EDMONTON — Canada headed east Friday, celebrating captain Christine Sinclair’s 32nd birthday along the way.
The Canadians (1-0-1) wrap up pool play at the Women’s World Cup on Monday in Montreal against the Netherlands (1-1-0), knowing victory at Olympic Stadium will leave them atop Group A with a more benign road in the knockout rounds.
But, after a 1-0 win over China and 0-0 draw with New Zealand, they leave behind warning signs in Edmonton in the form of a misfiring offence and an at-times wobbly defence.
Progress to the second round is not a concern at an expanded tournament where 16 teams advance. But the road that awaits them in the knockout stages is.
A win over the 12th-ranked Dutch means less travel and avoiding other group winners until deeper in the tournament. The scenarios get more complex and difficult with a second- or third-place finish.
The New Zealand draw, coupled with China’s 1-0 win over the Netherlands, tightened up Group A. Canada leads with four points, the Chinese and the Dutch both have three and New Zealand is on one.
Coach John Herdman had hoped to rotate his eighth-ranked squad in Montreal, saving some of his bullets for later. That’s not going to happen now.
“We’re still in the driving seat to finish top of the group, and that’s our goal,” he said after the New Zealand match. “It just means going into the Netherlands, we’ve still got to stay in fifth gear. It would have been nice if we could have dropped down to fourth (gear) in that game. But Canada seems to do it the hard way, that’s how we roll.
“So we’re rolling into this game with a mindset of finish top of the group. A point might do that for us, three points will guarantee it.”
Added Sinclair: “Top of the group after two games. We can’t have too many complaints.”
After opening with a 1-0 win over New Zealand, the debutante Dutch looked poor against China. Overrun in midfield, they were going backwards most of the game.
But they have quality and pace up front and were dangerous on the counter-attack. That will be a concern given some defensive frailties shown by Canada.
Herdman acknowledged he almost pulled off centre back Lauren Sesselmann after an erratic period in the China game. He did substitute Sesselmann, who is coming back from knee surgery, in the 68th minute against New Zealand but said after the game it was a planned move.
Fellow centre back Kadeisha Buchanan, a star in the making, had far more good moments than bad but had one costly giveaway Thursday that led to a scoring chance.
Fullback Allysha Chapman conceded a penalty, although the crossbar saved her blushes.
At the other end, Canada’s inability to finish continues to worry. Herdman himself estimated his team had six “gilt-edged” chances against New Zealand, which got a player-of-the-match performance from ‘keeper Erin Nayler.
“I’m not going to protect the team but the stats don’t lie,” Herdman said after reciting a list of statistics that read in Canada’s favour.
“That was decent performance from Canada. Don’t underestimate the opposition in our group.”
If expectations were raised going into the New Zealand game, Herdman need only to look into the mirror to see who’s to blame.
He said Canada was the better team before dissecting the New Zealand attack in almost cocky fashion.
Canada talked the talk but failed to walk the walk against the 17th-ranked Kiwis. Herdman is a charismatic, talented coach but one who perhaps might be well served to dial down the rhetoric until his team’s resume rises to the occasion.
Then again, he can’t score goals himself. He mentioned the need to find the back of the net six times during his nine-minute post-match news conference Thursday.
Four goals in the last seven games is worrying, even if the team went 4-2-1 during that stretch.
Herdman offered more crosses and releasing the fullbacks — Canada held one of its fullbacks back initially to help control New Zealand striker Hannah Wilkinson — as ways to spark the attack, although neither address the issue of poor finishing.
Inserting teenage midfielder Jessie Fleming and pacey forward Adriana Leon into the starting lineup may also add offence.
As for the defensive wobbles, Herdman acknowledged that better teams will punish such miscues.
Canada’s tournament journey is far from over. A win Monday and the Herdman bravado will be restored to full lustre. But improvement is needed.
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Neil Davidson, The Canadian Press