Canada winning the bronze medal today was a fitting end to what was a very impressive Olympic journey. The road to this medal started long before the team arrived in London and will not come to an end with today's final whistle. For Canada winning this bronze medal began with the hiring of John Herdman who proved that he had what was needed to pick up the pieces following last year's World Cup failures. He transformed a group of players who were low on confidence and hurting into a team capable of going toe-to-toe with anyone in the world and actually recovering from what would have been knock out blows in the past.
The team that won 1-0 today against France is basically night and day from the team that was left searching for answers after France bounced them from the World Cup. They were a team that had to be psychologically and physically rebuilt and that is just what Herdman did. It showed back in January when the team finished second in CONCACAF Qualifying but the fact that there was still some ways to go was also on display. At BC Place Canada was quite easily run off the field by the US team, proving that they were still not among the top teams in the world and should not be viewed as favourites for a medal come London 2012. They also suffered another loss to this same French team in the final of the Cyprus Cup in March by a 2-0 scoreline.
They came into the Olympics with much lower expectations then they did the last World Cup. Maybe that was a good thing for Canada as for most people anything more than getting out of the group stage would have been considered to be a success. This time though, they went ahead and blew the expectations out of the water.It was not the best start with the defeat to Japan but they regrouped and got a key win over South Africa. That one win was basically enough to ensure they got into the quarter final round as a best placed third place team but it was certainly a key boost for confidence when they battled back from two goals down to earn a draw with Sweden in the final group match.
From the time that Tancredi scored Canada's first goal against Sweden in the 43rd minute until the final whistle of the bronze medal game we saw a completely different side. It was a side with heart to spare and the performances to match. They stunned the hosts in the quarterfinals with an all-around performance that saw them score two early goals and then hold off the British pressure for basically the final hour. In the past, Canada would often buckle under that sort of extended pressure and see the game slip away from them but something was different this time.
Then it was a semifinal date against the Americans that despite Canada coming out on the wrong end of a 4-3 result draw the attention of media and fans all over the country. They were able to trade blows with the best women's soccer team in the world and put 3 goals past a team that hardly ever concedes. If not for bad reffing Canada could have won that game but more impressively they did not let the reffing or the defeat phase them for long.
It was a quick regroup and then getting ready to try and compete with France for the bronze. Canada spent much of the second half on the back foot after a fairly even first half but they continued to turn away the pressure from the French. They came close a number of times with shots hitting the post, the cross bar, and being cleared off the line but Canada never cracked under the pressure. When Canada got an attacking free kick late in the game they could have just wasted time to try and regroup before extra time but instead they pushed on and found a winner on their only shot on goal during the game.
It was a different Canada that we saw these past few weeks but now we need that to be the new normal. The group of ladies should be treated like heroes in this country because they are the best group of role models the next generation of soccer players in this country can ask for. It is on the Canadian Soccer Association now to make sure they are put into positions to do so. Get them out speaking to young players, doing interviews all over the media, and playing games on home soil whenever possible. The CSA is celebrating their 100th year but now they have something even bigger to celebrate.
This cannot be the end of the improvement though. It would be a shame for this game to be nothing more than a moment in the sun before returning back to the shadows of a 2nd class sport in the country. When Canada won the Gold Cup back in 2000 it was quickly forgotten outside of the more dedicated soccer communities and that is something that cannot happen again. With hosting the Women's World Cup in 2015 in mind this team needs to be given every chance to ride this wave of popularity and success.
While the players and fans are celebrating there is also a need for Herdman and his technical staff to turn their attentions to the Women's U20 World Cup which is set to take place in Japan later this month. Canada kicks off their first game of that tournament on the 20th but they have already assembled and will be training in Japan until then. Hopefully those young ladies are inspired to greatness by what they saw today and can work towards providing the next key generation of Canadian talent. Much of the current generation of stars put their names on the map at the same event when Canada hosted it in 2002 and now would be the perfect time for some fresh blood to make the jump to the international level.
It will be up to Herdman and his staff to find a way to inject new blood into the team over the coming years as without it Canada would almost certainly have the oldest squad come 2015. You do not simple replace players of the quality that Canada has right now but in recent years there has not been enough young talent given a chance and that needs to change to ensure the future of the program to 2015 and well beyond.
This bronze medal goes to show that Canada has come a long way in basically a year but it should not mask the fact that there is now a lot of work to do to ensure this is not just a one off. If Canada wants to cement themselves among the top teams in the world then riding the wave of momentum created today will have a crucial role.