It has been a long and often tough road to this summer's World Cup for the Canadian Women's National Team as they looked to rebuild their approach to the game and inject fresh blood into a squad that had been allowed to go stagnant prior to the 2012 Olympics.
It would have been easy for John Herdman, his staff, and his players to look at the bronze medal that they brought home from London and think that they were on the right track to do well when they hosted the World Cup three years later. It also would have been disastrous for the squad to have been allowed to continue in the direction that it was heading. Relying on an aging golden generation, superior physical ability, and the World class ability of Christine Sinclair was not going to get the job done in Canada 2015 and Herdman knew that.
The work that Herdman has done in the time since London 2012 has been nothing short of impressive. He has brought life back to a youth system that has spent years being neglected and more importantly he has scoured the talent pool to find players who could potentially contribute to his squad. By bringing in that fresh blood he has increased the depth at his disposal and replaced some of those key players who were already growing old in 2012.
It has not been an easy road to take for the CanWNT as they really struggled to get results while trying to learn how to play their new style that relied on much more possession and a more steady buildup. With Sinclair shifting roles and no one really stepping up to prove they could be a consistent secondary scorer for this team they often struggled to score goals in 2013 and 2014. Through it all though they stuck to the plan and Herdman continued to instill his new tactics while working in many young players.
The changes have not all paid off for the team heading in to the World Cup but they are in a better place than they were in 2011 when they crashed out of the World Cup in Germany with barely more than a whimper. They now come in to this World Cup with an outside chance of winning the whole thing despite not being considered among the real favourites by most observers.
Canada has plenty of talent on their roster and one of the best players in the World but they are still hard pressed to match the ability of countries like Germany, France, the United States, and even Japan. If those four are the favourites for this months event Canada would be in the second group of countries that might just spring an upset or two and find themselves reaching the closing stages of the event.
The Canadian women also have one other major factor on their side in this event and that is the home crowd. All three of their group stage games are expected to be played in front of very large crowds. Those crowds will almost certainly be very heavily pro-Canadian and that should continue in to the knockout stages for as long as Canada can keep going.
We break down some of the story-lines that will have a big say in just how Canada does in this event.
Can Christine Sinclair still carry this team?
There was a time not that long ago that Sinclair might just have been the best female player on the planet. She was scoring goals with little support and often doing it against two or three defenders. All Canada needed to do was get the ball near Sincy and let her take care of the rest. It was an approach that worked for a time but has not been as successful in recent years. Make no mistake, Sinclair is still one of the best players in the World but she has not been a dominant force in recent years. If she can get back to being the sort of player that can change any game with a single moment of brilliance it might be enough to lead Canada to the upset or two they will need to make a deep run in this tournament.
Herdman has searched high and low for new ways to get the most out of Sinclair's incredible skill set but nothing has really worked out. Playing her in a deeper role to get her on the ball more often and allow her to create for her teammates was a great idea on paper but never really paid off for the team as Canada continues to struggle to find that much needed secondary scoring threat. Sinclair is back to leading the line and we are still unsure who is going to help her carry the scoring load.
Will Scott and Schmidt be able to control the midfield?
With a more possession based approach firmly in place for Canada their ability to control the ball and dictate the tempo is going to be very important. The duo of Desiree Scott and Sophie Schmidt are the engine that make this Canada team go these days and their ability to control games is going to be crucial to how Canada does in this event. They need to be winning the ball back and them deciding when to push the tempo and when to wait for support. At 27 and 26 respectively the duo are really reaching their peaks and this event could be a real coming out for the midfield duo.
Canada will likely play three tightly contested matches in their group stage games against New Zealand, China, and the Netherlands so it will be important for them to make the most of each possession. That will begin with Scott and Schmidt who will be asked to provide cover for the defenders before getting the ball up to Sinclair and the other attackers. The duo may not get the headlines leading up to this event but they are without a doubt going to be absolutely vital to any success that Canada has.
Can Matheson win her race for fitness?
The good news for Canada is that Lauren Sesselmann has made her way back from injury and is ready to go for the opening game. The same cannot be said for the other major injury concern on the squad as Diana Matheson looks very unlikely to win her race for fitness. She is recovering from a knee injury and a broken foot and it looks like the attacking midfielder will be sidelined for at least the group stage.
