The past, present and future of Canadian women's soccer intersected at the Women's World Cup.
The past – the stirring bronze medal at the 2012 London Olympics – sparked hope of a repeat, a push to the semi-finals or even all the way to the championship match. The future was represented in Canada's youth, led by 19-year-old defender Kadeisha Buchanan, a breakout star at the tournament.
The present, however, was Canada's undoing.
Sent reeling in the quarter-finals Saturday in Vancouver by two early England goals, on defensive miscues, Canada strived to rally but couldn't scratch all the way back. England won 2-1, a piercing result for the home team – but the result cannot be shocking. Canada failed to score more than a single goal in any match, and when it counted on Saturday, in the second half, down a goal, Canada struggled to generate offensive punch for important stretches.
"This one stings," said Christine Sinclair, nearly two hours after the loss, after the team had itself cocooned in its locker room, absorbing the loss. Sophie Schmidt, who had a key late chance that sailed high, said: "Still brokenhearted."
The World Cup is neither failure nor success: Canada, ranked eighth coming into the tournament, reached the final eight teams out of 24. The first time Canada played a more formidable opponent, England, Canada lost – as Canada has in each competitive match it has played against England since the Olympics.
Germany plays the United States on Tuesday, and England takes on Japan in Edmonton on Wednesday. The focus for Canada becomes the future.
Coach John Herdman, hired in 2011, after Canada finished last at the 2011 World Cup in Germany, has always had a 10-year plan in his mind and on paper.
Numerous initiatives are under way in Canadian women's soccer. One is called the Excel program, for elite teenagers, run in the same rigorous way the senior team is operated. Herdman has often said Canada won't be fully in rhythm with what he calls the modern game – possession-driven soccer, tactically advanced – until 2020. Canada relies too much on brute force. That showed flashes of what it's becoming, but not consistently.
Herdman looks toward the 2019 World Cup in France and the 2020 Olympics in Tokyo as the point when Canada will be – if all goes according to plan – one of the world's best, truly vying for a title or gold.
"There's a new DNA coming through," Herdman said after the loss to England. "There's a new breed of footballer that we're bringing through."
He referenced the Excel program, though not by name, saying younger players coming up are being trained with a clear understanding of the style of soccer Herdman is working to instill. "We're in a great place. You can see the youth, just on the horizon."
A World Cup at home produced a midterm goal in Herdman's long-term thinking. Canada had to play reasonably well here, even if the team is far from ideal. Herdman knew it was a juggling act, bringing up raw, young talent, while the core of the London team got older. Sinclair, for one, turned 32 earlier in June. She was a key player for Canada this month, but she was not what she was in London.
On Saturday night, asked if she would be playing at the next World Cup in France, when she'll be 36, Sinclair responded with an emphatic yes.
"The future's very bright," Sinclair said of the team and its youth movement.
The immediate challenge is the 2016 Olympics in Rio de Janeiro. A location for the qualifying tournament, with other North and Central American and Caribbean teams, has not been set, but will be staged in late January. Canada is expected to qualify for Rio. What sort of roster Canada brings to Rio – where it can have 18 players, fewer than the 23 at the World Cup – will be interesting.
Bet on youth, even if relatively untested.
First are the Pan American Games in July in Toronto, in which Canada fields an under-23 team. This is a close-up look at the future. Buchanan, back in her hometown, will be the leader, along with the likes of Ashley Lawrence. The 20-year-old midfielder, who is also from Toronto, is a close friend of Buchanan's and the two are also teammates at West Virginia University.
The biggest task, looking ahead, is the question of where goals will come from – Canada's primary problem this month.
Herdman speaks about his more robust development system that will produce more Sinclairs, more often. Buchanan may be the Sinclair of defenders, and Lawrence may emerge as a Sinclair-quality midfielder – Lawrence scored one of Canada's four goals in this World Cup. But the next Sinclair, among forwards, is not obvious. There remains a long way to go, if Canada is to rival the true titans of women's soccer, Germany, the United States, France and Japan.