The Canadian women’s team will have its destiny at its own feet when it plays New Zealand in Grenoble, France, on Saturday. The other two teams in Group E at this World Cup, the Netherlands and Cameroon, will have already played earlier in the day.
After a nervy 1-0 victory over Cameroon, Canada has a chance to hold a solid grip on the group and be certain that it progresses to the knockout stage. What it needs most, mind you, is goals and more goals. That first match underscored that Canada’s most striking issue is Canada’s striker problem. It doesn’t have one, most of the time. This is a team that has been anchored around Christine Sinclair for so long it has become obeisant to her. The result is a lack of ruthlessness.
In truth, Canada has also benefited from obedient and deferential media coverage. It underperformed at two previous World Cup tournaments but has an aura of lovable, unlucky triers rather than underachievers. With a team as neatly coalesced around veterans and youth as this one, the underachieving has to stop.
On paper, Canada faces little genuine threat from New Zealand or the Netherlands. Both are inferior teams. What Canada really faces is an existential threat. Unless the team begins to sparkle on the field and score, the unthinking, dutiful support will start to erode. What looms most ominously is indifference.
This team could be its own worst enemy. Against Cameroon, Canada had 65-per-cent possession, seven shots on target, five off-target and 10 corners. The attacking intent was there but the finishing wasn’t. For a long period, Nichelle Prince was the most potent player on the field, hitting the outside of the post just before Kadeisha Buchanan’s goal, and also came close to scoring with one terrific shot.
Facing New Zealand, Canada needs more of the kind of propulsive power that Prince has. It might also need Adriana Leon (15 goals in 57 appearances for her country) in the goalmouth, where her physical presence tends to lead to goals. In that Cameroon match, Canada completed 469 passes (the opposition completed 101), an excellent statistic, but passing doesn’t win games. The passing is something to admire, but not root for.
And this is a World Cup that is starting to explode with goal-scoring. Leaving aside the United States’s rapacious 13-0 victory over Thailand, the goals are coming thick and fast. Italy, now the tournament’s overachieving bombshell team, put five goals past Jamaica. Australia came from behind against Brazil, in a wonderfully dramatic game, to win 3-2.
In New Zealand, Canada faces a team feeling aggrieved and looking for points. It lost 0-1 to the Netherlands in the 92nd minute and bitter disappointment was evident. Besides, New Zealand is one of those women’s teams hungry for respect. The Australian team has long overshadowed it in the home region and while it routinely qualifies for a World Cup, it rarely makes any impression. In the game against the Netherlands, New Zealand looked composed and often dangerous. Midfielder Olivia Chance – a player currently without a club and back from a year-long injury layoff – struck the underside of the crossbar after 12 minutes with a glorious strike and she tormented the opposition for good periods with her pinpoint passing.
Unlike Cameroon, New Zealand won’t create a defensive wall and hope for a lucky break. It’s certain to be a more open game.
The word out of Canada’s camp in France is that the team is relaxed and fully prepared. Coach Kenneth Heiner-Moller is optimistic. It all sounds anodyne. Like a well-rehearsed team of actors doing a routine performance, the ensemble cast here feels it knows its lines and choreography very, very well.
Fine, but the time for careful stage-management is ending. Unfettered, unfiltered energy is what the audience wants and that energy had better produce goals.