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Canada's soccer women throwing party for their past and future

A journey that has seen the Canadian women's soccer team rise to No. 4 in the world rankings will be celebrated on Saturday (6 p.m. ET) in Vancouver prior to their friendly against Mexico.

Retirements of Tancredi, Wilkinson and Nault won’t affect team’s youth

Canada's Deanne Rose, left, and Jessie Fleming, centre, have been getting great tutelage from soccer icon Christine Sinclair (12). (Nelson Antoine/The Associated Press)

The Canadian women's national soccer team will be throwing a party in Vancouver on Saturday.

Except the guest of honour isn't Mexico — Canada's on-field opponent — but three retiring veterans: Melissa Tancredi, Rhian Wilkinson and Marie-Eve Nault.

Prior to the match (6 p.m. ET) in Vancouver, the entire squad will celebrate Canada's back-to-back Olympic bronze medals — a journey that has seen the team rise to No. 4 in the world rankings. 

And yet Saturday's festivities are as much about the team's bright future than reflecting back. The last two Olympic Games have offered encouraging signs for Canada's soccer women, who hope to reach unprecedented success in Tokyo 2020.

Feeding the passion

Wilkinson said as much when — along with Tancredi and Nault — announced her looming retirement in January.

"Our career has spanned a very unique time in women's sport," she said. "We played with the women who pioneered the game … [and] now we are teammates of women who are going to [take it] to another level."

These veterans haven't just inspired the next generation — that boat is already sailing strong — what they have done is raise the bar, according to CBC Sports soccer analyst Nigel Reed.

"If you have success you start to expect it," said Reed. "It's good that [the new] players have tasted it early in their careers as opposed to later, because now they understand the expectation and what they need to do to be competitive. It's a self-fulfilling thing."

A touch of luck

Once Tancredi, Nault and Wilkinson step down, only four players from London's original bronze-medal squad will likely see significant minutes going forward: Christine Sinclair, Sophie Schmidt, Diana Matheson and Desiree Scott (goalkeeper Erin McLeod is still recovering from ACL surgery).

And yet the optimism surrounding the Canadian camp is a direct result of systems that aren't always self-evident, especially in a game where one mistake can cost you the match.

This is apparent when contrasting Canada's two bronze medals.

In London 2012, the team was outshot 25-4 against France but won 1-0.  

"They got battered," says Reed. "[Canada] had no right to win, but soccer is a game where you don't always get what you deserve. In the end, they got lucky, the [French] hit the crossbar [as well as the post and had a sure goal cleared off the line]. And in the last minute of injury time Canada caught a break [Matheson scored, following a deflection in the 92nd minute of added time]."

While Canada was also outshot in Rio (15-7) it had more shots on target than Brazil (5-3). More importantly, both of its goals in the final were created by its youth. While Sinclair may have scored the winning goal, the play was generated by Jessie Fleming and Deanne Rose—the two youngest players at 18 and 17, respectively.

A controlled environment

For Lee Tregonning, technical director of B.C.'s Mountain United F.C., as well as an assistant with the national youth teams, this is but one of many signs that the system is working.

"We can now create the kind of player that we want. It will never be perfect, but compared to the past it's night and day. It used to be like a cattle call, with players from across the country coming in only [every four months]. But [in between] no one knew what players were doing, so we weren't just losing players, but crucial development windows as well.

"Now it's a controlled environment with full-time professional coaches, teaching a [unified] curriculum, said Tregonning.

Players like Fleming and Rose whose abilities with the ball have already garnered praise are but the tip of the iceberg.

Emma Humphries is the director of the Vancouver Whitecaps' elite girls EXCEL program, where she oversees the training of some of the country's best young prospects. She says there is "real talent coming through."

Currently, the first full sets of students that will undergo the entire U14 to U18 cycle are only 15 years old.

"So it's too early to proclaim success" says Humphries. "Nevertheless we're already seeing players with exceptional technical ability, some are even faster than any current member of the [women's] national team."

The American hurdle

For now, it's a waiting game, but Canada's ambition is clear. John Herdman, the author of the new curriculum and coach of the women's national team, has already stated his desire to be ranked No. 1. 

This will require winning a World Cup or Olympics. And doing this means defeating the U.S., something Canada has not been able to do since 2001.

In Rio, Sinclair, 33, remained the star, but striker Janine Beckie, then 21, emerged as an elite goal scorer. And in the bronze-medal game, midfielder Ashley Lawrence, 21, secured player of the match honours, with the only player starting in all six of Canada's matches being the 18-year-old Fleming.

While Canada's record against top-four opponents remains underwhelming, much like its performance at the 2015 Women's World Cup, the strength of its youth is not in question. And that alone is why Herdman and his staff are encouraged about the future.

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