Thoughts and Musings: Looking Back at Canada’s Elimination (and What Needs to Change)

It’s been over a week now, yet it’s still tough to process the fact that Canada was knocked out of the Women’s World Cup in only the round of 16. Despite their high FIFA ranking coming into the tournament  , they were unable to live up to the lofty expectations put on both by themselves and the rest of the nation. With their strong performance in their last 3 major international tournaments, where they got back-to-back Olympic Bronze medals to go along with a solid Quarter-Final appearance last World Cup, it was expected that Canada could come together for a solid tournament, with aspirations of at least the last 8, with top 4 or even a finals appearance not out of the picture for the Reds. 

But, instead, they were cut apart by an astute Swedish squad, who dashed their hopes and dreams with a dramatic 1-0 win, sending Canada home from France much earlier than both expected and hoped. It was a painful loss, as Canada likely wasted the last great chance for Christine Sinclair to lead her team to World Cup glory, as she will be 40 next time the Global tournament comes around, probably participating, but surely in a more withdrawn role. 

While the loss was tough to stomach, and will continue to be for a while, it opened up a lot of important questions for the Women’s program. Here are some of my thoughts and musings on the program, the coach and many more. 

Kenneth Heiner-Moller:

Where to start? While the work Heiner-Moller did on the defensive side of things can only be applauded, the offensive side of things was, well, not pretty to watch, especially in the instances where Canada conceded first, leaving them to chase matches. While his appointment was pretty straightforward, as he was quickly promoted up from his previous assistant role  after former Head Coach, John Herdman, moved onto to the men’s program, the fact that Canada decided on him without much of a look at outside options can certainly be curious. While there is nothing wrong about hiring within, Canada’s performance at this World Cup certainly leaves a lot to ponder about the appointment. 

Firstly, how did Canada’s offence essentially fall off a cliff since the 2016 Olympics? After making great progress in that regard under Herdman, it was natural to expect this Canadian squad to be able to excel in that regard, as they have lots of attacking options available. With names such as the obviously well-known Sinclair, the quality Adrian Leon, the prodigious Jordyn Huitema, the youthful Deanne Rose, the speedy Nichelle Prince, the tricky Janine Beckie and the reliable Jessie Fleming, Canada should not have had any issue with finding offence in the World Cup. 

But, despite the wealth of options at his disposal, Heiner-Moller failed to inspire, as Canada looked lethargic offensively in every game they played, only scoring on brief moments of individual brilliance. It was frustrating to see, as you’d watch the players on Canada make a minor impact, such as a smart run down the flank or a nice turn in the midfield, and then look up to find no support, forcing turnovers and empty crosses to no one in the box. There would be a lack of off-ball movement, making it hard to penetrate the oppositional 18. 

And that is where Heiner-Moller failed in his duties. While a lack of team offence can often be attributed to many factors, such as a lack of talent or bad luck, Canada was just plain uninspiring this World Cup, knocking the ball around their backline to amass lofty passing and possession totals, but not doing much to actively knock on the opponents door and create swaths of chances like one would expect. With the top players that they have, they should find ways to create chances no matter if they play a 4-4-2 that keeps the ball out of their goal, or if it’s a swashbuckling 3-5-2 that sends players forward in a hurry, rendering the idea of their offence being formation-hampered untrue. 

Moving on to the second point, how was KHM’s unable to deviate from his approach whatsoever during this tournament? While it would be hard to switch up what he had gone with all year to decent results, he surely would have seen Canada’s performance and have attempted something new, maybe going for some different personnel or formation to try and inspire some attacking confidence. Instead, we got the classic Albert Einstein definition of insanity, as Heiner-Moller tried the same thing over and over, expecting different results.

While I had campaigned the style of play before the tournament, saying that it gave them a chance to grind through a tough knockout round, seeing their uninspiring offence took away from that possibility. It doesn’t matter if you’re playing Johan Cruyff-inspired possession football or if you’re emulating Tony Pulis’s Stoke, you need to generate chances to win games, and Canada was unable to do so. Why was Canada unable to try something new, like playing Sinclair deeper with a forward like Adriana Leon ahead of her? While it may seem like a case of hindsight, any sort of experimentation to try and change their woes would have been nice to see looking back, especially in a match like the Netherlands, where they had already been assured of a place in the knockout rounds. 

Which leads to the last point, did KHM fully make the best use of Sinclair? Despite being (almost unfairly) expected to come in and light the world on fire, she looked miscast during the tournament, as she often floated around on her own, lacking the crucial support she could have desperately used. While she did good despite that, hitting the woodwork a few times and scoring a beauty against the Netherlands, it felt like Canada could have used it’s top all-time scorer a tad better. It will be interesting to see how she is used going forward, as she is still deadly, despite losing a step, so lone-striker formations may be best left in the past. While Heiner-Moller can point to the 4-4-2 he used and feel he did alright in that regard, we usually saw a midfielder deployed as the second striker, who would predictably just drop and turn the formation into a spread out 4-3-3. 

So, while it would be tough to let him go after such a short time in charge, seeing this squad stagnate despite plenty of young and upcoming talent has made it painfully clear that it should be time to let go of Heiner-Moller. If they are unable to do that right away, they should at the very least start to look into some new names, so that by the time they would be prepared to strike if their Olympic campaign were to fall short of expectations. While Heiner-Moller has been a likeable figure for Les Rouges and is clearly appreciated by his squad, a country of Canada’s calibre could and should be doing a lot better than they have. 

