HOUSTON — Canada leaves Houston with some questions and regrets but also a lot of positives after finishing runner-up to the U.S. at the CONCACAF Women's Olympic Qualifying Championship.
In the wake of last summer's World Cup, coach John Herdman identified a need for a left centre-back and additional pace and creativity on the wings and up front.
By infusing young talent into his squad, he has deepened his roster and helped address those issues. But youth needs time to blossom and when push came to shove in the Olympic qualification semifinal against Costa Rica, he started nine World Cup veterans plus Shelina Zadorsky and 16-year-old Deanne Rose.
Canada has added the enthusiasm and energy of youth to a roster rich with experience. But it still has only a few game-changers and suffers when they are not at 100 per cent.
The Americans can roll out one star after another from the bench every game.
Canada tried that Sunday, introducing an ailing Christine Sinclair plus fellow veterans Sophie Schmidt and Diana Matheson in the second half. But, much to Herdman's regret, the U.S. scored twice before all three got on.
Sinclair, playing with a calf injury, was — as usual — inspirational. Dragging herself around the field on one leg in the semifinal, she scored a pair of glorious goals and gave her all. She submitted to an injection to be able to play 30 minutes in the final.
"Look, she's a machine," said an appreciative Herdman. "There's a slogan 'All for the anthem' in the team and she just epitomizes that."
Erin McLeod, the best goalkeeper in the world according to Herdman, is also sorely missed when she is not out there.
On the plus side, Zadorsky appears to tick the box at centre back next to Kadeisha Buchanan, a world-class defender already at the age of 20. Poised on and off the field, the 23-year-old Zadorsky has playing experience in Europe and is headed to the Washington Spirit of the NWSL.
"That's the future ... These girls are doing really well together," said Herdman.
The two do appear to be developing some good chemistry. But if they needed to get a glance at a world-class pairing, they just needed to look down the field Sunday at Becky Sauerbrunn and Julie Johnston.
The American centre backs were rock-solid defensively. And they are so comfortable on the ball, their fullbacks can desert them to race down the flanks and help turn up the heat on the opposition. They can also launch attacks, with Sauerbrunn's pinpoint ball setting up the first goal.
Rose, 21-year-old Nichelle Prince and 17-year-old Gabrielle Carle offer physicality and pace to an attack already well-stocked with experience and guile in the form of Sinclair and Matheson and brawn and power with Melissa Tancredi. Janine Beckie, a 21-year-old first-round NWSL draft choice, showed some glorious touches on the ball and 20-year-old Rebecca Quinn looked comfortable in midfield.
Herdman saw 11 different players score a total of 24 goals in five games. Admittedly it was against lesser opposition in some cases, but the Americans faced the same level and had nine players score 23 goals.
The visible disappointment of losing to the best team in the world is a measure of how far this Canadian team has come and how much further it believes it can go. The Canadian players wasted little time taking off their runner's-up medals — Herdman gave his away.
Herdman talked several times of watching "the alchemy" of the senior players and youth blending. It takes time but the squad already appears to have a comfortable feel, with the veterans taking an inclusive approach to the newcomers.
Veteran fullback Rhian Wlkinson conceded that the squad had been dealing with the pressure of a World Cup at home.
"Looking back, we didn't handle it properly," Wilkinson said. "It's hard to know how or why, but you can feel the vibe on the team has changed now."
The Algarve Cup, set for March 2-9 in Portugal, is next for Canada. Herdman says his final roster for Rio will likely be "very similar" to the one used in qualification.
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Neil Davidson, The Canadian Press