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The CanWNT Year in Review

For better or for worse, many things happened over the course of 2011 for the Canadian Women’s National Team. Let’s take a look at what transpired:

Kara Lang’s Retirement

A promising career came to an end when Kara Lang announced her retirement from club and international soccer [watch here] on January 5. The then 24 year-old had suffered two ACL tears in her right knee, first in 2006 and again in 2009. Lang weighed her options for managing the pain in her knee in order to continue playing, but the ultimate decision was the best choice for her long-term health as knee replacement surgery, a lifetime of arthritis and continual use of anti-inflammatory drugs were potential aspects of her future.

Arguably one of the most well known figures of the CanWNT, Lang initially gained recognition as a 15 year-old on Canada’s U-19 Women’s World Cup team that finished in second place in 2002 and as the youngest player to suit up for the senior national team. She went on to represent Canada at the 2003 Women’s World Cup where they achieved their best ever result finishing fourth overall, as well as at the 2007 WWC and the WNT’s first Olympic appearance in Beijing 2008. With her apt for scoring goals from distance, the midfielder/striker rounded out her career with 34 goals in 92 caps.

Lang continues to have an active post-soccer career. She’s appeared as an analyst on Rogers Sportsnet for the 2011 WWC and hosts Rogers TV’s Your World This Week. Lang is also a yoga instructor at Shunyata Yoga, while being the Technical Director of Street Soccer Canada and coaching Toronto’s Street Soccer women’s team.

All White Kit caught up with Lang in August as she helped to raise money for Athletes for Africa’s Rock the Pitch Charity Soccer Tournament.

Yongchuan Cup Four Nations Tournament

The 2011 season began in China January 21-25. Late heroics by a tandem of veteran strikers made Canada’s opening match against the host country one of the most exciting of the year. After trailing by 2 goals through the first 45 minutes, Melissa Tancredi cut the score in half in the 56′ before assisting Sinclair’s equalizer in the 80′. The duo combined again in the 94′ for the game winner by Sinclair.

In the following game, the CanWNT’s 11 game unbeaten streak (9 wins, 2 draws) came to an end with a 2-1 loss to the USWNT. Lauren Cheney opened the scoring in the 54′ while Tancredi answered back just two minutes later. Lindsay Tarpley’s goal in the 71′ would prove to be the difference maker [watch here].

The tournament concluded against Sweden where Sinclair proved that she’s gotten leaner and faster within the past couple of years. Latching on to a clearing header by Emily Zurrer, Sinclair outran three Swedish defenders to slot in her third goal of the tournament [watch here]. With Canada and the US tied in wins, the latter was awarded first place for holding the head-to-head advantage, while Sinclair claimed the MVP award.

Carolina Morace vs. the CSA: Round 1

Well, on the bright side, at least this bit of news appeared on the front page of The Globe & Mail’s sports section, right?

On February 4, Carolina Morace announced her intentions to resign as head coach of the CanWNT upon the conclusion of the 2011 FIFA Women’s World Cup, citing differences in her vision for the program from that of the Canadian Soccer Association’s. One such disagreement stemmed from Morace’s desire for greater budgetary control.

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Canada Brings Home Pan American Gold

Mexsport; CSA

That title has a nice ring to it, doesn’t it? The Canadian Women’s National Team captured the top prize at the XVI Pan American Games in Guadalajara, Mexico by defeating Brazil in dramatic fashion. Following a come-from-behind 1-1 draw in regulation and a scoreless overtime, Canada struck gold with penalty kicks, 4-3.

Twenty year-old Debora opened the scoring just 4 minutes into the match. The Brazilian striker headed towards three Canadian defenders and was given an excess of space to dribble up field before unleashing a top corner beauty from outside the box.

Canada was able to stay in the game thanks to a series of critical saves by Karina LeBlanc, especially late in regulation time when Brazil began peppering the Canadian net. Brazil outshot Canada 22-13, while Canada maintained 57% of possession.

As the clock ticked away, it appeared that Brazil was on its way to claiming another PanAm gold medal. However, like the 2011 Women’s World Cup quarter-finals against the USA, Brazil was undone late in the game by an equalizer off a header. This time it was at the mercy of Christine Sinclair being her usual clutch self. Canada won a corner kick in the 88th minute and Diana Matheson sent in a perfectly struck ball. Sinclair circled around goalkeeper Barbara to head it in with ease and forced the game into overtime.

But 30 minutes was not enough to break the deadlock between the teams, so the dreaded, heart wrenching penalty kicks were to settle the score.

