Life forever changed for the players after they dropped a heartbreaking decision to the Americans in the Olympic semifinals last summer before bouncing back to win bronze. Now the players are so well known they can't sip a drink at a Toronto coffee shop without being recognized, said captain Christine Sinclair.
If their newfound fame hadn't sunk in before, it certainly has since they landed in the city for Sunday's not-so-friendly rematch against archrival and world No. 1-ranked U.S. at BMO Field.
"Absolutely, this would have never happened before the Olympics," Sinclair said after Thursday night's open practice. "Being here in Toronto, we walk down the street ... you can't even go to Starbucks without people recognizing you. So life has changed for a lot of us. It's still shocking. It's our first time back home (as a team) since the Olympics, and it is surprising. We've never experienced this in Canada before."
The women have been in Toronto all week preparing for Sunday's sold-out grudge match at BMO Field, normally home to Toronto FC. It's the first time the North American rivals have met since the Americans defeated No. 7 Canada 4-3 after extra time in the nailbiting semifinal that made the players instant heroes back home.
Several hundred fans turned up for Thursday's open practice at BMO Field. A few dozen breathless young girls clad in soccer jerseys showed up early to await the arrival of the team bus.
Goalkeeper Erin McLeod — who could moonlight as a lounge singer — serenaded the crowd with O Canada. The players grabbed markers and lined the railing to sign autographs.
"It's our first game since the Olympics, it's in Canada, Toronto in front of a sold-out crowd ... man, you've just seen tonight what these girls mean to this country," said Canadian coach John Herdman. "If this energy doesn't drive you to find another level of performance, I don't know what will."
The practice opened with video footage on the giant screen of Canada's bronze-medal Olympic run. Watching it still brings tears to the eyes of the players and coaching staff, Herdman said.
Sinclair recorded a hat trick in a semifinal game that turned on a controversial free kick awarded to the Americans in front of Canada's net. The referee whistled for the free kick claiming McLeod took too long to put the ball back into play.
Canada went on to beat France for the bronze, capturing the country's first Olympic medal in a traditional team sport since 1936.
"Man, it just seems like yesterday. We get reminded about it every time we bump into people in airports. It's unreal," Herdman said. "The emotion was very raw when we came back into camp, and it hurts, it still hurts a bit. But those moments, those decisions, that game connected the country."
The game in front of a jam-packed pro-Canadian BMO Field crowd will be new to a group of players not completely accustomed to that kind of support. On Friday morning, a mixed crowd of business types and young soccer fans showed up for an autograph session in Toronto's financial district.
"When we go play internationally, when we go play in the Olympics, you maybe have a couple hundred Canadians turning up, we didn't see any of this," said Herdman. "Turning up on Sunday, it will be interesting to see how we cope. It will be a great learning experience (for the 2015 women's World Cup in Canada). And a helluva test."
Prior to the London Olympics, Canada-vs.-the U.S. was what Herdman called a "quiet rivalry."
"Normally everyone would have said, 'Canada are the underdogs against the U.S.,'" Herdman said. "Well on paper, 50 odd games and 45 losses, five wins, three draws — we are the underdogs. But there's something about what happened at the Olympics, it makes it seem a lot closer. So we'll use that and we'll use whatever the fans give us to push us over the line (Sunday)."
Still, despite the narrow loss in London, the Americans are still "unbelievable," the coach said.
"They average three goals a game against us, we've had three wins in 20-odd years, they're unbeaten in 35 games, and they keep going and going and going," Herdman said. "Post-Olympics, we went from 'Canada might' to 'Canada can.' What the Americans bring is: 'U.S.A will.'"
Diana Matheson scored in extra time to lift Canada over France and onto the podium in the bronze-medal game. The Oakville, Ont., native is keen for another shot at the Americans in a friendly she says is "not that friendly."
"It's always a big game for us," Matheson said. "Playing the best team in the world is obviously a huge challenge, it's going to be a good measuring stick for us. But the most important thing for me is putting on a performance for the fans to thank them for the Olympics."
Herdman said different players will have different responses to Sunday's crowd — "some will fly and some will sink a little bit."
To help them play under the pressure that comes with lofty expectations, the women have been working with sports psychologist Kimberly Amirault, the performance consultant for the Edmonton Oilers. Amirault has also worked with the New York Rangers, Columbus Blue Jackets and New York Knicks, and is the lead sports psychologist for Canada's Olympic team at the 2014 Sochi Games.
"The expectations Canada has now of this team, they've turned them up from just normal people, they see them as their heroes," Herdman said. "(The players) are not used to that. You can imagine holding that on their shoulder, stepping out here this weekend ... it's new."