European dominance, what does that mean for the Women’s game?

7 of 8 European nations qualified for the knockout stages, with the 8th in Scotland narrowly missing out after some VAR drama on the last matchday. All 7 of those teams made it into the quarters. 3 of 4 are now in the semis. The European dominance has appeared to set in the women’s game, and it has come up so suddenly.

How has that happened? It mostly starts and ends with the emergence of top domestic leagues in that continent, as many of the countries are making huge strides in that regard. One top example would be Spain, who’s Barcelona made the final of the UEFA Women’s Champions League this season, falling short to the dominant threepeat of Lyon. Despite this only being Spain’s second Women’s World Cup, after bowing out meekly with 1 point 4 years ago in the 2015 edition, they came in strong for this one, progressing from their group with ease, before taking current World Champs, the US, to the limit in an entertaining match as they were felled by two questionable bits of refereeing. 

While Spain would be expected to be a big force in the game, due to all the dominance they have seen on the men’s side at both the club and national team levels, they were slower to invest into the women’s program, as seen by their late rise. With financial powerhouses like Real Madrid now getting involved, it will only go up from here, as their league grows and talent develops.

Which leads to the main point: What should Canada do to keep up? 

Firstly, it is to provide more opportunities for young girls to play at a higher level. In this case, it would be the creation of a top-flight league, a la CPL. While it would be nice if the CPL would be affiliated with this possible league, the sooner someone could finance it and create it, the better. It would create better depth and more consistent talent across the board, as less players would fall through the cracks, and they would be able to compete at a professional level from a younger age if they are ready, learning and developing around some good talent. 

For every Jordyn Huitema that is making the jump to Paris Saint Germain at the age of 18, there will be a Jessie Fleming, who was still playing youth soccer when she was called up to the last World Cup, before moving to a good college program like UCLA. Not to take away from her education, which is vitally important, a Canadian pro league would have allowed her to break in at 16, giving her the chance to make vast growth both on and off the field, as the professional environment would have been beneficial to her development as she competes against professionals day-in and day-out. Not only would it allow her to continue to continue to get an education closer to home, it would also give her the chance to compete against many other top Candian and possibly international talents, while growing in a professional environment. 

While the NWSL has been a great league for the US, as evidenced by their global dominance,  and it’s certainly disappointing that Canada has no team currently involved with it, Canada making its own top flight would reap bigger benefits in the future. It would benefit everyone in the Canadian pool, as top players would get the opportunity to play in it while young, while more fringe players with professional ambitions would get the chance to develop instead of being in limbo as soon as they turn 18 and Europe doesn’t immediately call. 

If there is anything that Canada can take over from the men’s side, it’s that more top-level professional teams will help, and while the rise of youngsters from MLS teams the last 10 years has been great (Alphonso Davies anyone?), the CPL will do so much more to aid that, due to its development-focused approach from top-down. Because while Canadian teams in MLS will focus on developing Canadian talent, the rest of the league has shown no interest in doing so, with rules such as Canadians being counted as internationals in the US causing lots of hurdles for players, with Mark-Anthony Kaye and Raheem Edwards being prominent examples. So, it would be in the best interest of the women’s game that they avoid that and focus on getting their own league instead of possibly re-expanding into the NWSL. 

The Penalty:

To finish things off, it would be criminal not to talk about the main talking point about that now-infamous Canada-Sweden match. Down 1, Canada managed to win a crucial penalty in the later stages of the game, giving them a great shot to tie things up. Or at least everyone thought, as Janine Beckie stepped up, with her good strike from the spot confidently saved by the Swedish goalkeeper. 

Firstly, no ill will towards Janine, and anyone who has given her stick is being completely unreasonable. She was asked to take it by Sinclair, like any top competitive player she took it, and a good attempt at goal got saved. Yeah, she may have telegraphed the penalty, and she could have easily given it back to the all-time leading scorer, but she took it, and that took massive courage. 

Secondly, anyone criticizing Sinclair went over the top. Yes, you’d want your leading scorer taking that penalty every day of the week, especially considering she takes them regularly. In the big games you want your big players standing up, and she declined the chance to do so. But, as someone who has done so much for the team, she clearly trusts Beckie, and has more than earned the right to decide in that case. 

The main issue with the whole snafu comes down to two things. First and foremost, Canada should have a designated taker in this sense. Secondly, it shouldn’t come down to a last minute discussion, it should be prepared in advance so the designated taker (s?) can study the opposing goalie and prepare if needed. 

While the penalty (naturally) created a lot of discussion, the most frustrating part about the whole thing was not the whole debate itself, but that Canada’s play made their survival so dependant on a kick from 12 yards out. They have the squad and the pieces to be better than that, they just need to build on several things, and hopefully soon they can start to consistently be among the world’s greatest, shining on the biggest stage. 

Looking Forward:

But, as disappointing as seeing Canada’s exit was, this tournament has been a great edition of the Women’s World Cup. The quality of play has been great, there has been no shortage of refereeing drama, and the emotions shown by all the teams has been incredible, as you can feel the tension through the TV. While it would be nice to see Canada be competing for the trophy, seeing the progression of the tournament has been a huge positive, and hopefully Canada can fix some holes in their program to ensure they’re up there competing with the big guns next time out. 

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