Matheson converted the first Canadian PK with confidence, as did Francielle for Brazil. Upon the second round, Barbara was in a rage when she got a glove on Sinclair’s shot, but it wasn’t enough to keep it out of the net. Maurine and Melanie Booth were both successful in their respective shots from the mark. Canada took the lead following Brazil’s third PK when Grazielle placed her attempt up the middle for an easy stop by LeBlanc. Sophie Schmidt put Canada ahead once again and Ketlen answered back. It was 4-3 heading into the fifth set of PKs; things got momentarily tense for Canada while Brazil saw a glimmer of hope when Candace Chapman’s strike rattled the right sided post. The next kicker, Debora, had an opportunity to play hero for Brazil once again if she could tie up the results, but LeBlanc guessed the right direction to make her second PK save and secure first place.

Watch highlights of the final, Canada vs. Brazil, Brazil’s medal ceremony, Canada celebrating the win and the gold medal ceremony.

The win marks Canada’s first PanAm gold in women’s soccer, and John Herdman’s first tournament win since taking over the team in September. Canada previusly claimed fourth (1999), second (2003) and third place (2007) since the sport was included in the PanAm Games 12 years earlier. Brazil had won back-to-back titles in 2003 and 2007, and with the absence of any US team, it appeared to be theirs for the taking. Alas, it was yet another second place finish (see: the Women’s World Cup, Olympic Games and Torneio Internacional Cidade de São Paulo).

2015 will be a marquee year for the Canadian Women’s National Team with the Women’s World Cup being staged across Canada from June 26-July 17 and PanAm Toronto July 10-26. The overlap makes it highly unlikely that the senior team will be able to defend their title as the reigning PanAm Women’s Soccer champions. But with that aside, the build up in the next 4 years will be exciting times for the sport in the country. Whether it’ll be about seeking World Cup redemption or potentially instilling confidence in our youth team to represent us at the PanAms in place of the full squad, it’s all taking place in Canada. There’s no better feeling than playing (and winning) on home soil, right?

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The USWNT & CanWNT Battled in a Scrappy 1-1 Draw

The first of the two-game friendly series between the United States and Canada resulted in a 1-1 draw in front of a near capacity crowd of 16,191 packed into Livestrong Sporting Park in Kansas City, Kansas.

Boisterous fans created a lively atmosphere to welcome home their Women’s World Cup heroes, whose performance in this summer’s tournament ignited interest all over the US. Of the three friendlies played at home in 2011 prior to the WWC, two took place in comparatively large stadiums, like Red Bull Arena (25,000 capacity) and Columbus Crew Stadium (20,000 capacity), but had only managed to draw attendance merely in the 5,000s.

The situation for both teams couldn’t be more different: the USWNT was playing with the exact same group who recently propelled themselves to newfound celebrity status, and a coach whose unwavering loyalty to a particular formation and players have drawn cries for change and ingenuity from fans and commentators alike; in contrast, the CanWNT was playing under a new coaching staff following a sorrowful WWC with new players and new tactics.

September 17 was to be a battle of old and new. Yet, surprisingly, both teams stepped onto the pitch to test new strategies.

Pia Sundhage implemented a 4-2-3-1 for the match, a departure from her favoured 4-4-2.  The USWNT coach expressed her hopes of adding another dimension of unpredictability to the attack. Sundhage experimented by moving Lauren Cheney and Carli Lloyd, both of whom normally occupy more offensive roles, back to act as deep-lying midfielders. She was quick to point out that the pair would be “possession midfielders” as opposed to holding midfielders. Still in search for the team’s true No. 10, the Swede had Megan Rapinoe assume that role in the starting XI. The new formation was to emphasize play in the centre of midfield, but the US still found the most success attacking from the wings, especially in the first half.

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Morace Resigns as Canadian Head Coach Following Disastrous WWC

Good news? Bad news?
Head coach Carolina Morace and her staff, including assistant coach and former Canadian national team midfielder Andrea Neil, resigned Wednesday, July 20 during the FIFA Women’s World Cup 2011 debriefing and analysis meeting with the Canadian Soccer Association and other stakeholders.

Under Morace’s guidance since February 2009, Canada rose to their highest ever ranking of 6th in the world, all while claiming first place trophies at the Cyprus Cup (twice), the Torneio Internacional Cidade de São Paulo (Four Nations Tournament in Brazil) and the 2010 CONCACAF Gold Cup, and defeating quality opponents like England and Sweden.

