Friday, May 09, 2014

Canada 1 - USA 1: Notes

Last night's duel between Canada and the United States at the nearly-new Investors Group Field in Winnipeg was one of those things where the whole is greater than the sum of its parts. The match was at times sloppy, the turf bounces led to scuffed clearances and sloppy play, and the crowd took some time to warm up to the game.

Yet there was so much on offer that, on walking out of the stadium, it was hard not to feel encouraged. Veterans like Sinclair, Schmidt, and particularly Matheson showed their quality on a field that was particularly tough on midfielders. Tancredi showed enough after a long layoff to suggest she still might have something to offer when the Women's World Cup comes around next summer. And Erin McLeod was solid without having to be spectacular.

A STAR IS BORN

But it was the youth on display that was truly most impressive. I have to admit to not having followed this team closely since the Olympics. I was aware of Sura Yekka and Kadeisha Buchanan (though I had to look up how to spell both first names) as young players, but not how young (16 and 18), nor how good. And Rebecca Quinn was a complete unknown to me, but after finding out after the game she is another 18-year old it is easier to excuse her unfortunate failed clearing header that gave Leroux the opportunity to profit from a ball-watching Rhiann Wilkinson to score her goal, especially as this was one of only a few misplays from Canada's #3 on the night.

All 3 were impressive. Yekka and Quinn were impressive for not looking at all out of place as teenagers playing against the world's best team. Kadeisha Buchanan was on a whole other level. Not just "stalwart defending against some tough forwards" but "the clear best player on the pitch even though two of those players on the pitch are among the 5 or 10 best players ever". I tweeted the following at halftime, and thought I might be forgiven for getting a bit carried away seeing as I was at the game:
My viewing of the game, though, was confirmed by other enthusiastic reactions in my section among friends whose knowledge of soccer ranged from the non-existent to the quite informed. Then this, from some people better placed to make objective judgments, and not normally given to hyperbole.
And my favourite:
The easiest moments to appreciate were those where she showed off her absolute fearlessness, a strong but wiry teenager going into crunching challenges against a much bigger opponent. Wambach was reduced to (or perhaps played to type by) complaining regularly to the (mostly decent) referee until she was mercifully subbed off. Her goal was pure athleticism, climbing above everyone and through Ali Krieger to get onto the Matheson corner, and her unbridled joy after scoring was clear even from the upper decks. A telling moment was when the referee gave her the universal "cut it out" signal on a scything tackle on Wambach in the first half, despite not even calling a foul. There is no loftier stamp of approval than that which I tweet-bestowed upon her after the game:
But it was the many more subtle moments that promised the most for the future. Her composure on the ball, refusing to hoof it aimlessly forward, often waiting for Schmidt, Scott, or Matheson to show for the ball out of midfield. Or her Bobby Orr foray late to create a scoring chance, and her mad sprint to get back in position after.

She (and Quinn and Yekka) will surely be players in this summer's U20s, and that will be awesome.

YOU BE YOU, WINNIPEG

Winnipeg can be a city that is easy to hate, and in fact that seems to be a chief pastime of a good portion of its residents. But the city, and the fans that turned out, showed off their good side last night.

Start with the crowd. Early ticket sales were brisk, and despite cool weather and a forecast of rain that (thankfully) never materialized, the announced figure of just over 28,000 seemed about right. The crowd was late-arriving (a 7 pm weekday start at a stadium that can be tricky to get to is problematic) but the lower bowl was full everywhere except the ends and the second level packed save for the corners.

And the stadium. Ask anybody from Winnipeg about the Bombers' new park and you'll hear all the stories about flooding and cost overruns and half-completed jobs, and there was one corner (not visible from TV) where about 20 sheets of siding were missing, but didn't it look just right kitted out for soccer? The ball bounced and skidded to the point that it probably affected the both teams' game plans, but the more physical game on display was probably better-suited to this particular set of fans.

View from my seats, prior to kickoff
The atmosphere, too, was very Winnipeg. This was not a soccer crowd of the type TFC or Whitecaps or Impact fans might be used to. The makeup had more in common with a Canada Day celebration or Paul McCartney concert, with the addition of the requisite youth soccer teams, than the normal booze-fueled gatherings at other pro games in other sports. And they didn't seem quite sure what to do at first, not showing much enthusiasm until, almost disturbingly to me at the time, a couple rounds of the wave (the Mexican wave!) set them off.

But from then on, and especially after the goal, they were into it. Not being a sophisticated crowd, they went full Winnipeg. These were the things they loved:

  • Buchanan's goal
  • Buchanan destroying Wambach
  • Desiree Scott
  • Slide tackles
  • Desiree Scott slide tackles
  • A sequence of back-to-back Desiree Scott slide tackles
  • Every call that went against the USA
  • Winning throw-ins
  • Excellent saves by McLeod
  • Routine goalkeeping from McLeod (Winnipeg sports fans are not accustomed to competent goalkeeping)
Here's what they hated:
  • Americans (Wambach) going down on the pitch legitimately (occasionally) or cynically (most of the time)
  • Every call that went against Canada
  • Sydney Leroux's goal
  • The assistant referee's attempt to put on a remake of the Olympic semifinal with another insane decision against McLeod
The Voyageurs section, of which I sadly was not a part, deserves credit for getting its corner of the stadium going, keeping the chants basic, and seemingly tripling in size between the first and second half.


The Vs section, during halftime (next to the CFL shot clock). I can only assume everyone was away buying beer.
This was a home crowd in every sense, fully biased, not willing to let the facts (the ref making a perfectly reasonable call on one of Canada's several hard fouls against the Americans, for example) stand in the way of their blind passion. And despite not being in full voice for the full match, it was awesome.

This was a fun night. Sure, Sinclair sometimes seemed to have lost a step, there were wayward passes, Leroux scored and once again acted like somebody who hasn't been there before, the pitch was bad. But the game was full of drama, the crowd was free of U-S-A chants (Winnipeg's geographic isolation works in our favour in this instance) and there were signs that Canada does have a Next Generation that is nearly ready.

After watching Hanson Boakai and the Eddies on Wednesday and the women last night, it is hard not to come away encouraged about Canadian soccer. We all know this is a dangerous thing.

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