Herdman does still have time to replace Matheson on his roster if it becomes clear that she is not going to be able to contribute at any point in this event and for her part the midfielder has said that she will step aside if that is what is best for the team. The issue here is that there is no one waiting in the wings that can come in to the team and help fill that void. Herdman will have to decide is the potential of a less than 100% Matheson playing in the knockout rounds is better than whomever else he might decide to call in to replace her.
With Matheson unlikely to be available for at least the first few games it could set the stage for Jessie Fleming to have a major impact on this event. The teenage sensation might just be the next best attacking midfielder that Herdman has to work with given her very good vision and passing ability. If Herdman is not ready to hand the spot over to a teenager he could also look to push Schmidt further forward and have Kaylyn Kyle come in and partner Scott in the middle.
How will the less experienced parts of Canada's defence hold up?
While the average number of caps in this Canada squad is over 70 there are going to be a few relatively inexperienced players getting the chance to contribute in vital roles. On the backend we could see Herdman turn to a pair of defenders without much experience and their play will be crucial to Canada's success.
The good news is that both Kadeshia Buchanan and Allysha Chapman have been impressing since getting the chance to play at the senior level. Buchanan has proven on a number of occasions that there is no forward in the women's game that she cannot shut down. Already in her young career she has silenced the likes of Abby Wambach for 90 minutes and could be on her way to developing in to one of the top defenders in the game before she reaches her peak.
Chapman has made the leftback spot her own in recent games including a very impressive performance against England in Canada's final tuneup match. Her play not only strengthens Canada on the left side but also in the middle as it means Sesselmann gets to partner Buchanan at CB.
The duo have little experience on such a big stage so hopefully they are up to the task of performing in front of the home fans. What we have seen from them thus far in their international careers suggests that they will be able to get the job done.
Where will that secondary scoring come from?
It has been years since Canada has really had a consistent scoring threat in the team outside of Sinclair. That remains the case heading in to this World Cup and it may mean that Canada is forced to settle for scoring by committee. That is not the worst case scenario but if someone can step up and provide a consistent secondary threat it would be a massive boost for this team.
Adriana Leon, Melissa Tancredi, Josée Bélanger, and Jonelle Filigno will all gets minutes in the attack alongside Sinclair so if one of them can find their form in this event and really make that secondary striker position their own it would take a lot of the pressure off of Sinclair to carry the scoring load.
Tancredi has the longest history of scoring at the top level and was the first choice partner for Sinclair for a number of years but she has not been the same player since taking time off to work on her chiropractic degree. There would be no better time than the next couple of weeks for her to shake off that rust and recover her old form.
The case for Canada winning the 2015 Women's World Cup:
Canada has plenty of talent, the home crowd behind them, and a group that is very winnable for them. If they do top their group the road to the later rounds should be a fairly straight forward one as long as they avoid a tricky opponent coming out of Group D in third place (USA, Sweden, Australia, and Nigeria). A potential quarterfinal against England or Norway would be very winnable for this team should the other groups go as expected. Add in Brazil or Japan in the semifinals and Canada should be in with a chance to pulling off the upset. Then once you are in the final with a massive home crowd anything is possible. It would take some luck but by winning their group the Canada's should give themselves a solid chance of making a deep run.
To win their group they will need to see off three tricky opponents that are all capable of hanging around with Canada in Canada. Finding that little bit of extra quality to put themselves over the top and the home crowd may just be enough to push them towards that.
The case for why Canada won't be winning the 2015 Women's World Cup
Some of the most important players on this Canadian roster are probably a few years removed from being at their very best. They have plenty of experience under their belts but the likes of Sinclair also have plenty of miles on their tires. This is a Canada team that has struggled to get results against the likes of China and Mexico this year, he been shutout by England and France, and have generally had a hard time finding goals.
Canada are not on the same level as the elite teams heading in to this event and at some point they are going to run up against one of those better teams. Even if Canada can avoid the top nations until the semifinal stage that would leave them a potential date against Japan followed by a final against the likes of Germany, France, or the United States assuming they all manage to top their groups. That is in the ideal scenario and it is still a tough route to the trophy so if Canada slips up and finishes second in their group the road gets just that much tougher as second place in Group A could put them in the same side of the knockout bracket as France, Germany, and the US. That would be a nearly impossible gauntlet for the Canadians to navigate.
Home field advantage can only make up for so much and this Canada team is just too far behind the top teams in the World to expect them to beat 2 or 3 of them in this event.