In the lead up to the London Games, Canadian women's head coach John Herdman peppered his press conferences with the word 'expectations.'
Careful to choose his words, so as to not come across as defeatist, Herdman repeatedly told the media that Canada needed to be cautious with where it thought they should finish - stressing how much the women's game has grown and that a number seven ranking in the world isn't what it used to be.
In the modern game, where promises of five-year plans are the norm, it isn't uncommon to hear a coach use such phrasing. It's usually done in the context of them protecting their jobs and persuading a fickle, demanding media to be gentle with its latest whipping boy. But in Herdman's case, with his job future secure, his intent is clearly not to protect himself but his players. And that has everything to do with their confidence and creating an underdog mentality in his team.
In Canada's 3-0 win over South Africa on Saturday there was a 30 minute stretch where things got very hairy for the ladies in red. It shouldn't have. By all rights the Bayana Bayana
team, with its world ranking of 61, had no business competing against this first world soccer squad.
But Canada is a team that has typically played to the level of its competition and on this day they looked every bit ready to allow South Africa back into the game as they clung to a shaky 1-0 lead.Injuries hamper Canadian defence
In part, that can be attributed to a depleted centreback role. With Emily Zurrer fighting a hamstring injury and Candice Chapman now day-to-day with a sore calf, Robin Gayle and Carmelina Moscato are being asked to play out of position. Gayle particularly struggled with the assignment, misplaying the ball on several occasions, including a brain fart on the six-yard-box that very nearly cost them a goal.
But, after seemingly not touching the ball for long spells, including several threatening balls played into the box that were not dealt with, something unexpected happened. They didn't succumb to the pressure. You have to be careful to not draw too much from this, as mentioned Canada is in another class of soccer, but those that are going to spend today ridiculing the squad for not doing away with the competition sooner, will have missed the point.
Say what you will about how Canada wasn't clinical, or how they didn't go for the jugular early on when they had South Africa pinned deep in their own end - those things are true. But consider for a second, regardless of the level of the ability of South Africa, that on this day they legitimately tested Canada's mental toughness.
For Canada to have been the heavy favourites and find a way to put down South Africa Saturday, isn't that different from the situation they found themselves a year ago - being favoured to beat the French at last year's World Cup. In that game, they buckled under the pressure and had their World Cup dreams dashed. Make no mistake, the ability of those two opponents is miles apart, but between Canada's ears, with the pressure each situation brought, those two games aren't that different.
Confidence gained for 'underdog' role
In this one, Canada responded to those nervous moments and showed that they are able to put away a squad that they should beat. It will give them a little confidence heading into Tuesday when they face Sweden in what, likely, amounts to another must-win game.
Sweden is brimming with a confidence of its own, as they took on the world champions Japan earlier in the day and earned themselves a nil-nil draw. The two now share their group's leader position on four points, with Canada a smidge back at three.
After Saturday's result, Herdman once again brushed off the win and downplayed expectations for this team. As he should ahead of Sweden, who will be the favourites heading into Tuesday. That would make Canada the underdog. And that would place Herdman, his squad and their mentality, exactly where they want to be.
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