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Sports The Canadian women’s soccer team and its perpetual holding pattern

After winning a bronze medal at the Rio Olympics more than two years ago, then head coach John Herdman said, “Canada’s just started as a country in terms of what we can achieve.”

That’s been the consistent line with the women’s senior soccer team – this country’s finest non-hockey-playing international outfit – for the better part of a decade. ‘Some day.’

Now we can put a date to ‘some day’ – July 7, 2019. That’s when the Canadians will play the championship game of the Women’s World Cup.

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Canada should be there. Is, I think, in a remarkably good frame of mind and form to be there.

You won’t hear this anywhere outside this country, but if we can’t pump our own tires, I doubt Europe or the United States will do it for us. As you may have read, they have bigger problems at the moment.

If you listen to the pundits, Canada isn’t even in the conversation. The draw for the tournament was held Saturday and the post-festivities commentary could not even summon a “… and, of course, Canada” hand wave in our direction. The glamour teams – Germany, the United States, host France – got most of the love. The alluring outsiders and sentimental favourites – England, the Netherlands, Brazil – got the rest.

Perhaps this is a case of familiarity breeding … contempt is the wrong word. Apathy works better.

Since nearly putting the United States out in the greatest game of women’s soccer ever played, in London, 2012, Canada has bumped along being very good, but never great. The headlining stars haven’t turned over very much, which tends to bore people. The only place the Canadian women’s soccer team is a big deal is in Canada.

There was a great disappointment at a 2015 World Cup held at home. For most casual observers, that letdown remains top of mind.

The Guardian, which does the best work in the English-language press putting order to the global game, has just unveiled a list of the top 100 women’s players in the world. The only Canadian entrants were Christine Sinclair at 16th; and Kadeisha Buchanan at 83rd.

Per FIFA rankings, the roster of the fifth-best team in the world is as elite as wearing a leather vest to dinner at Sizzler.

The seventh-ranked Dutch had six players on the list. The sixth-ranked Australians had five.

If the Guardian’s judges are to be believed, Canada – working with one proper striker well into athletic middle age, the 10th-best defender in the world and a collection of backup staff ranking between 101 and infinity – has managed to regularly plant itself among the very best.

For this to be true, Canada must have the greatest coaching staff on the planet, in any sport. Life has handed them lemons and they’ve made Dom Perignon.

You can’t be angry. Now you know how Russians and Swedes feel whenever a Canadian does a list of the greatest hockey players in history. When it comes to sports listicles, geography is destiny.

The record shows differently. Canada’s qualifying for next summer’s tournament was a proper steamrolling – a 12-0 defeat of Cuba; a 7-0 win over Panama.

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In the final game of qualifying, it faced the United States in what was functionally an exhibition – both teams were already through. The game was played in Texas. Canada lost, so the losing streak to its bogey team down south now stretches back to Confederation or so. Nothing to report there.

But while not wildly successful, the past year was quite successful in terms of transitioning.

The team has acclimated to a new head coach, Kenneth Heiner-Moller. It has integrated two distinct generations of players (Sinclair was about to turn 18 years old when her forward colleague, Jordyn Huitema, was born).

Moving from a golden generation to whatever comes after is one of the toughest acts in sports. Canada’s managed it seamlessly. What it has been left with is an unusual mix of innocence and experience. It’s a team built to last.

What it is not yet is a team to be respected. That’s usually an advantage.

The Women’s World Cup is designed on the Participaction model – 16 of 24 teams advance to the knockout rounds.

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Canada landed in Group E with the Netherlands (tough), New Zealand (less tough) and Cameroon (not very tough). There are a couple of Groups of Death. This isn’t one of them. It’s as favourable a draw as any top seed received.

Advancement is never a given, but let’s say that were it not to be achieved, a sweeping rethink of the senior program’s direction will be in order.

If things fall as you’d guess they should, Canada would not face the United States until the final. Again, if logic prevails, it would have to go through Germany in the semis. All the matches ahead of those two will be winnable.

Ifs and buts and all that, but Canada should no longer be approaching major tournaments with a ‘one game at a time’ mentality. Thinking too hard about the next step has always been this team’s problem.

The Canadians should go to France in the full expectation that most of what lies before them can be swept out of the way. That’s what big teams do. That’s what the country should be preparing itself for – not just the team, but all the people in it.

If you’re looking for one big national sports bet to invest yourself in during the coming year, this would be it. I don’t know why. I just have a feeling.

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The danger in the women’s game is that its World Cup is played a year before the next Summer Olympics. All the major sides have a built-in mulligan – ‘We’ll be better in 12 months.’

Olympic gold is traditionally the bigger get in the women’s game (perhaps because it means so little in the men’s, so there’s more glory to be mined). That’s certainly been Canada’s approach, with some success.

But this tournament feels like it is Canada’s. We’ve said that before. The difference this time around is that Canadians are the only ones saying that.

What better role for any Canadian team playing any sport than the overachieving underdog everyone else has stopped rating and so no one sees coming?

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