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The View from the North: Is the women’s game healthy in Canada?

Canada won the bronze medal at the 2012 Olympics, but the success may be short-lived without long-term development.

This article originally ran on CanadianSoccerNews.com last Fall. Some minor edits have occurred to reflect changes since then, but the core message remains the same — and as relevant — as when it was originally published.

It’s exciting times for women’s soccer in Canada. Fresh off the bronze medal performance in London, the program has never had a higher profile.

In just two years Canada will be hosting the FIFA U-20 Women’s World Cup as preparation for the big event in 2015 – the FIFA Women’s World Cup.

As said, exciting times.

But, is the women’s game healthy? It seems like an absurd question – Were they not just the darlings of the Canadian Olympic team? Is Christine Sinclair not a household name now? – but those close to the game in Canada have concerns.

The car may have just got a shiny, bronze paint job in 2012, but there is still rust underneath. That’s the opinion of many. Despite Canada having tremendous natural resources, and (close to) equal acceptance of the women’s game alongside the men, it remains rooted in the second tier of international teams. Results in 2013 have demonstrated that, with Canada recently falling twice to England, the team it more or less beat in last year’s Olympic quarterfinal.

However, what’s even more concerning is that youth results suggest Canada’s standing is trending down, not up. Canada failed to make much of an impression at the u17 or u20 levels last year, despite having had much success at younth levels in the past.

The fear is that by the time 2015 rolls around the situation will be even worse and Canada will fail to fully take advantage of the opportunity hosting the World Cup should provide.

Bill Ault is deeply involved in the women’s game and is a professional coach with more than 20 years experience. He has been one of the strongest critics of how the game is being developed today.

Ault urges Canadians to look past the excitement of the Olympics and instead take a hard look at what’s happening with last year’s U-20 side at the World Cup in Japan.

“Technically we (weren’t) up to the task,” he said. “It’s frustrating because you look at the players and you know that they have more.”

Ault says the issue is deep rooted, but simple to identify.

“It’s a technical thing, but it’s also a belief thing. We don’t demand enough from our players – especially in women’s game. Coaches are failing the girls at the youth ranks. They simply do not challenge them or offer constructive criticism.

“They don’t know how to react to (criticism) because they never face it,” Ault says.

The result is that they fail to listen to outside voices and, as a result, do not improve areas of their game that need to be improved.”

The “old, old, old” problem prevents Canadian teams from meeting their potential, Ault says.

“Our players are limited technically, which makes them limited tactically. It could have been so much better by now.

“We have produced some great players, but we could have produced a lot more. But we didn’t ask enough (of them).”

The problem could have been that we thought we had arrived a decade ago, but ignored that the rest of the world might want to join the party.

In 2002, a country watched with awe as a young group of Canadians nearly won a world championship on home soil at the FIFA U-19s. That golden generation is the backbone of the current senior national team.

But, how golden are they? It may seem harsh, but the bronze medal run was the first significant thing they accomplished since 2002. We should not dismiss that 3rd place finish – it’s an accomplishment that can never be taken away from them – but it also must be viewed soberly by those in the position to shape program in the lead up to the World Cup.

Bluntly, the run was not a case of a team finally breaking through after years of being close. Rather, it was a team catching a lot of breaks and managing to win the right game at the right time.

Let’s remember Canada finished third in its group at the Olympics. In standard World Cup play their tournament ends there. Then they get what was perhaps their biggest – and least noticed – breaks when Great Britain beats Brazil. Team GB was essentially England, a team ranked below Canada in the rankings at the time. Suddenly, Canada only needs to get past a team it had traditionally handled to guarantee themselves a medal game (England beat Canada 1-0 on Sunday).

To their credit they played their most complete game of the tournament against the hosts.

What followed was the game everyone remembers. The Canada vs. USA game was exciting and intense and featured one of the best single performances of the Games (all of them, not just the soccer tournament) by Christine Sinclair. Her hat-trick almost allowed Canada to pull off a major upset.

