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SheBelieves Wrap-up: One Step Forward, One Step Back

Brazil, Canada, and Argentina all gave their fans some reasons for optimism. But they also ran into many of the same walls that leave their fans in doubt. Let’s look at the good and the bad for each side.

The standings for SheBelieves tell a pretty clear story. The US won all three games. Brazil won the two games against the other sides. And Canada beat Argentina. That’s a clear 1st, 2nd, 3rd, and 4th. It’s also the result most observers would have identified as the most likely going in.

Brazil: Getting closer to that next tier, but still not there

Brazil will certainly be happy to have taken home two wins—both good performances against solid teams. But they’ll also be frustrated that the match against the US didn’t feel any closer than their past encounters. It finished 2-0, but the US were comfortably ahead all game, and it never really felt in any kind of doubt. There’s no shame in losing to the USWNT. They’re 15-0 under Vlatko Andonovski, with a 61-3 goals scored/against ratio. But this Brazil squad are no longer okay with settling for a moral victory. They want to bust up the ranks at the very top, and were hoping for a statement game to show they’re ready. This wasn’t it.

The two other matches did go about as well as you could hope. The 4-1 victory over Argentina wasn’t as lopsided as the scoreline suggests, but it’s a demonstration that this Brazil team can be ruthless when given the chance. Against Canada, Brazil dominated for the first half, but then took their foot off the gas and let their opponents find a way back in.

The highlights for Brazil were mostly in attack. Debinha continued her scintillating form, scoring two goals and generally looking as dangerous as we’ve come to expect from her. Adriana contributed well, offering another attacking option—desperately needed for a team that has continued to lean pretty heavily on a 35 year-old Cristiane in recent years. Marta continues to look comfortable in more of a supporting role. It’s really a testament to her greatness that she has happily dropped off a bit from attacking duties to let her younger teammates take center stage, while still giving maximum effort in every game.

Looking forward to the Olympics, Brazil certainly made a case for themselves as a legitimate contender. But they didn’t do anything to suggest they have a serious chance at actually taking home gold—which will likely require beating the US. There is a bit of history on their side—coach Pia Sundhage was in charge of the Sweden team who knocked the US out of the 2016 Olympics (the only US elimination from a major tournament in the last decade). But for all the nice elements, this Brazil team doesn’t possess the kind of solidity in defense that Sundhage is generally known for. Sure, the attacking quality means they might find some goals in the late stages of the tournament. But will they be able to hold off the opposition? That’s the big question, which remains unanswered.

Canada: Signs of life, or more of the same?

There were some clear positive takeaways to be found in two of the three matches that Canada played in the tournament. Of course, they lost those two games without scoring a single goal. Their one victory against Argentina was easily their worst performance. They were rescued by a late late goal from Sarah Stratigakis but it was a miserable performance—one of the worst performances the team has seen in recent years. They were lucky to avoid conceding and lucky to find a goal.

The opening performance against the US, however, was more encouraging. Despite a decimated lineup, Canada gave the US a decent fight, keeping them off the scoresheet for almost 80 minutes and producing two or three decent counterattacking chances. The team certainly looked more lively, with a resilient defense and an aggressive forward line that consistently put the US players into uncomfortable passing zones. It seemed to offer a template for a new style of play under the new coach, Bev Priestman. For years, people have complained about the dire tactics of former boss Kenneth Heiner-Møller. This game suggested the possibility of a more adventurous style.

But in the end, Canada did lose. And they lost quite fairly. Because the reality is that this match stayed close mostly because of poor finishing from the US, not because of anything Canada did. They certainly gave a good fight, but it’s hard to argue that the overall performances were much (if any) closer than the ones that led to a 3-0 defeat the last time these two teams met in early 2020.

And the other two matches mostly seem to confirm this more pessimistic theory. As noted, Canada were exceedingly poor against Argentina, and they continued that awful form through the first half against Brazil. The final half was brighter, and once again suggested a lightness to the Canadian game. And yet, they still couldn’t find the net. Time after time, Nichelle Prince and Janine Beckie put themselves into decent positions, only to waste their chances. Time and again, Jessie Fleming would work an angle only to misdirect her pass. Over and over, the backline failed to work the ball quickly enough to carve open spaces to initiate attacks.

Given the injuries and absences, this was never expected to be a hugely successful tournament for Canada. All in all, they more or less managed what was expected. And there were some genuine bright spots. Vanessa Gilles was immense against the US—easily her best performance for Canada. That’s huge for a team that’s lacking in depth at central defense. Jessie Fleming looked better than she has in awhile. Prince couldn’t deliver the clinical finishes, but otherwise played very well.

The problem is that Canada simply isn’t good enough and simply doesn’t play enough to treat ‘holding serve’ as an adequate result. They need to turn a corner and they need to do it fast. Otherwise, they’re likely looking at another early exit from a big tournament.

Argentina: Promising performances, but no clear path forward

Argentina impressed a lot of folks (myself included) at the World Cup with their tenacity and their style. They fought a good Japan team to a 0-0 draw by locking down the midfield and breaking up passing chances. They held out England for most of the game thanks to an inspired goalkeeping performance. And then they pulled back three goals to draw with Scotland in the wildest game of the whole tournament. Those three games made clear that Argentina wasn’t just there to make up the numbers. They had the ability and drive to genuinely compete with the best in the world.

Since then, the team has barely played at all. Several key figures from the squad have been frozen out because they had the temerity to publicly describe the massively unequal conditions under which they have to operate. So while this tournament was a chance to show strength in adversity, there is a level of exhaustion that comes with constantly having to fight just to get a sliver of a foot in the door.

That’s what this tournament felt like. Argentina came out aggressive and lively, giving Brazil a wonderful game. The scoreline was lopsided, but the underlying performance was strong. The team was missing their first choice keeper due to COVID, and while Solana Pereyra wasn’t entirely at fault for any of the goals, there’s a good chance that Vanina Correa would have saved one or more. Pereyra is still very young, and will presumably grow into the role. Beyond the goals themselves, their rising superstar Lorena Benítez had a superb game, putting her dazzling skills on display for the world. Yamila Rodríguez was a whirlwind in the attack, proving almost impossible to contain. So even with a heavy defeat, there was a lot of reason for encouragement.

But then came the second match against Canada, where legs grew heavier, attacking efforts became more tepid, and excitement dwindled. Benítez came off with an injury that looked bad and was later confirmed as a dreaded ACL tear.

And then the concluding game against the US went about as well as you’d expect. It’s not that Argentina were bad. They really weren’t! But the US is the best team in the world, and everything needs to go perfectly if a team like Argentina is going to stay in the game. And everything did not go perfectly.

In the end, Argentina gave a perfectly good accounting of themselves—given the support they’ve received from their federation and their current world ranking.