There can be no excuses made for the Canadian under-20 women's soccer team.
Not because it dominated or was playing a lesser opponent. Not because it was favoured and should have won heavily. Canada's 2-1 loss to Norway at the U-20 Women's World Cup was always going to be a difficult affair. Both sides were capable of getting a result and both sides needed it.
The reason there shouldn't be excuses made is because Canadian women's soccer is beyond that now. The program's coaches, staff and players all admit it -- they need to consistently beat the best teams in the world to be considered a top-tier program. They've said repeatedly that they want that. Anything less is accepting mediocrity.
And that's what the Canadians were for most of Thursday's game. Mediocre.
That's not to say they didn't have their flashes. Christabel Oduro was a beast up and down the left wing. But by and large, their finishing, their fitness and their back four let them down.
While it was flush with goals in the first game against Argentina, Canada came up short against Norway, despite numerous first-half opportunities. Jenna Richardson, who was the 'It Girl' coming into the tournament, a known commodity who was expected to carry the bulk of the scoring, had three point-blank chances in the first half, including two in the first 10 minutes that she didn't convert. She would save some pride in the closing moments of the first half, when she charged in behind the Norwegian defence and calmly slipped the ball into the back of the net. That play in itself showed what Richardson is capable of -- reading the play and finishing with form - but Canada would rue those three missed chances in what was a decidedly tight affair.
The backline too, which, in the first half, looked as organized as I've seen, should not escape criticism. Led by captain Shelina Zadorsky, Canada did well to keep Norway out to the wings in the first half, allowing only minor chances. But as the Canadians continued to drop back to their own 18-yard-box to prevent against Norway's route-one attack, they failed to step forward and challenge the strikers and they were left to shoot unimpeded. It was a minor blip in a largely fine first half. But come the second half, it would cost them.
After Caroline Hansen was allowed to run through most of the Canadian backline to design Norway's first goal in the 52nd minute, she was met strongly by Canada's back four in the 79th minute. Unfortunately, with so much attention paid to Hansen, nobody noticed Andrine Hegerberg trailing the play. Once again, a Norwegian shooter was given time to pick her place and Hegerberg converted a fantastic left-footed strike into the right corner. It would turn out to be the winner.
It's the type of play that results from a squad not familiar playing with one another. But it's also a result of tired legs not tracking back. For Canada, there were many of those on the pitch by the waning moments. Yes, the altitude played a factor. Yes, the humidity in Japan did too. But if one is going to count those factors, then one needs to consider the fact that Norway doesn't exactly reside on the equator and had to deal with the exact same conditions. There were very few tired legs on the Norwegian side.
This all may seem overly harsh for a Canadian squad which is still very much in the thick of things at the World Cup. Canada currently is tied for second in Group C with Norway and the top two finishers go through to the knockout stages. However, Norway faces Argentina next and will likely feast on the beleaguered Argentines the same way Canada and Korea DPR have so far.
So barring a miracle by the South Americans, Canada needs a win against the toast of the group, Korea, on Monday (CBC, CBCSports.ca, 6 a.m. ET). Korea is fit, organized and showing it can finish. Canada will have to show the same if it is going to compete. Otherwise, it will be another early exit for the U-20s and a program that has shown real promise in the last year.
Come Monday, there can be no excuses.
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