MONTREAL -- John Herdman was in a relaxed mood about the state of his Canadian team's campaign as the side arrived in Montreal. Speaking on the eve of the host nation's key final group game against the Netherlands, the coach insisted the team was on the right track despite failing to score from open play as yet, and that it was just the "little" inspirational things that are missing now.
"We listen to the fans, we listen to the critics in some ways, to say, 'What is it that we're missing?' The wisdom of the crowd will tell you -- they want a little more flair, a little more passion."
After an opening-day win over China, thanks to a controversial late penalty, Canada labored to a 0-0 draw in a storm-affected second game against New Zealand, and arrives in Quebec with the coach knowing his team has to do something to inspire the host nation.
Herdman insisted his team has been creating chances, and that if "[Christine] Sinclair or whoever scores in that New Zealand game -- one of the six or seven shots we had on target -- people would have a different perspective on where Canada are at," but he also challenged his players to produce the kind of individual moments that not only change a game but can lift a home crowd.
"We've been challenging the players in meetings today, motivating them in some different ways, about just bringing that little bit of flair," Herdman said. "The thing that the crowd get off their seat for. Ashley Lawrence had a couple of moments in the [New Zealand] game where she went on a nice little dribble and you felt the crowd get on their feet; Kadeisha [Buchanan] puts a tackle in, then comes away with the ball. We know what we want to do."
Josée Bélanger, too, was hoping the Olympic Stadium atmosphere (if not the result) would emulate the one just a few weeks ago, when the Montreal Impact hosted Club America in the Champions League final. She was one of 61,004 who packed Olympic Stadium that night.
"I was here in the stands and we weren't able to hear the host announcer even talk over the speaker, so I hope that we will have the same excitement tomorrow, the same level, and that we'll be able to deliver the performance that the Quebec audience is expecting out of us, and get the three points," she said.
Montreal can be a tricky town. When its imagination is captured, it can be a great venue, and perhaps Herdman is being very canny to incite his players into aiming to do just that, because atmospheres can sometimes be flat here, too -- potentially helping an inexperienced Netherlands team settle.
On that note, it's been a quiet start for Montreal as a World Cup venue. But it's getting louder, and with the hosts arriving in town, a sense of occasion might finally arrive at Olympic Stadium.
The eerie sights and sounds of a sparsely attended Tuesday afternoon game between Spain and Costa Rica had built to a more vocal and visible audience by Saturday evening, as Brazil-Spain concluded and some 28,623 stayed to watch Costa Rica and the Republic of Korea play out an entertaining 2-2 draw. But the organizers will be hoping Monday night is when the Big O, as the stadium is known, and the host nation finally emerge in this tournament.
Canada arrives as one of only two teams to have not conceded a goal in this tournament (the other is Brazil, which has played both its matches in Montreal), but nor has the team scored from open play. Had Amber Hearn's first-half penalty not hit the bar for New Zealand, Canada could be arriving in Montreal facing rather fewer benign scenarios than the country being at the top of the group with its destiny in its own hands.
Herdman would doubtless point to the two times Canada hit the same busy crossbar in the same game as evidence that in fact Canada could easily have been sitting on six points. If he's uneasy about the lack of momentum so far, or about some of the criticism the team has been receiving, he wasn't showing it, pointing out that Canada has been here before.
"That's part of tournament football. I know sitting at the Olympics in 2012, we weren't really aware of what's going on behind the scenes," Herdman said. "But when you come back and you see the press clippings, we'd been written off by the second game, we'd been written off by the third game ... Canada was 'awful.' And it wasn't 'til we stepped over that hurdle in the [Great Britain] match and the team got into the semifinals, where the team just rose their levels -- and that's just part of growing through the tournament."
With advance ticket sales robust for Monday's match, the cavernous Olympic Stadium may finally begin to contribute to the atmosphere of a World Cup that has been simmering through the opening round of games.
Games that have seemed promising on paper have turned out to be circumspect affairs -- with top teams like Germany and Norway, then Sweden and the USA, canceling each other out rather than elevating each other's games.
While we've had the upset of Colombia beating France, and the lesser one of Nigeria holding Sweden, along with the spirited performances of Costa Rica, so far it's been a World Cup waiting to gather momentum.
And some of that starts with the hosts. Understandably tight in the opening game of the tournament against China, Canada might have been expected to look more relaxed against New Zealand, but looked unconvincing again. Granted, its momentum wasn't helped by a half-hour lightning delay, but the tournament needs the hosts to arrive in convincing fashion sooner rather than later.
So will Canada be drawing on its experience against a Netherlands team of formidable attacking talents but playing at its first World Cup? Herdman says yes, and points to the ability of his senior players to say the right thing at the right time during games, but the relentlessly positive coach did appear to make one oblique allusion to a sporting occasion that both inspires and haunts this Canada team as this competition edges toward the knockout rounds.
"I think experience is gold, but not all experience is good experience, either," he said. "People have been to World Cups and had some pretty heavy sports traumas, and those things can come back and haunt people."
He might have noted that people have been to the Olympics, too. And after the trauma of its exit from its last major tournament, a controversial extra-time loss to the U.S., Canada has yet to truly enter its next one, on home turf, let alone given the home fans an inspiring moment that comes remotely close to the doomed heroics of that semifinal at Old Trafford in 2012.
On that subject, there's a ubiquitous TV advertisement showing during breaks in games, in which Canada star Christine Sinclair takes the controls of a soccer video game in which she's represented as an avatar about to sub in and wow the crowd.
"Watch this!" she says.
Canada's watching. Time for the team to deliver.