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Soccer Breathtaking Canada wins again, needs only a tweak of boldness to beat everyone

Canada's Nichelle Prince, right, celebrates with her teammates after scoring her side's second goal during the Women's World Cup Group E soccer match between Canada and New Zealand in Grenoble, France, June 15, 2019.

Francisco Seco/The Associated Press

There is nothing to stop Canada from going all the way to the final of this Women’s World Cup. Nothing perhaps except a new dash of daring.

A weekend of action in which several top teams competed, albeit against lesser opposition, did not put Canada in the spotlight, essentially because it remains bizarrely underrated. But it did serve notice that this is a complete team with arresting depth and assurance.

Canada sealed a place in the knockout second round with an emphatic 2-0 victory over a limited but resolute New Zealand on Saturday in Grenoble, France. The team is now tied with the Netherlands atop Group E with the Dutch ahead only on goal difference.

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The essential takeaway is Canada had 69 per cent of possession, nine shots on target (22 shots in total) and goals from Jessie Fleming in the 48th minute and Nichelle Prince in the 79th. It was as dominant a win as Canada has had in its history. The larger narrative, however, is that of a team playing a beautiful, sometimes breathtaking passing game and still circumspect about direct attack and direct shots.

This might be the best women’s team Canada has had. In this, the Canadians’ second game at this World Cup, the sweet amalgamation of youth and age was on display. The starting lineup included 18-year-old Jayde Riviere on defence, making only her third start for Canada. She was superbly confident and intrepid. She is half the age of Christine Sinclair, who played the full 90 minutes and came close with two glancing headers, hitting both the upright and the crossbar.

The question that has to be asked, mind you, is why Sinclair is still being asked to play the full game. As adept and artful as she is at finding tiny pockets of space and reading the anatomy of opposition defence, she lacks the full-throttle speed to make full use of her savvy.

It was 38 minutes before New Zealand had a ghost of a chance at goal. And that chance came from a rare mistake by Canadian keeper Stephanie Labbé, who might have been rusty in her parrying, so little has she had to do. At that point and at halftime, Canada had been dominant; Sinclair had headed against the bar and Prince’s follow-up shot was cleared off the line.

The two goals, when they came, illustrated that Canada’s best tactic is to turn all that possession into front-of-goal boldness and direct shots. Prince ran onto a long pass down the left, rushed infield, and cut the ball back precisely for Fleming whose sliding first-time shot gave New Zealand keeper Erin Nayler no chance. It was a precision move, as most by Canada are, but the daring part, the part that mattered, was the swift pass to a striker who didn’t hesitate. The lack of hesitation, too, was daring in the context.

With 11 minutes left, a gorgeously weighted long pass from Ashley Lawrence found Sinclair’s head, the ball hit the post and bobbled, and Prince stabbed it into the net.

Then with that solid 2-0 lead some changes came. The sublimely poised Janine Beckie was replaced by Rebecca Quinn and, soon after, the formidable Prince was off and Adriana Leon was on. That’s the other essential takeaway and the only troubling message from this match – it was a way-late insertion of a player such as Leon, someone who has an intimidating physical presence around the goalmouth and a fierce shot.

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There are two ways of assessing the game and the team here. On the one hand, Canada was dominant with ease, is highly organized and has ballast in both defence and midfield. At times the team looks stunning in possession. On the other hand, it takes too long for the goals to come against inferior teams. Long-range shots from Canada are rare. There are few players in the starting lineup who even have that thing, that sometimes necessary knack, for the wild but unstoppable shot.

So far, so good at this tournament. But Canada will meet tougher opposition as it unfolds. It needs to go from third gear to first, from blithe possession to full-bore attacking style. And do it earlier. Maybe Sinclair, for all her experience and value, should be used tactically and sparingly. No one has the right to criticize her, but reality demands a rethink, a tweak, even when the team looks crushingly good.

The United States played Sunday, inflicting a 3-0 defeat on Chile. It was a second-string team, with seven changes in personnel from its first game. For a short while it looked like a repeat of that 13-0 rout of Thailand was on the cards. But, no – Chile began to coalesce into an effective defensive mode. Chile goalkeeper Christiane Endler had an excellent second half, making nine saves. You could say she rescued Chile from humiliating defeat, but that would be to misread the game. She saw most of those shots coming, as the U.S. team fell into a predictable pattern.

The U.S. bubble is there to be burst. Its defence hasn’t been tested and keeper Alyssa Naeher hasn’t really faced full-blooded attack. The word “rusty” wouldn’t do justice to her situation. Sweden, which plays the United States next, beat Thailand 5-1 and will be the first serious opposition the Americans have faced.

It’s long road to the final. Canada is cruising and a better-calibre team than we’ve seen before. A dash of blunt-force attacking is all that’s lacking.

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