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Canada's Christine Sinclair celebrates scoring her side's only goal in the 2-1 loss to the Netherlands.

LUCY NICHOLSON/Reuters

The next few days will define a certain special relationship and that relationship is the one between this country and Canada’s women’s soccer team.

And it’s a relationship, for sure. One of those long-standing, loving partnerships where one side is compassionate, caring and supportive. The other half keeps underachieving, but feeds off all that love and support. All such relationships come to a crucial phase.

This is it. Either Canada will wonder why our women’s team is so often on the cusp of achieving, and then doesn’t, or the team actually delivers. The knockout stage of a World Cup is no place for those who wish and hope. It’s for risk takers and achievers.

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Sweden is Canada’s opponent on Monday and is beatable. Sweden is excellent in defence and struggles to score. Its greatest achievement was when it defeated the United States on penalties in the quarter-finals at the Rio Olympics, handing the Americans their first Olympic loss in eight years. The match went to penalties because Sweden’s single tactic was defending en masse. It was after that loss that Hope Solo, then the U.S. goalkeeper, called the Swedish players “cowards” for their conservative playing style. They weren’t cowards, but they had only one strategy for winning – playing for a 0-0 result and hoping for luck in a penalty shootout.

Sweden struggled to beat Chile in its opening World Cup game, with 65-per-cent possession and one goal from 10 on-target shots. Its second goal came in the fourth minute of added time against a clearly exhausted Chile. The team has one truly dangerous player. That’s Kosovare Asllani, a midfielder who is gifted in technique and scores more often than the designated strikers.

Canada has an extraordinarily rounded team right now, solid in defence and midfield. All it lacks is strikers who can score with a powerful shot. They are on the roster, but so far have been deployed too late in matches.

If Canada fails to impress us in the knockout round of this World Cup, the love and support will be hanging by a thread. The impact of that potential loss of support and interest will be incalculable. After this tournament, the next showcase for women’s soccer is at next year’s Summer Olympics in Tokyo. After that, the countdown starts for the 2026 FIFA (men’s) World Cup to be held in the United States, Mexico and Canada. In that countdown, it’s the men’s team that will matter.

The men’s team is already improving steadily under John Herdman, who used to coach the women’s team. He has the benefit of having Alphonso Davies, the best young Canadian prospect in years, currently honing his skills with defending German champion Bayern Munich, one of the world’s great clubs. Canada won’t have to qualify for 2026. It will be there automatically as co-host. The attention and support shifts to those guys.

Right now, the women’s team has greatness in its grasp, and it’s time to repay supporters for their undying loyalty.

Analyst Bobby McMahon, who was the shrewdest voice on the old Fox Soccer Report and now writes for Forbes magazine, is one of the few skeptics about the women’s team. He wrote this recently: “Canada takes little or no risks with two central midfield players sitting deep to protect the back four. Don’t tell Canadian fans – because the Canadian media doesn’t – but it makes for boring, predictable and mind-numbing soccer.” Ouch.

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He’s not correct about “boring, predictable” play. At times Canada’s been thrilling at this World Cup. But he’s right that the Canadian media coddles this team. The verdicts have been kind, even as expectations aren’t met. Against Sweden, it’s a win-or-go-home game and if the team goes home, a love affair is over.

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