As hosts of the 2015 Women’s World Cup, Canada has the luxury of playing a home game every time it steps onto the pitch during the month-long tournament. The electric atmosphere and the added pressure of playing in front of friends and family can be a volatile combination; the latter can test a team’s mettle and even stunt its potential (see Brazil during the Men’s World Cup last year). Luckily for the hosts, they channeled the former into an early lead just 10 minutes into their final Group A game against the Netherlands. The opportunistic Ashley Lawrence, who was one of Canada’s few effective attacking weapons throughout the game, pounced on a failed clearance in the 18 yard box and slotted a left-footed shot just past Dutch goalkeeper Loes Geurts’ outstretched hands, sending the sea of 45,000 red-and-white fans into a raucous frenzy. Olympic Stadium was on its feet.
Despite the exciting early start, the rest of the game was what you would expect from the final game of a group stage match when one team, in this case Canada, knows that a single point would see them through to the next round. The hosts’ relaxed play bordered on lackadaisical. The Dutch, on the other hand, showed a surprising lack of urgency late in the game for a team that risked going home. It was only when the Canadian backline gifted its opponents a counterattack after a botched clearance with three minutes left in the second half did the visitors tie up the score. The few pockets of orange littered across Olympic Stadium reveled in the extra point that their team had just earned.
Throughout the game, interest and excitement waxed and waned among the Canadian faithful, such as is the case in the 90 minute long tug-of-war that was primarily played in the middle third of the pitch. Sight lines in some seats were far from ideal given that Olympic Stadium was originally built for baseball. Nowadays, its future is in doubt. In many ways, Montreal, and Canada at large is an unlikely host for the World Cup. Here, soccer does not get the coverage of hockey, basketball, baseball, and even Canadian football, no matter how successful the Women’s National Team is.
But something different was evident on matchday at Olympic Stadium. It’s clear that this is an extremely important tournament for the future of Canadian soccer. The two best players against the Netherlands, Lawrence and stalwart centre-back Kadeisha Buchanan, are aged 20 and 19, respectively. Canada’s veterans, led by 11 time Canada Soccer Player-of-the-Year Christine Sinclair, were fairly silent during the game. Sinclair, the matriarch of Canadian soccer, is a truly visible star in a country that cares most about athletes that lace up skates. Her impact on soccer in Canada goes far beyond 225 caps or 154 goals while wearing the maple leaf. It extends to the culture created that was on display on Monday night. A culture visible in the numerous Sinclair no. 12 jerseys and the palpable excitement among mothers and daughters, families and fans. During Sinclair’s career, which started in 2002, youth soccer participation rates have increased to the point that soccer is the most popular sport among children aged 5-14 and the most popular team sport among girls aged 3-17. Soccer has gained traction as a much cheaper alternative to hockey, and as baseball’s interest among youth has diminished significantly, a North America-wide trend.
On match day little separated Canada, the no. 8 ranked team in the world and a global soccer minow, and the Netherlands, the no. 12 ranked team and a global soccer powerhouse. The home team’s backline was fairly inept with the exception of Buchanan, who was left to clean up many of her teammates’ mistakes after they took their early lead. The Dutch, who controlled 54 per cent of possession on the game, had 12 of their 16 shots after half-time when Canada was willing to sit back in its own half and defend. The ineffectiveness of the team’s defenders will limit Canada’s potential to advance into the latter rounds of the knockout stages no matter how many fans attend its games; defensive lapses like the ones that occurred so frequently against the Netherlands will be punished far more decisively.
Canada may have squandered its lead and only managed a draw against the Netherlands but it did what it had to do to make it to the knockout stages. Though they tied on Monday night, in many ways Team Canada has already become victors in this World Cup. The team will likely bow out in the quarter-finals, but Soccer Canada will probably reap the true benefits of this tournament a generation down the line. Watching a World Cup game is a once in a lifetime opportunity for many fans, casual or otherwise, and an overwhelming emotional experience that can change the cultural landscape of a sport