MELBOURNE, Australia –
While the final score between Canada and Australia was anything but close, the opening goal in the lopsided 4-0 Matildas’ win showed just how tight the margins can be in world football.
Australian goalkeeper Mackenzie Arnold started the move, after skilfully corralling a hard-hit backpass from a defender under pressure from Canadian Adriana Leon, with a sweeping pass that found Caitlin Foord near midfield. She quickly sent the ball forward to Steph Catley, whose ensuing cross handcuffed centre back Vanessa Gilles and the out-of-position Canadian defence.
The ball found its way through several bodies to Hayley Raso, who beat goalkeeper Kailen Sheridan with a low shot to put Australia ahead after just nine minutes.
The offside flag went up but video review confirmed a good goal, triggering a second eruption from the partisan crowd of 27,706 at Melbourne Rectangular Stadium. FIFA technology showed Gilles’ right arm had put Catley onside when she received the ball.
Olympic champion Canada’s much-vaunted defence had been ripped apart.
The domino effect started with fullback Jayde Riviere caught upfield by Foord’s pass. Centre back Kadeisha Buchanan could not close the gap to a hard-charging Catley.
As Gilles and fullback Ashley Lawrence raced to get back into their penalty box, three Australians were in their wake. And with Gilles and Lawrence preoccupied by Catley approaching from the flank, the three attackers shifted position as if being manipulated by a chess master.
Australian Emily van Egmond headed toward goal. Mary Fowler and Raso backed away to separate themselves from defenders.
As midfielders Julia Grosso and Quinn (who goes by one name) got back, they headed toward goal to fill the breach. Van Egmond went down in contact with Grosso but Fowler and Raso were left unmarked thanks to their movement away from goal.
Buchanan could not stop the cross from being delivered. A lunging Gilles could not clear the ball and it went to Raso, who deftly shifted her feet and sent a shot through Lawrence’s legs.
Three passes. Fifteen seconds. Damage done.
The floodgates were open. After video review negated another Australia goal, the home side pulled ahead 2-0 in the 39th minute when Canada could not clear a corner, allowing Raso to pounce from close range.
The Canadians had no answer Monday for the rampant Matildas. Goals in the 58th minute by Fowler and 94th, via a Catley penalty, were two more nails in Canada’s coffin.
After the game, captain Christine Sinclair said the Canadians knew they could not concede an early goal to the tournament co-host.
“With the home fans, we knew they’d get momentum and energy from that. They scored in the (ninth) minute and we weren’t able to recover from that.”
The best version of No. 10 Australia showed up for the do-or-die Group B finale. As for seventh-ranked Canada, star midfielder Jessie Fleming put it best.
“A bad night to have a bad night,” said Fleming, fighting back tears.
In his post-match news conference Australia coach Tony Gustavsson cited his team’s maturity, clear identity, solid 90-minute performance and “in-your-face attacking football.”
Canada coach Bev Priestman, meanwhile described her team as “rattled” and lacking belief.
“We didn’t look like ourselves. At halftime I told them,’I believe. Do you believe?'”
Priestmanadded: “The group I’ve got in front of me are world-class players and can be a world-class team. We just need to believe it.”
The commitment was certainly there. The post-game pain and tears spoke volumes. But the execution didn’t.
Over the three games at the tournament, Canada completed 19 of 71 crosses and put 12 of 40 shots on target. The Canadians were outscored 5-2 with Ireland contributing an own goal.
The danger signs were there before the tournament.
Injuries kept Janine Beckie, Desiree Scott and Jade Rose from playing. Nichelle Prince, Deanne Rose and Riviere had seen little playing time due to lengthy injury absences. As a result, the Canadians seemed out of sync Down Under.
One can argue it’s a team in transition with some veterans near the end of their tenure and new blood waiting in the wings.
Canada’s bumpy off-field road to the tournament, thanks to the bitter labour dispute with Canada Soccer, has been well documented.
While Priestmanand the players refused to point the finger at Canada Soccer, the divide clearly didn’t help. But teams such as Nigeria also battled with their federation — and advanced at the tournament.
On the pitch, the Canadians played just four warm-up games in 2023, winning just one while being outscored 7-3 before a scoreless closed-door scrimmage with England in Australia before the tournament.
Since beating Australia twice in September friendlies Down Under, Canada has gone 5-5-1 and has been outscored 15-14 (with six of the Canadian goals coming in wins over Argentina and Morocco).
In contrast, Australia has won 11 of 13 matches, outscoring the opposition 33-8 with victories over Canada, England, France, Sweden and Spain.
“We know we might not have the best team on paper. We might not have the most top players in the top clubs in the top leagues,” said Gustavsson.
“But we have something else that no one can take away from this team and that’s the identity and the DNA and the belief that lives in it. And then being on home soil with the support as well from the fans, we have something unique. Which means we know we can beat anyone on any given day when we come up with our ‘A’ game.”
The early exit — the first time an Olympic champion has not made it to the World Cup knockout rounds — will not help Canada Soccer’s bottom line. While the Canadian women are beloved, sponsors love a winner more.
Attempts to restrict media access in Australia didn’t help the optics either.
Canada now looks to a two-game Olympic qualifying series next month with No. 43 Jamaica. It’s a chance at a new beginning after a shocking exit to this tournament.
“These are the moments that make you,” said Priestman. “It hurts like hell now, but we’ll learn.”
This report by The Canadian Press was first published Aug. 1, 2023.