Canadian coach John Herdman had a couple of choices during the three-year lead-up to the Women's World Cup.
The most obvious was to break up the band. The majority of Canada's core players had been in the senior program for a decade or more. They'd peaked at London 2012, and then began a rapid decline. A couple – notably forward Melissa Tancredi – wandered off, and then asked to wander back in.
They are an unusually tight-knit group, giving this team a very Hogwarts feel. Many of the players have not only worked, but lived together for long stretches. They were understandably resistant to the idea that once people leave or get tired, they shouldn't be allowed back in.
Though it wasn't his inclination, Herdman chose the second option – dragging along some familiar fringe employees he doesn't really need and can't figure out how to use in order to keep his best veterans happy. Why else include players with long-term injuries like Rhian Wilkinson and Diana Matheson on the roster? Because they provide emotional ballast to their friends.
It was a risk. It still is. This Canadian team is old and slow, but they are cunning. They don't fluster – the key failing of all the second-rate sides in the Women's World Cup. The Canadians have only a few performance virtues, but all of their sins have been papered over by experience.
You don't want to call what Herdman's managed a success – not quite yet. But if Canada can get past the Swiss on Sunday in Vancouver, and then either the English or the Norwegians in the quarter-finals, it will be that.
Herdman will have done what very few coaches can ever manage – seamlessly bridging the gap between one generation and the next.
You can split this Canadian roster into two halves – disappointing oldsters and hopeful young ones. Christine Sinclair has either lost a step, is playing through an undisclosed injury or is hoarding her strength for meaningful games. Perhaps all three. Herdman still likes to talk about her as the best player in the world, but that's now an emeritus title.
All the other heroes of London have had – to varying degrees – wretched tournaments. The only one of them who's been as-advertised is goalkeeper Erin McLeod, playing the one position in soccer that allows you to age with something like grace.
All the standouts are new faces.
Defender Kadeisha Buchanan may be the best player, full-stop, here. You're beginning to feel that her generational talents are wasted at the back. Only 19, Buchanan once played as a forward. When Sinclair and Tancredi cede their places, you'd like to see her there again. This tournament has proved that – for the better teams at least – goals are preventable occurrences. It's scoring them that's a problem.
Likewise, Ashley Lawrence (20) and Allysha Chapman (26) have been a move ahead of their opponents, rather than constantly trying to think their way out of being a move behind.
The most tantalizing of the bunch was, and probably will still be for a while, 17-year-old Jessie Fleming. She's fast – as fast as anyone in the game. That's all she is right now. There's no sport in which size matters less, but Fleming is knee-high to a grasshopper. She looks like a child escort who got mixed up in the team photo.
Without a prodigious amount of skill and vision to go along with that speed, it's too easy to nudge her out of routes. But, again, she's a kid. If she completes the package (and gains a few pounds) she'll be one of the best in the world.
The key here – and Herdman plainly knows it – is midfielder Sophie Schmidt.
If this tournament is the bridge between the future and the past, Schmidt is the guide across it.
She's 10 years removed from her senior-team debut, but the 26-year-old Schmidt never quite fit into the old clique. That is a boisterous, upbeat group – as giddy away from the public eye as they are circumspect in it. When Schmidt walks into a room, you half expect her to crawl under a table. "Shy" doesn't begin to cover it. She's universally liked and admired, but as someone on the edges rather than a ring leader. That's changed here.
In London, Schmidt was a cog. Now, she's the engine. Sinclair is Canada's most noted player; Buchanan its best; but Schmidt is far-and-away the most important. Canada is only good in one third of the game – the middle – and that's almost entirely because of Schmidt's box-to-box ability. Over the next while, this team will go as far as she takes it.
There is still a chance – a decent one – that Canada can turn the last few years from a few nice moments into a quasi-dynasty. Based on what we've seen over the last few days, there's a better chance of doing it next summer.
Canada's path to Rio 2016 is via a CONCACAF qualifying tournament to be held in February. Only two nations will qualify. The United States is an obvious pick for top spot. Canada will have to push past the likes of Mexico. It's not quite a gimme, but it's more than doable.
The Olympics will be far less of a slog than the World Cup – two weeks, 12 qualifiers, eight of whom will be pushed directly into the first knockout round. A couple of timely wins in Brazil, and you're in the medals.
It's impossible to imagine any of the veterans – Sinclair et al. – wanting to bail a year before a last shot at gold. But there should be fewer of them along for the ride. They've had their last hurrah. It's coming time for Herdman to start yanking chutes, whether or not that hurts feelings.
The Canadian team now belongs to Schmidt and her cohort. What matters is that those players are escorted to the front of the room, rather than being forced to wait for someone to give way.
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