Canada’s women’s soccer team.
“It’s crazy, looking back at that picture,” Prince said. “And now I’m coming out into the same stadium, and I’m taking pictures with other girls. It’s crazy.”
It was a surreal moment when Prince and her Canadian teammates walked through the tunnel and onto the field at the National Soccer Stadium — or BMO Field — on Tuesday, in Canada’s opening game of the FIFA U20 Women’s World Cup, a 1-0 loss to Ghana.
It was the same tournament back in 2002 that launched the international careers of the likes of Lang and Christine Sinclair, who would go on to become household names in Canada. Lang scored three goals in six games as a 15-year-old, while Sinclair would win both the golden ball as MVP and the golden boot as top goalscorer. Canada made it all the way to the final, where it lost to the U.S. in front of a crowd of 37,194 in Edmonton’s Commonwealth Stadium.
While this year’s team would love to repeat the success of 2002, the Canadians are realistic.
“We knew that getting to a quarter-final, winning a quarter-final, was a realistic objective for us, and anything more would be too ambitious based on how the program has done over the last 12 years,” said coach Andrew Olivieri. “Winning a quarter-final is still our objective, and then after that, we’ll enjoy (each game) and gain from the experience.”
Canada faces Finland on Friday in Toronto and then North Korea on Tuesday in Montreal, and need to win both to avoid an early exit. North Korea edged Finland 2-1 in the other Group A game on Tuesday.
Canada hasn’t played either team, so Olivieri said it’s tough to gauge how well his team stacks up against them.
“Unless you play these teams at the youth level, it’s very difficult to compare,” said Olivieri, who was a goalkeeper for Canada’s men’s team and the Montreal Impact. “We know that North Korea at the youth level are one of the best countries in the world. And Finland, any team that gets of Europe are going to be a quality side, and we just feel that those two matches are matches that we can win.
“But now it’s clear. We know we have to win both. That makes our jobs simpler.”
Prince injected some energy into the Canadian offence when she came into Tuesday’s game as a second-half substitute. She had one of Canada’s best scoring chances in the loss, beating two defenders to get a shot off.
The 19-year-old from Ajax, Ont., was a two-sport athlete in high school, running track and playing soccer. She’s already shone in her young college career, starting in all but one of her games in her freshman season with the Ohio State Buckeyes. She led the Buckeyes with 13 goals.
Prince and Olivieri said the Canadians struggled with some nerves in the early going Tuesday, playing in front of almost 15,000 fans at BMO Field, normally home to Major League Soccer’s Toronto FC. But neither is worried that they’ll face the same problem on Friday.
“Absolutely (we’re over that),” Olivieri said. “You saw it in the first game. The first half to the second was completely different. We talk about growing through the tournament, well the girls grew through the game, and that was fantastic to see.”
Prince had numerous friends and family members in the stands on Tuesday night and expects the same Friday.
“My parents bought tickets for about a thousand people in my family,” she said — noting the actual number was about 30.
The Canadians need to finish top two in Group A to advance to the quarter-finals. The Group A winner will play its quarter-final in Toronto, while second place in the group will head to Edmonton for the quarters. The tournament semi-finals are in Montreal and Moncton, N.B., while Montreal hosts the gold-medal game.