The format for the women's Olympic soccer tournament is forgiving, so Canada's 2-1 loss to Japan is not insurmountable for a team that has ambitions of advancing at least to the knockout stages.
What remains to be seen is whether a spirited second half against the reigning world champions is anything more than a silver lining. The match against South Africa here on Saturday ought to be a gimme, based on the world rankings. But try telling that to a team that has long memories of a disastrous 2011 World Cup under the since-fired Carolina Morace, which shook to the core the one Canadian national soccer team that thought it had its act together.
"Everyone kind of lets their foot off the pedal a little bit, whether consciously or sub-consciously," goalkeeper Erin McLeod said Wednesday. "But I think what we learned from the World Cup is no matter who we're playing, we have to show up."
Canada finished with 10 players after Candace Chapman of Ajax, Ont., left the pitch with an apparent knee injury in the 86th minute. Chapman left the City of Coventry Stadium on crutches and Canada coach John Herdman said her status for Saturday's match was unknown. Canada finished the match with 10 players, with Herdman having already used his three substitutes. Nahomi Kawasumi put the Japanese in front in the 33rd minute, taking Shinobu Ohno's back-heel pass in the Canadian box and bending a shot past McLeod on the far side. Japan extended its lead in the final minute of the first half, when McLeod misjudged a cross and captain Aya Miyama worked her way through three Canadian defenders to put a glancing header into the Canadian goal.
It was the first day of play in the Olympic women's tournament, which will feature 26 matches across six host cities. The event is divided into three groups of four teams, with the group winners and runners-up and two best third-place teams advancing to the knockout stage. After the meeting with South Africa, Canada's final group-stage match is against Sweden in Newcastle on Tuesday. There's more second chances out there than you'd get on a normal night on the ice at the Air Canada Centre.
Japan was full measure for its first-half lead, but Ancaster, Ont.'s, Melissa Tancredi, playing in her 80th international, raised Canadian hopes with a goal early in the second half, cashing in at the end of an enterprising run by Rhian Wilkinson, from Pointe-Claire, Que. The goal came shortly after Lauren Sesselman, a Green Bay, Wis., native with Canadian citizenship, slid to turn away a sitter from Yuki Ogimi of Japan.
That swing could be huge if goal differential comes into play at the end of the preliminary round.
"That's football, isn't it?" Herdman said later. "That's what this team has to be about in these games. The first line's beaten, the second line's beaten, but somebody's going to put their body on the line and make sure the third line isn't."
Japan, attempting to become the first country to win Olympic gold in the year immediately following a World Cup title, dominated possession in front of a crowd of 14,119 on an immaculate pitch at City of Coventry Stadium. "Quick and crafty," is how Sesselmann described the world champions. Less direct than the squad that often uses Canada as a punching bag, the U.S., preferring to rely on quick, one-two passes. The Canadians showed more initiative and movement after the half, although they failed to get their talismanic captain, Christine Sinclair, involved to any great degree.
In the end, there was much talk later about building on the showing – Japan still had 57 per cent of the possession and took 11 shots to Canada's four – and about "finding momentum," in Herdman's words. He was proud, he said, that there "wasn't one ounce of Canadian," that hadn't been expended in defeat. Herdman surely knows it will take a similar effort to beat Sweden in his hometown, Newcastle. Recent history suggests he'd better pray his charges really believe they need to take the same approach against South Africa.
McLeod, the redoubtable veteran keeper from St. Albert, Alta., misjudged the second goal. Here's hoping she hasn't misjudged her teammates.