Perhaps one of my best coaching moves ever was a complete fluke, really. The summer months are technically a time for a break, but youth soccer takes few breaks these days, so of course a summer league was hastily organized. The games were glorified pickup, with a ref in the middle.
The parent organizers usually coach the teams so I went to watch one of my players to see how she was doing. Of course, parents always know what’s best in soccer coaching, so this dad thought his daughter (not the same player) was the best attacking midfielder and stuck her there accordingly, which was a little frustrating because I was hoping to see my player in her natural midfield position, the one she would play for my team.
The parent stuck my player at striker. Striker? Whatever. But then – keeping in mind my team had only managed 26 goals in 18 games the season before – a funny thing happened. She scored. Then she scored again. She finished with four goals the first game, a hat trick in another I watched.
Six months later, she had the school single-season scoring record and the team erased just about every mark in the books on the way to its first league championship ever.
I’m sure John Herdman’s thought processes behind his tactical decisions are a little more complicated for Canada these days, but you never know. The Canadians were a team that I quite frankly thought was decent, but going to come up a little bit short at these Olympics after a somewhat disastrous 2011 World Cup. I went to Gillette Stadium to see Canada take on Brazil in March, and although Canada got a 2-1 win on two Christine Sinclair goals, my assessment on the Canadians was the same as I had since the World Cup (the Brazil stuff is a little telling, too), and probably all the way back to the 2007 World Cup, to be honest (although you may remember that the Canadians took the U.S. to extra time in the 2008 Olympics):
“I still, though, think when push comes to shove, that Canada may be a creative player or two short when you’re talking about taking down a France or (a full-strength) Brazil, host Great Britain, or the United States right now. But they’re not that far off.”
Great Britain? I guessed Canada showed me. Or did they?
Their record in the friendlies after that game leading up to the Olympics was fairly mediocre, they nearly got a draw against the U.S. just a month ago in sweltering conditions in Utah, but the United States still had most of the play (and a 19-4 edge in shots) in a 2-1 win (although that was the game with Hope Solo’s ridiculous save off a deflection late in the first half).
We’ll get back to the 1 for Canada in a second.
Canada battled in the second half and managed a goal, but were second best against Japan in their Olympic opener. They beat South Africa 3-0, but there was nothing there that made me change my opinion about them going forward.
Well, there was one thing, actually. Sinclair – she of 140 career international goals – was coming back into the midfield far too much to get the ball. You don’t want your forward doing that, how in the world is she going to score?
Then, with his tournament possibly on the line against favored Sweden, Herdman made what seemed like a bizarre tactical switch. He brought Jonelle Filigno off the bench in what was listed as a 4-3-3, with Filigno, an in-form Melissa Tancredi, and Sinclair.
Sweden’s two goals in two minutes against an unproven backline (we’ll get to that) masked what was really going on in the game, which was Canadian domination controlling possession, and dangerous possession at that. So if you watched start to finish, it wasn’t a big surprise that Canada came back and got a point, they probably deserved more.
What changed? How did Canada suddenly get so much of the ball with that creative midfielder I’ve been rambling on about for more than a year?
Herdman found her. She was wearing No. 12: Christine Sinclair.
Yes, it’s going to be tougher for Sinclair to score in a withdrawn position, but Canada looks like a far bigger threat with her playing there. And I’m sure Sinclair – one of the more unassuming stars you’ll ever meet – could care less who scores.
Against Great Britain, it was more of the same, Sinclair sitting in an attacking midfield role, seeing plenty of the ball, able to run at people, and make correct decisions and incisive passes. But most importantly, calming everything down so Canada didn’t have to defend so much. Eventually, they got their couple of goals and had a pretty comfortable 2-0 victory against the favored host nation.
The seeds of Herdman’s shift have probably been going on in his head for a long time, but go back to that goal that temporarily leveled the game against the U.S. last month (it starts at about the 3:00 mark here). Yup, that’s Sinclair (in a hideous blue uniform) coming back to midfield to get the ball, running at the U.S. back four, slotting in Tancredi with a perfectly weighted pass, which Tancredi buried.
If Canada has a shot at an upset Monday, that’s the recipe. Well, there are a few other ingredients in there, too, just they have to get just right, but that’s the most important one.
