Canada Advances With Tie Against Netherlands
Canada survived a late scare from the Netherlands to draw 1-1 in Montreal, and advance as group winners, partly thanks to China and New Zealand drawing 2-2 in Winnipeg.
Canada had looked mostly comfortable against a talented Netherlands team, but was badly caught on the counter for a late Dutch goal by substitute Kirsten Van de Ven that keeps the Netherlands in contention for a best third-place spot in the last 16.
Here are three observations:
1. Inexperience is golden for Canada
Prior to the host's final group game, coach John Herdman was asked if Canada's experience might be the difference when facing a Netherlands side not short of talent, but playing at its first World Cup.
"Experience is golden," Herdman said while also noting that, on the other hand, experienced players may have suffered "sporting traumas" that affect them in the present.
But on Monday night in the Olympic Stadium on Monday night, a venue where Brazil's Formiga had danced her way into the record books as the oldest goal scorer (aged 37 years, 98 days) in World Cup history days earlier, Herdman sent out a midfield duo whose combined ages barely exceeded Formiga's, and was rewarded with some tireless running and a crucial goal from one of them.
Ashley Lawrence, the 20-year-old who is a relative veteran compared to 17-year-old Jessie Fleming, had already been singled out by Herdman the day before, as he discussed the need to "get people on their feet" and cited a couple of runs she had made against New Zealand as the type of move that could do so.
And from the start of the game, Lawrence was looking to harry her opponents, and with Canada starting brightly, she was at the heart of their early efforts. First she gave a warning to the Dutch by twisting and turning in the box to make space for a shot that was only blocked as far as the head of Sophie Schmidt, and from there onto the top of the bar.
Then with 10 minutes gone, Lawrence was quickest to react to another ricochet off a defender, as she swept the ball home from Schmidt's deflected shot. It was a trickier finish than it looked and it emphatically lifted the Montreal crowd, as per Herdman's desire.
And then there was Kadeisha Buchanan, the 19-year-old force at the heart of the Canadian defense, who on more than one occasion stepped up sharply into midfield to firmly tackle an unsuspecting Dutch midfielder, come away with the ball and play it onto a dangerous channel. She showed the kind of direct manner that Canada has sometimes worryingly lacked in this tournament.
Buchanan can still be raw at times, and she and the rest of the Canadian defense will doubtlessly be squirming in their seats as they watch their positions on the field during the Dutch transition for the late equalizer. But like many of her young teammates, she played without fear, and the value of that in games to come may be incalculable.
The popular narrative around this Canada team may be a redemptive one about "doing it for Christine" and the cast of 2012. But if Canada does progress deep in this tournament, it'll partly be due to players who don't carry those scars.
2. The Netherlands is growing into its shape
Early in the match, looking down from the media tribune, the Netherlands' 4-3-3 looked strangely rigid, particularly odd for a formation designed to maximize fluidity and versatility, especially on the counter. It wasn't that the Netherlands was undisciplined -- if anything, the team looked too dutiful, so that as the hardworking Canada team harried them and played the ball forward, the gaps kept showing up in the same place, encouraging a spirited but limited Canada attack.
But as the half went on, individuals within the Dutch attack began to stir. Martens had a turn and shot from distance that went just over, and emboldened her to start running at the Canadian defense; Melis was sending balls in from the right that were causing problems in the space between Erin McLeod and her defense; and Van de Donk began to cause problems with her secondary runs, and almost got on the end of one particularly enticing Melis cross.
And as the game progressed, the fluidity began to increase throughout the entire team. It was still a little labored at times, but by the time of the rapid transition that brought the Netherlands its equalizer, the team that was looking to see out the game was looking a lot more convincing than the one that started it.
It's still a Netherlands team that's evolving and learning to trust in its own creative variations on its basic shape. That will come and the Netherlands certainly has the personnel to animate that shape. The 2012 French Olympic team, for example, may have been further along its developmental path at that moment than the Netherlands is now, but it too had the air of a work in progress that has since developed into a formidable team on the world stage (Colombia result notwithstanding), by fleshing out the promise that was already there. There's a high ceiling on this Netherlands team.
3. Montreal finally felt like an event
After taking its time to fill up, in a manner that had one or two onlookers raising eyebrows at the reported large advance sales, the Olympic Stadium came alive. After a number of muted outings so far in this World Cup, it was a raucous Big O that greeted the teams out of the tunnel.
Just a few weeks ago Quebec's own Josée Bélanger had been seated in the same stadium, cheering on Montréal Impact in the deafening atmosphere that accompanied their Champions League final game.
And the day before the game, Bélanger had sat beside Herdman on the media dais, recalling barely being able to hear the stadium announcer that evening and hoping for a similar atmosphere when she took to the field the next night.
That sort of atmosphere doesn't appear on command of course, especially in Montréal, and with Canada's performances so far not giving home fans a huge amount to cheer about, the onus to inspire them was on the players. Herdman said as much when talking about challenging the players to inspire.
Straight from the kickoff, Bélanger showed she'd been listening to her coach. Picking up the ball wide right, she instantly drove down the flank and beat two Dutch defenders, before being dispossessed, but not before a loud burst of crowd noise had ignited throughout the stadium. Though that, in turn, was nothing to the cheer when Lawrence swept home Canada's goal and raced off to deliriously celebrate with her teammates on Canada's bench.
And if the atmosphere began to ebb a little as the game went on, with rather more intermittent spikes than in the opening quarter of the game, the Montreal crowd could reasonably point to not being given many clear looks at goal from the score-shy Canadians, who topped their group despite scoring only two goals. How crucial does Christine Sinclair's penalty against China look now?
In the end, Montréal more than did its job for the Canadians, even if the evening also included a generous moment for the Dutch contingent in one corner to raucously celebrate the late equalizer.