Three years after Canada defeated Great Britain in the quarter-finals at the 2012 London Olympics, England exacted revenge. On Saturday night in Vancouver, England scored two early goals and held off Canada's fevered push to come back, winning 2-1 in the quarter-finals at the Women's World Cup.
"This one stings," said team captain Christine Sinclair, when the disappointed team finally emerged from its locker room, 90 minutes after the final whistle had blown. Sophie Schmidt said: "Still broken hearted."
Canada opened strong, buoyed by the loud crowd of 54,000 at BC Place, but England struck quickly in the 11th and 14th minutes, both times capitalizing on defensive errors. The first goal came after Canadian defender Lauren Sesselmann bobbled a ball near midfield and England's Jodie Taylor snatched it and surged to the Canadian goal, banging the ball past Canada's Erin McLeod. Three minutes later, England's Lucy Bronze was able to elude defenders and scored on a header off a free kick, the ball arching over the outstretched hand of McLeod and deflecting in off the bottom of the crossbar.
No team in Women's World Cup history had ever come back to win from a 2-0 deficit in the knockout rounds, and Canada couldn't pull off the feat -- though they came close. Canada pushed throughout the first half, culminating in a Sinclair goal in the 42nd minute. Sinclair tucked home the ball after England goalkeeper Karen Bardsley bobbled a save on a Ashley Lawrence shot. BC Place exploded, so loud that an English player later said it was "quite frightening."
The second half began with an unusual tenor. Bardsley was hit by an allergic reaction and subbed out. Soon after, England's Taylor nearly made it 3-1, an almost-goal that was stopped by a superb diving save by McLeod, punching the ball away.
As the clock ticked past the 80th minute, Canada made a final press. Schmidt, on a cross from Adriana Leon, had a great chance in the box but her shot went high. Schmidt bent over and covered her face with her hands, mourning an opportunity slipped away.
"When that left my foot," said Schmidt after the game, "and I saw it sail wide or high or whatever happened, you see that go by and you're like, 'I can't get that chance back. We fought so hard for that opportunity. So to not even have it hit the target, it's disappointing."
At the final whistle, Canada's players fell to the pitch, and England's subs rushed to celebrate. Many fans remained for several minutes in the stands and cheered Canada as the team circled the field, saluting the crowd.
"It's a historic moment for English football," said defender Steph Houghton, named England's player of the match. The victory marks the third time England has reached a World Cup semi-final, after the 1966 men's team, who won, and the 1990 men's team.
The Canadian players retreated to their locker room for an extended period after the loss, absorbing the result. Most of them did not speak with reporters. Sesselmann, when asked to stop for a few questions, said: "Are they positive?" She was then hustled away by a team official.
Schmidt said of Sesselmann's miscue: "We're behind her. It's unfortunate."
It hurts. A push through to the semi-finals, and even, with luck, onwards to the finals, was alluringly within grasp. Canada coach John Herdman had described it as "touching distance" this week.
Instead, Canada is out -- the No. 8 ranked team in the world making it to, but not past, the final eight teams in a 24-team tournament. England, ranked sixth, was the first team Canada faced in this tournament ranked on the FIFA global ledger.
"Just gutted," said Herdman after the game. "Gutted. For all of Canada because I think we could have ...." He cut himself off, and then said: "I'm not going to say we could have, should have."
The loss hurts, even though Canada reasonably lived up to billing at the World Cup. The unexpected bronze medal from London 2012 had elevated expectations, even if the semi-finals were a longer shot for Canada.
There had been a burst of trash talking from England before the game, coach Mark Sampson saying how Canada should have been penalized far more often than it had in this tournament. England had 21 fouls on Saturday, and Canada 15. Both teams received one yellow card.
The team itself, particularly Herdman, talked up Canada's World Cup chances. In this newspaper, before the tournament began, Herdman wrote about how this World Cup was more wide open than it's ever been. "We have got to get to the final," he wrote in one essay. It was not so much a prediction as a rallying cry. Still, what could have been stings.
