Monday, November 27, 2006

"Noble souls, through dust and heat, rise from disaster and defeat the stronger."

The title quote, taken from American poet Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, will hopefully apply to the Canadian national women's soccer team. Ironically, their defeat came at the hands of Longfellow's fellow Americans last night, in the CONCACAF Gold Cup final. The Canadians played a strong game, and battled back from trailing 1-0 early, due to a sixth-minute strike from Leslie Osbourne. In the 45th minute, Randee Hermus, a defender from Langley, B.C., equalized for Canada off a corner kick, driving a loose ball just under the crossbar from 12 yards out. In the second half, the U.S. had excellent chances to take the lead, but the respective defences were up to the challenge. Canadian keeper Erin McLeod made some huge saves, and defenders Hermus, Robin Gayle, and Melanie Booth played large roles in nullifying the American attack. Christine Sinclair, a strong contender for FIFA's Female Player of the Year award, could have won it for Canada in the 91st minute when she broke into the box, but her finish went off the side of the net.

The game went into extra time, where the Canadians seemed to tire: the U.S. squad kept pressing forward, and continually created excellent chances for strikers Abby Wambach and Natasha Kai. The Canadian defence showed their quality, and held the Americans off the board for most of the 30 minutes, despite being pinned in their own end for the majority of the extra time. However, tragedy struck towards the end of the game, with yet another controversial refereeing decision. Mexican referee Virginia Tovar, who had already ejected Canadian head coach Even Pellerud in the 86th minute, awarded the U.S. a dubious penalty in the last minute of the match after midfielder Carli Lloyd collided with Gayle in the area. Captain Kristine Lilly coolly stepped up to the spot, and executed a perfect penalty drive to the bottom right corner of the net to give the Americans the victory.

For Canada, the loss is disappointing, but bittersweet: they should be pleased that they were able to take the Americans, who Sinclair described as "maybe the best team in the world" in an interview with Sportsnet, into overtime. They deserved at least to make it to a shootout, and, as often seems to be the case with this country's national teams, were hindered by questionable officiating. However, the US also received some harsh calls during the match, and were the better team overall, demonstrating that they deserve at least their world #2 ranking. This is an important result for the Canadian team to build on: their appearance in the final means that they are already qualified for the 2007 World Cup in China, and they'll have almost a year to prepare for that competition. They've come a long way, and they didn't appear out of place on a pitch with the Americans, as they so often have in the past. Hermus' goal was the first Canada had scored in their last 5 matches against the U.S., and also the first Canadian goal against the Americans since 2003, which is definitely a step in the right direction. Their young players, such as Sinclair and Brittany Timko, are making considerable progress and having an impact on the field, and the defensive performances from Hermus, Gayle, and Booth prove that this squad can have a strong back line without Charmaine Hooper.

The performances during the game are also good news for Vancouver Whitecaps fans: their players, such as Sinclair, McLeod, Hermus, Timko, Martina Franko, and Andrea Neil, provided strong showings on the pitch, and appeared to still be in the form that won them this past year's W-League Championship. Having so many starters from the same club side can only be a good thing for the squad: as a whole, the team showed excellent on-field chemistry, and were very aware of each others' positions. With so many national team players playing together during the W-League season on the Whitecaps, this chemistry can only improve with time. Hopefully, the possible concentration of men's national team players on the new MLS side, Toronto FC, will have a similar effect on that squad, which has been hindered in the past by players' unfamiliarity with each other.

Overall, this should be a positive experience for Canada. They were unable to pull out a victory, but they were in the game against the U.S., and proved that they can compete with the elite sides in women's soccer. This game provides further evidence that their fourth-place showing, the highest ever for Canada, in the last World Cup in 2003, was not a fluke. The young core of this squad should continue to improve under the tutelage of veterans such as Neil and Franko, and hopefully, they can "rise from disaster and defeat the stronger." As the sixteenth-century French philosopher Michel de Montaigne once said, “There are some defeats more triumphant than victories.” As a fan of Canadian soccer, I sincerely hope that this will prove to be one of those defeats.

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