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Soccer Blame bungled tactics and absurdly cautious coaching for Canada’s exit from the World Cup

Sweden players run to their goalkeeper celebrating at the end of their round of 16 clash with Canada.

Michel Euler/The Associated Press

It wasn’t exactly a shambles but it was a washout. Canada is out of the Women’s World Cup after losing by a single goal to Sweden. A team that seemed to promise so much just didn’t deliver.

And the postmortem must single out ludicrous decision-making by the coach. Don’t blame the players, blame the boss.

Sure, it was a game between evenly matched teams, both wary and both waiting to pounce on mistakes by the other, but for Canada the stark summary is this: Its single clear chance at a goal came from a lucky break; a delayed video assistant referee (VAR) call for a penalty kick eventually awarded to Canada and then saved.

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That missed-opportunity penalty will haunt the team and Canadian soccer for a while. It shouldn’t haunt Janine Beckie, who kicked it and had her shot stopped. She should never have been required or allowed to take it. A gifted player with the moving ball, swift of foot and good at finding space, she does not a have a powerful kick. She just doesn’t.

As soon as Beckie stood over the ball, most observers of this Canadian team knew it was no sure goal. She took a few steps back – too few – and kicked accurately and low, but Swedish goalkeeper Hedvig Lindahl, a wise veteran, saw it coming and saved with aplomb. Good keepers do that when the ball is low, where they can reach, and the shot lacks ferocity.

What was needed was a burst-the-back-of-the-net shot. Velocity that no keeper can stop. The kind that Christine Sinclair can still deliver. Sinclair should have taken that kick. Using Beckie for that penalty was asking a nimble kid to do what a strong experienced adult can do by routine. Even if Beckie volunteered, she should have been overruled.

Sinclair was invisible in this match and her barely there presence and lack of quickness defines what went wrong for Canada at the tournament. She’s still got gas in the tank, but not for a full 90 minutes in a knockout match against a strong team, on a hot night. Yet coach Kenneth Heiner-Moller stuck with her, a cautious, keep-the-faith move and his team strategy was all caution, all the time. Taking that judicious approach into a knockout game, a win-or-go-home encounter, was suicidal.

Given the depth and breadth of youthful talent in this team, given the skills the players possess, Heiner-Moller’s team selection and tactics must be questioned. His job should be on the line. What he did in sticking with Sinclair to play full-length games and then having Beckie take that penalty is not muddled thinking. It’s bush league and it’s bungling.

Canada started with its usual blend of prudent possession but obvious lack of desire or intent to create scoring chances. Sweden was doing the same. After 20 minutes of play, Sweden had its entire team defending as Canada passed the ball around nicely, but aimlessly. It was a dull first half but in its final 10 minutes Sweden had the upper hand, forcing Beckie, Allysha Chapman and others into giving away the ball. Sweden was hustling that bit more. Canada seemed out of ideas already.

Sweden looked sharper in fitness, too, and the difference in physical intensity between the two teams is another knock against Heiner-Moller’s decision making. For Sweden’s final first-round game against the United States last week, coach Peter Gerhardsson rested seven players and essentially used a second-string team. He reckoned Sweden would lose against the Americans and face Canada in the round of 16, and his team would be more rested and hungry. It was. Now that’s prudent planning.

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In the 55th minute, Elin Rubensson won the ball in her own half, breaking up some sloppy Canadian passing – tiredness was setting in – and then played it quickly to Kosovare Asllani surging down the left flank. Asllani, Sweden’s best player, lifted a wonderful ball to Stina Blackstenius, who beat both defender Shelina Zadorsky and keeper Stephanie Labbé to the ball before firing it over the Canadian keeper. It was the first on-target shot of the game for either side, but Sweden made it count because it was hungry and ready for it.

Then came that VAR decision and the saved penalty. After that, the game was fizzling out and it was truly out of Canada’s reach. Late substitutions by Canada, bringing on Adriana Leon and Jayde Riviere, added zest, but it all amounted to frantic desperation and both were trying to get the ball to a tired Sinclair, who was easily stifled by the Swedish defence.

It should never have come to this – an early exit for a highly skilled team on the cusp of greatness. The coach created a mess from a massively capable, intelligent and proficient team that was ready for glory. Point the finger at him, not the players.

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