Ben Rycroft of It’s Called Football points out that between January 1, 2009 and June 25, 2011, Canada played more matches than Brazil, France, Germany, Japan and USA. Additionally, the team spent 114 days of 2011 training overseas in various camps.

Based on these results and preparations, Big Red headed into the WWC seemingly poised to capture its best ever results, even medal.

As it turned out, the team gravely fell short of expectations, losing all three games and failing to advance past the group stage for the fourth time. Canada’s best result at the WWC was in 2003 when they upset China in the quarter-finals and eventually placed fourth overall.

After a closely fought 2-1 match against Germany that featured a stunning free kick goal by Christine Sinclair that snapped the host’s 622-minute WWC shutout streak, Canada lost its composure and was hounded by France 4-0, and fell 1-0 to Nigeria. Canada finished last in the 16-team tournament and registered three shots on goal.

Since the loss to France, murmurings began to circulate of Morace potentially stepping down, but she bluntly stated, “Yes, I want to continue,” following the match against Nigeria.

All else indicated that Morace would remain as head coach. The Globe and Mail‘s Stephen Brunt said of the dynamic between Morace and the CSA, “This is a very tense relationship. It’s a bad marriage at this point, or at least a very fractious marriage, but it is going to continue.”

With Morace’s sudden resignation last week, CSA General Secretary Peter Montopoli told The Canadian Press, “Yes, I would say we were surprised.”

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Women’s World Cup – Things We Learned, Day 1:

Jenna and the finest women’s soccer website on the planet has been nice enough to ask me to add my two cents (or $2) on the Women’s World Cup. I spend most of my time writing on MLS and the men’s game, but I am a big fan of the women’s game. In my coaching career, I’m primarily a girls coach these days, and it’s always nice for them to have someone to look up to. Sadly, some of the youngsters I coach were barely born in 1999, and obviously have no recollection of that wonderful summer.

However, they can look on their televisions (hopefully they will) and see sell-out crowds in Germany and a country head over heels for the women’s game.

Here’s how I described what I did last year for the men’s World Cup:

“I’m going to try every day of the World Cup for a little different kind of analysis, entitled What We Learned. We won’t go too deep into tactics, and it may not even be terribly cohesive, but they are things we learned during the day’s action, and maybe some things to think about going forward.”

The tactics were so interesting today that they do get a couple of mentions, but without further ado, 10 things we learned in Day 1 of Germany 2011.

1) Nigeria put together, by a pretty wide margin, the most organized effort of an African side in Women’s World Cup history

The Nigerian women have always been known to me as the “Last of the Mohicans” (a fine movie, by the way) because they were still playing a sweeper long after it was seemingly extinct at the world level (and some levels below).
As late as last November, on a grainy Zapruder-like film, it seemed as if Nigeria was playing a sweeper in a 8-0 thrashing (5-0 at half) at the hands of Germany.
But there was no sweeper today. They knew they had a speed advantage, closed down the middle of field, played an organized high line, and were somewhat unlucky to leave with nothing.
Kate Markgraf (who I thought did a good job, too) insinuated that it may not have been Ngozi Uche but her assistants who were the tactical people, but it was refreshing to see some organization out of an obviously talented side.
If Desire Oparanozie finishes a 25th-minute breakaway in which France keeper Berangere Sapowicz seemed to get her angles all wrong, who knows?
It is somewhat unfortunate that Nigeria is stuck in Group A, though.

2) France has skill, but do they have athleticism?

France was able to knock the ball around, but there were a few times where they just couldn’t keep up physically, and that could be scary for them going forward. Camile Abily, Elise Bussaglia, and Sandrine Soubeyrand (who was subbed off at halftime by Bruno Bini) in the midfield, especially, looked like they were completely frustrated by the buzzing Nigerians. Are the Nigerians athletic enough to give the Germans and Canadians the same problems, or is France just slow? I guess we’ll find out together. Elodie Thomis came off the bench to solve that problem in the 57th minute, and we’ll see if maybe Bini goes to her to start in the pivotal Canada match.

3) Louisa Necib taketh and Louisa Necib giveth away

Whenever you hear “the female Zidane”, obviously you get excited, and it didn’t take her long to show off her skill. But as the game progressed, like some of her teammates (see No. 2), she looked a little slow and made some poor decisions on the ball. That’s the difference between a good player and a great player, especially a midfielder, and she did make a great pass to send Marie-Laure Delie in late in the game. So, although I wasn’t overly impressed, it’s only the first game, I guess.