Here are five other things to look for in Monday’s semifinal between the United States and Canada:
1) About that Canadian defense
Herdman seems to have taken the strategy that the best defense is a good offense, which in soccer terms means trying to keep the ball as much as possible. With both of the center backs Canada likely imagined would be with them for the Olympics in Emily Zurrer and Candace Chapman out with injuries, it seems like it will be Carmelina Moscato and American born Lauren Sesselmann continuing. To be fair, since the Sweden two-goal, two-minute outburst, they’ve looked much better. Marie Eve-Nault took the left back spot where Sesselmann originally started, leaving Rhian Wilkinson at right back as the only member of the back four still there. Karina LeBlanc started against South Africa, but it’s been Erin McLeod in goal in every other game, meaning – short of a 2007 Greg Ryan-like shift on a whim – it looks like it will be McLeod Monday. She’s a very good shot-stopper, but she has a tendency to struggle on crossed balls, which could be a giant problem with Abby Wambach and Alex Morgan lurking.
2) The Desiree Scott vs. Lauren Cheney battle
I mentioned that I thought Desiree Scott was the Woman of the Match in Canada’s friendly against Brazil, but I hadn’t seen that kind of form out of her in the first couple of group stage matches. However, against Great Britain Friday, there she was, disrupting opposing attack after opposing attack from her holding midfield spot. She’ll likely be head-to-head with Lauren Cheney, who was my Woman of the Match against New Zealand. Cheney will try to get the ball and feed the forwards and Megan Rapinoe with the ball, while Scott will try to stop her. A 1v1 matchup that will be huge in the overall tactical battle.
3) The United States might have to finish better
Alex Morgan rounded Jenny Bindon (before colliding with her later in the game) just 10 minutes into the quarterfinal, and missed – albeit from a tough angle – an open net. Even more so than against New Zealand, the longer Canada is able to hang around, the more confidence they will have. We’ve already established that Canada’s offense – led by red-hot Tancredi – is clicking right now, it wouldn’t be a huge surprise to see them score a goal. It would be nice for the U.S. if they already had a couple first, and that means taking advantage of the inevitable chances they will get at some point.
4) “Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it” – George Santayana
Canada will come in confident, but they will be aware (and someone like Christine Sinclair will be acutely aware) of their dreadful record against the United States, 0-22-4 since a 3-0 Canadian win at the 2001 Algarve Cup.
(Interesting notes about that game, Karina LeBlanc made 13 saves in a shutout. The U.S. outshot Canada 21-5. Giving up the three goals? Hope Solo. The rest of the U.S. field players was not exactly the “A” team 18 months removed from the 1999 World Cup: Ally Marquand, Anna Kraus, Cat Reddick, Keisha Bell, Jena Kluegel, Devvyn Hawkins, Joanna Lohman, Aleisha Cramer, Mary-Frances Monroe, Christie Welsh, Marcie Ward, Laura Schott, Alyssa Ramsey, and Stephanie Rigamat. All great players, mind you, don’t get me wrong, but you get the point.)
A good performance there (Canada finished ahead of the U.S. overall) started a resurgence under Even Pellerud that culminated in a fourth-place performance at the 2003 World Cup. In fact, Canada was just 12 minutes from the final when Sweden stunned them with two late goals in a 2-1 win in Portland. But that was nine years ago. They didn’t qualify for the 2004 Olympics (only 10 teams were in the tourney- including host Greece – and only one CONCACAF team), Canada was unlucky not to advance (a late Australian goal did them in) in the 2007 World Cup, as I mentioned they took the U.S. to extra time in the 2008 Olympics, and they don’t want to talk about the 2011 World Cup.
Of course, there was another team that had a similar record of ineptitude against the United States last summer, and we know how that turned out.
5) A little gamesmanship
When John Herdman talked about “highly illegal tactics” about how the U.S. approaches set pieces, it shouldn’t strike you as that unusual, it happens all the time in major competitions (just ask Jose Mourinho), although a little less so on the women’s side. He’s hoping that the referee (Christina Pedersen of Norway, who was in the middle for Canada’s win over South Africa) catches wind of it, and maybe Abby Wambach gets called for a foul as she rises over Erin McLeod to score an apparent goal. Although I’d be afraid of angering the United States at this point, I really would. But we’ll see.
Long time for Canada
Canada’s last Summer Games medal in a team event? A silver medal in the 1936 Olympics in men’s basketball. Yes, that was the same Olympics in Berlin that Jesse Owens starred in.
I think Canada will be much more dangerous offensively than New Zealand was, and will probably score. But I think it’s a terrible matchup for them at the other end, and the U.S. is due to finish a few of the chances they’ve been generated. UNITED STATES 3-1.
France vs. Japan (Noon EDT) – This really is a fantastic matchup between probably the two most technical teams in the world. Obviously, neither won their group (the U.S. is the last group winner standing), and an appearance in the gold medal game would be huge for either, but a little more so for France, who knocked on the door last year, and looks like they might have the form to break it down this summer. Japan will be dangerous, just as they were against Brazil, but Marie-Laure Delie is due and Louisa Necib has been outstanding in the last couple of games. Might this be the first game in Olympic history to go to penalties? FRANCE 2-1.