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Rumors of Canada’s demise may have been exaggerated

Canada answered their critics with an onslaught of goals to open Olympic qualifying, but it still remains to be seen whether they have genuinely turned a corner.

2019 was not a happy year for the Canadian women’s national team. They started out on a positive note, with an extended unbeaten run and a sterling defensive record. At the conclusion of the second game of the group stage at last summer’s World Cup, they were sitting on six points, already advanced to the octofinals, having conceded just one solitary goal over their past eleven games.

But there were already rumblings about trouble to come. Yes, they had only allowed in one goal over those eleven matches, but they’d also only managed to score eleven. Meanwhile, just a few days earlier, their rivals to the south from the United States had scored thirteen goals in one game.

It’s not like Canada is short on attacking talent. They’re obviously led by Christine Sinclair—now the all-time leading international goalscorer—but also boast the likes of Jessie Fleming and Janine Beckie, solid contributors like Nichelle Prince and Adriana Leon, as well as bright young talents like Jordyn Huitema. It’s not an overwhelming strike force of the likes you might find in the US, France, or the Netherlands, but it certainly looks like a group that should be capable of scoring more than one goal per game.

But if the theme of the first half of 2019 was solid but unspectacular performances, the theme in the back half was the wheels coming off. They were beaten by the Dutch in their final group game, lost to Sweden in the first knockout round, and then followed that up by losing two 4-0 games to Japan and Brazil in the fall.

All told, Canada finished 2019 having scored 15 goals in 16 games. Needless to say, they entered 2020 with serious concerns about the attack, and a real point to prove.

A blistering start to 2020

Well, it’s only been two games, but they’ve already comfortably exceeded their 2019 offensive output, with 20 goals combined against St. Kitts & Nevis and Jamaica. Obviously, there’s a difference in the level of competition. But Jamaica made the World Cup themselves, and held Canada to a respectable 2-0 score line when the teams last met in World Cup qualifying in late 2018. They’re a solid team, who were absolutely taken apart by a relentless Canadian side that seemed like they had something to prove.

What explains the change? According to Canadian coach Kenneth Heiner-Møller, it’s been a comprehensive process: “After the World Cup, we looked into what we could improve on and what were actually happy about. Getting to the last third, we were pretty happy about that. [Then we looked at] when we took a shot and when we took a cross, how many players we actually had in the box, how long exactly we needed to actually get in the box, when we won it back, how quickly we would actually get a shot.” Ultimately, he says, the biggest problem was that the players were pressing so hard for a goal that they “got a little overcommitted, and then it became too hectic.” The difference so far in 2020: “we've found a good balance.”

That balance was certainly on display on Saturday, as the team repeatedly ripped through a solid Jamaica team, even after having rotated quite a few players out—including Sinclair and Fleming. That was a potentially risky move, in a game Canada really needed to win if they wanted to avoid a knockout game against the United States. But it more than paid off, and demonstrated that the work on passing and decision-making is being applied up and down the roster. That’s big, for a squad where Christine Sinclair individually (185) has significantly exceeded the collective goal tally of the other nineteen players (129). Their captain remains an excellent player, even at 36, but as Beckie put it, Canada needs other teams to “look to scout us and not see that Christine Sinclair is our only threat anymore.”

Leading the charge was Huitema, who notched five goals on the night. But this was a true team performance. As Heiner-Møller put it: “She didn't just dribble all the way to the goal herself. She was set up very nicely.”

Chief provider on the night was Beckie, who has been a mainstay for Canada over the past four years, earning 63 caps and scoring 27 goals. But she’s also often been a frustrating player: capable of producing a daring, inch-perfect cross, but also capable of wasting chances with low percentage shots or speculative balls to no one. NWSL fans often felt this acutely, as her performances with Houston and Sky Blue often seemed a significant cut below her form with Canada.

But the past year and half has seen those underlying conditions change significantly. A move to Manchester City has seen Beckie flourish as a player, developing her game and putting herself into new positions. Recently, for example, she’s been City’s primary right back. That shift in perspective has been a boon to her game, she says: “It's demanded a higher level from me, technically. It allows me to see different pictures.” For Beckie, the technical work in England has been critical. She says that the City coach Nick Cushing has imposed the “highest technical standard” that has been asked of her, but says that challenge has unlocked some of her potential and given her a more technical side of the game. But she also sang the praises of John Herdman and Kenneth Heiner-Møller, naming them each as “world class coaches” who have brought different styles and helped improve different aspects of her game.

Rumors of Canada’s demise may have been exaggerated

Just a week ago, many commentators were suggesting that vultures were ready to circle around this Canada team. Calls were growing for Heiner-Møller to go, and take his hyper-defensive style with him. There was serious speculation that Canada might struggle in a relatively (as far as Concacaf goes) tough group. It’s only been two games, but those concerns now feel a little more distant.

And arguably, they were always a bit overwrought. The squad certainly won’t be happy with their 2019 results, but they were actually fairly reasonable. Over the year, they won eight of sixteen games, drew four, and lost four. They beat England (#6 in the world) and Norway (#12), and beat Sweden (#5) on penalties. All four losses were to top ten teams. Each loss was brutal in its own way, but on the whole that feels close to the median expected result for a team of Canada’s quality.

Still, on a squad with this many excellent players, there’s always hope for taking a step forward. And these early matches in qualifying demonstrate that there potential really is there.

If they are going to harness it, they’ll need their young players to continue improving, and will also players just entering their prime—like Beckie, Kadeisha Buchanan and Ashley Lawrence—to bring consistent quality. But if the legitimately good defensive work that characterized most of their 2019 can be supplemented with a more fluid and vibrant attack, there’s no reason they couldn’t turn that corner toward a reasonably bright post-Sinclair future.

Of course, the first step is still simply to qualify for the Olympics. Despite two great performances, Canada will need a draw against Mexico Tuesday night to avoid getting stuck in that semifinal win-or-go-home match against the US. And even if they do secure a berth, they’ll likely have a match for pride against the US in the final. That will be the true test of whether this team has made real, durable progress, or whether they’re still repeating the same cycle we’ve seen so many times before.

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