Skip to main content

England, which came from behind to defeat Norway in the Round of 16, had defeated Canada in each of their last three meetings.Andre Ringuette/Getty Images

It feels within reach. "Touching distance" is how John Herdman, coach of Canada's women's soccer team, described it on Tuesday.

A World Cup final, at home. "Two games away," the coach added.

Herdman is a meticulous and manic planner, and so far, everything is going to plan for Canada at the Women's World Cup.

But the biggest, most difficult steps are ahead. On Saturday night here, for the first time in this tournament, Canada will face a higher-ranked team, England. The home team will benefit, though, from an expected crowd of more than 50,000 fans at BC Place.

England is a formidable opponent, although at the 2012 London Olympics, Canada beat Great Britain, a team assembled for the Games, 2-0 in the quarter-finals. Since then, Canada has lost all three competitive games it has played against England, going scoreless in those contests. A month ago in Hamilton, however, Canada eked out a 1-0 win, but it was in a World Cup warmup that England used more as an experiment than an acid test.

Canada's worrisome lack of scoring punch persists: In four World Cup games so far, the home team has just three goals, one of which was on a penalty kick. Canada may be fit, physical and defensively sound, but its offence is not respected. Switzerland coach Martina Voss-Tecklenburg rued her team's 1-0 loss to Canada in the Round of 16 on Sunday.

"They allowed two scoring chances," said Voss-Tecklenburg of her team. "One of them went in."

What has propelled Canada is defence and goalkeeping, which together have held opponents to a single goal. Only the Netherlands really attacked Canada hard, with 16 shots, five on target. Switzerland, China and New Zealand each generated five shots, and only one or two on target.

"I'm pretty proud of the number of shots we haven't given the opposition," said goalkeeper Erin McLeod in an interview on Tuesday. "And I've been there for the team when I needed to be."

England's offence promises to be more potent. In three of its four games, England has scored two goals. On Monday in the Round of 16, England fell behind 1-0 to Norway before coming back in the second half to win 2-1. And that's without a scorer who has had great success against Canada, 27-year-old Lianne Sanderson, who hasn't seen much playing time for England in this tournament.

"They have a lot of offensive threats," said McLeod.

McLeod was in goal for Canada at the 2012 Olympics, and thereafter was anointed the team's No. 1 goalkeeper. She has worked the past year with a top physiotherapist to increase her power and quickness, though Herdman said McLeod's mental strength is particularly improved.

"A major, major step forward," said Herdman. "Her ability to stay focused – the save she pulled against the Netherlands, the save she pulled against Switzerland – just shows her true worth."

On Saturday, Herdman faces not only a challenging opponent but also the team from his home country, a team he might have coached. He grew up near Newcastle and in his mid-20s moved to New Zealand, where he eventually coached the women's team from 2006 to 2011. After his success with Canada at the Olympics, there was chatter in 2013 that he might move to England to take the coaching job there when it opened up. He wasn't drawn to it, however, wanting to keep building in Canada. Mark Sampson, a 32-year-old Welshman, took the job.

Canada did not train on Tuesday. The team plans two hours of practice on Wednesday morning, and a repeat Thursday morning. One hour is booked for Friday evening at BC Place.

Asked if Canada is the underdog to England, Herdman deflected the question. But this is how he had imagined this tournament unfolding. Winning Group A. Two games in Vancouver, then on to Edmonton for the semi-final and – it feels within reach – back to Vancouver for the final. Canada has always played close matches with England, he said, even if they were losing efforts. Saturday, he said, would test Canada's resilience.

"I don't think," he said, "you can pick an underdog for this game."