4) Marie-Laure Delie might be the real deal because….

By halftime, I was underwhelmed. But when her moment came in the 56th minute, she checked back, made a fine pass to start the movement, and then was at the right place at the right time to finish it seconds later. Getting 22 goals in 21 caps is no fluke.

5) Ian Holloway would be proud of Carolina Morace

Like Holloway at underdog Blackpool, Morace decided if she was going to go down today to heavily favored Germany, she was going to go down attacking, and we the viewing public thank her profusely. Morace had the “Santa Clara 4-3-3” that Jerry Smith made popular in the college ranks, but most teams today play with two holding midfielders (as Germany did). Morace started with Melissa Tancredi and Janelle Filigno not in a defending 4-5-1, but a straight attacking 4-3-3, Kaylyn Kyle as a box-to-box midfielder. Down two goals, Morace threw Kelly Parker in for Kyle to make it a more attacking formation. It put Sophie Schmidt (who I thought did her best) in a tough spot as the lone defensive midfielder, and it created some holes, but it was fun to watch, and Canada nearly pulled it off? Does Morace do it against France, or against Nigeria, who may use the lack of people back to counter them successfully?

6) Ah, those outside backs

Lots of youth coaches try to hide their weakest players at outside back, but as the U.S. men’s team learned Saturday night against Mexico, at high levels, you’d better have capable people in those spots. Unfortunately for Canada, Marie-Eve Nault had a disastrous first half. Thirty seconds before the first goal, she was beaten badly and Kerstin Garefrekes nearly scored. Then, fellow outside back Rhian Wilkinson switched off, Babett Peter was able to deliver a nice cross, and Garefrekes was able to outjump Nault for the first goal. On the second goal, Nault was woefully late coming forward, and then got subbed out at halftime, although her replacement – Robin Gayle – was caught stepping late just as Nault was in the 66th minute, only to have Garefrekes have one of the worst misses you’ll ever see. So some work for Canada to do there, but some of that is the attacking formation with no real midfielders to track back.
In the other game, by the way, Nigeria had a big injury in right back Faith Ikidi. Sub Josephine Chukwunonge didn’t look nearly as comfortable.
For France, right back seems an odd position for 6-foot-1 Wendie Renard, as – although obviously a target at the other end on set pieces – she looked vulnerable defending, eventually leaving with an injury in the 69th minute.

7) Goalkeeping will be an issue

One of the reasons I like Markgraf is because she is frank, she said that female goalkeeping is not as good as male goalkeeping, and the reason why Germany and the U.S. have to be favorites is because they have the best keepers.
For all of Hope Solo’s immaturity and questionable comments off the field, you don’t get much argument that she’s the best goalie in the world, and when you see keepers flap at crosses in the France-Nigeria game, I think it could be a deciding factor.
For Canada, Nault held Celia Okoyino Da Mbabi onside, but where was Erin McLeod? When she finally came into the picture, she was in her goal and had no shot at a save. If you’re going to play that high a line, your keeper has to play with you and hopefully cut off a ball like that.

8) These teams had a long time to work on set pieces

The coach in me was stopping the tape every set piece to write down some of the creativity these teams were using. You can tell they’ve been in camp for a while.
It started just two minutes in when when Necib hit an overlapping player. A few minutes later, Gaetane Thiney hit a post on a well-worked front-post corner, and Canada had all sorts of tricks up their sleeves.
Of course, as Julie Foudy correctly pointed out, what was the one that actually resulted in a goal? Christine Sinclair (who was fantastic and scary for Canada today) walked up the ball and pounding it home with a great, but fairly straightforward, free kick.

9) Germany has an embarrassment of riches

Silvia Neid’s three subs were Alexandra Popp, Inka Grings, and Fatmine Bajramaj in that order, three players that would likely be starting for any other team in the tournament, and that includes the U.S. We’ll have to see how Neid handles Popp, she doesn’t want to overwhelm Popp, but she’s too good to be on the bench.

10) Thankfully less riff-raff then in the men’s game

After watching a month of the Gold Cup with players rolling around on the ground to embellish, getting in the officials’ faces over and over, and all kinds of gamesmanship, there was none of that today. In fact, we almost escaped the entire day – with all four teams playing aggressive, but clean soccer. In fact, we almost escaped the day without a single card (there were none in the France-Nigeria match), but Germany got two in the final 10 minutes of the second match (Simone Laudehr and Annike Krahn). Hopefully, it continues.