Herdman's talk wasn't outlandish. The Dutch sports data consultancy Infostrada, whose predictions in the past have been on the mark, pegged a Germany-Canada final here. (Infostrada had predicted a Canada-England quarter-final, giving Canada 60-per-cent odds of winning.)
Instead, a career capstone for Christine Sinclair, the local and national sports hero, raised in the Vancouver suburb, doesn't happen, a World Cup in her hometown, a rare joy.
Sinclair was strong on Saturday and scored her first goal of the tournament outside her penalty kick goal in the opener against China.
Now the difficult, far-from-the-spotlight work of rebuilding this team for the future, which began after London, continues. Herdman has said Canada will only catch up with the modern game by 2020. In London, Canada was a brute, a counterattack team, lucky to score. Since then, Herdman has worked to instill a possession game. It is clearly a work in progress, watching Canada rely on its physical play this tournament.
Canada does not yet play the beautiful game, confident, full of crafty passes and thoughtful attacks. Canada plays a version of grinding hockey on the soccer field. Sampson, before the game, called Canada "incredibly aggressive – Canada's used that as a huge weapon." There were flashes on Saturday of what Herdman is trying to build, of solid possession play, confidence and patient passing. It is what led to the Sinclair goal.
Women's soccer here is a long-term project. Herdman, hired in 2011 after the team finished last at the 2011 World Cup in Germany, has focused largely on the senior team. It was only last year that Herdman installed his Excel system to better develop elite teenagers.
This team is old. Sinclair, who turned 32 earlier this month, is not the threat she once was, even as she still has moments of greatness. The future belongs to Kadeisha Buchanan, the 19-year-old defender from the Toronto area who announced her stardom at this tournament. Buchanan will lead a young roster at Toronto's Pan Am Games in July and will be essential in the push towards the 2016 Rio de Janeiro Olympics. The qualifying tournament for North and Central America and the Caribbean is set for late January, though a location has not yet been set. Eight teams play. The top two go to Rio. Canada is expected to make it.
This remains a time of transition for the team. Future leaders like Ashley Lawrence, a midfielder who turned 20 earlier in June, gained great experience at the World Cup, including a goal against the Netherlands. Jessie Fleming, another midfielder, has great promise at 17.
And a player such as defender Rebecca Quinn, who turns 20 in August and who didn't quite make the cut for the World Cup roster, will be at the Pan Ams and may figure in next year's senior team.
What Herdman is trying to build is a team that stands with the best in the world, a fixture in the top five that goes into tournaments, starting with the 2019 World Cup in France and the 2020 Olympics in Tokyo, not with hope of an extended run but an expectation that the semifinals will be reached, in strong contention for the title.
"There's a new DNA coming through," said Herdman. "There's a new breed of footballer that we're bringing through. It was a transitional team, we knew that. But we have no excuses. We came here to win a World Cup. Stick with us, that's all. Stick with us."
Sinclair, for one, is sticking around. She'll be 36 at the next World Cup. She said she absolutely would be playing for Canada. "The future's very bright," said Sinclair of the team's prospects.
A lot of work is necessary to make this future real. Money is being invested. Own The Podium has upped its investment in the team by 40 per cent compared with the years prior to the London games, even if Canada's shot at a medal in Rio isn't great. OTP likes where Herdman is going.
For now, Canada is not in the league of teams such as Germany, the U.S., France, or Japan. It does play close with England – but has lost four consecutive competitive matches to the country since the Olympics.
Goals are the primary problem. While Canada has a future in defence and the midfield, there is no obvious next Sinclair – so Herdman's refrain, more Sinclairs more often, remains that, a refrain, a philosophy, without a tangible reality. The hole currently looks so great that there's been chatter that Buchanan should be remade as a striker. Buchanan was a striker when she was younger and played upfield in the second half on Saturday, in Canada's failed push to even the score.
Saturday was a moment when Canada let a grand chance slip from its grasp. Canada versus Japan on Canada Day in the semi-final in Edmonton would have been a cracker, a moment when the country tuned in, snapping to attention. Instead, the team can turn its focus back to its training, on the field and in sessions in the so-called brain gym, to ready for the next challenge, qualifying for Rio.