But they didn’t. Canada lost that game. They did so by allowing the Americans to come back three times and to score at the death. Yes, there was a strange referee call that went against them, but it is foolish to say Canada lost because of the call. They lost because the US is better and even when they got the best performance of Sinclair’s career they still couldn’t win.

Canada was spirited and fought hard. It was everything Canadians love. For those old enough to remember classic Canada vs. Soviet Union hockey battles — when the Red Menace would pepper 50 shots at a dazed, but hard working, Canadian team who gamely held on — the narrative was familiar.

Canadians have always embraced hard work over skill. And the women gave us just that against the Americans.

But they lost. Again.

It’s been a decade since Canada beat their rivals. That semifinal may have been their best chance for a while to do so again.

As for the bronze medal game against France it was terribly one sided. Most understand that France wins it 99 out of 100 times it’s played, likely going away. But football is a funny game and on that day Canada had its moment. (Canada scored again in stoppage time last week to draw France).

It was a fun ride, but, objectively, a mediocre performance. Canada finished third. They were far from the third best team.

And the golden generation will be three years older by the time the 2015 World Cup kicks off. In London, only four players on the squad were younger than 25. The core of the team, including Sinclair, will mostly be on the wrong side of 30 by the time the World Cup starts.

But the biggest concern is the lack of players challenging them from below. With last year’s U-20s crashing out at the group stage, Canada has gone two straight U-20 cycles finishing outside of the world’s Top 8. Outside of Jonelle Filigno, and, perhaps, Kadeisha Buchanan, there does not appear to be a single breakout player from the 1990 class or younger.

The world is catching up. According to Ault hosting the World Cup may have come too late for Canada – the window of opportunity for winning a World Cup having been self-sabotaged by a soccer system that is obsessed with participation rates and has constantly failed its elite players.

When Canadian teams go to World Cups you never hear them talk about winning. Rather, you hear about making it out of the group stage. Ault is frustrated by that lack of self-belief.

The raw talent is there, Ault says. The winning attitude is not.

“There is no excuse for the women’s teams not to want to win tournaments,” he said. “We should have been in top 2-3 in world throughout the last decade.”

The biggest problems can’t be fixed in time for 2015. There, Ault sees a Top 8 finish for Canada, but unless something significant changes between then and now anything more is an unrealistic expectation.

Canada’s best hope lies in John Herdman, Ault says.

“He’s installed a balance and belief and I think he can get more out of that. He needs to get even more out of them if we are to be successful in 2015.

“I’m afraid we’ll lose him.”

Ault says he is concerned that a lack of progress on the development and player identification system in Canada will cause it to lose a young talent like Herdman, who may flee for a country that will give him more resources.

If that happens it would be a continuation of a trend that has held back the game for generations. Nothing frustrates Ault more than watching players and coaches leave the country for opportunities elsewhere – opportunities that should be available here, but simply are not.

“If you’re an American that wants to get into coaching there is an easily identifiable pathway you can follow – a progression to the highest level,” he said.

“Canada still often relies on volunteer coaches”

However, there could be an opportunity. Although the technical staff associated with the senior women need to view the bronze medal with sober detachment, the rest of the country does not and will not.

A 14-year-old sitting at home watching the Olympics does not much care about the systemic issues facing Canadian soccer. She only cares that Diana Matheson is her favorite player.

Ault says the CSA needs to take advantage of the opportunity London has provided before the moment has passed.

Focusing on the U-17 team, Ault suggests that tryout camps should be held across the country in every major city. Finding players – and not losing them to other systems – has always been the single biggest failing of the Canadian soccer. For once women’s soccer has Canada’s attention. It’s imperative they take advantage.

“(Players) would be lined up around the block (to try out),” Ault said. “There is talent out there. There is another star we just have to find her.

“For the first time young Canadian girls are dreaming of playing for the national team.”

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