Rhian Wilkinson knows all about the pain of missing out on a gold-medal game. She also understands what it takes to bounce back and step onto the podium.
Wilkinson, who won 181 caps for Canada, captured bronze as a player at the 2012 and 2016 Olympics after painful semifinal defeats at the hands of the U.S. and Germany, respectively.
The Canadian coach shared some of that experience with her players in the wake of Canada’s 1-0 semifinal loss to Mexico on Wednesday at the FIFA U-17 Women’s World Cup in Montevideo, Uruguay. The young Canadians face New Zealand, beaten 2-0 by Spain in the other semifinal, in Saturday’s third-place match.
“Definitely I understand the importance of turning something like this around … Just getting stuck on the disappointment of not being in the gold-medal game can cost you a bronze if you don’t turn that around quickly enough,” Wilkinson said in an interview Friday.
“So I definitely gave them that evening (after the game), because don’t think it’s realistic to tell them to not sort of mourn that opportunity. But the next day I got them together, got them refocusing. They had a player-led meeting and they’ve been fantastic today — really energetic and definitely eyes on the prize.”
The Canadian women have already made history by going this deep at the tournament. Canada’s previous best finish at the U-17 world championship was seventh in 2008 and 2012.
And Wilkinson’s team still has the chance to go one better than the fourth-place finish she was part of at the 2003 Women’s World Cup.
The only Canadian team to do better — male or female — at a FIFA world championship is the 2002 squad, featuring a 19-year-old Christine Sinclair, that finished runner-up to the U.S. at the U-19 Women’s World Championship on Canadian soil.
New Zealand is also in uncharted territory after getting past the group phase for the first time.
“They’re a good team and they play with real passion,” Wilkinson said. “They’ll run themselves into the ground for their jersey and I have huge respect for that. And (with) what they’ve done this tournament, it would be a big mistake to not give them real credit for how they played.
“So I expect them to come out strong and to fight us to the very last whistle. And if we don’t meet their energy, we’ll be in trouble.”
Canada is familiar with New Zealand, having played in a Nov. 7 friendly in Uruguay before the tournament. New Zealand won 2-1 in a game that saw Canada dig deep into its roster.
“They scored on us in 36 seconds so in terms of lessons before a tournament they definitely delivered one of the biggest we got,” Wilkinson told a news conference in Montevideo.
New Zealand coach Leon Birnie didn’t put much stock in the friendly result.
“We’re in a completely different space now,” he said.
Both coaches promised to field their best lineups when asked if they might share playing time among his roster.
“For us, this is a huge moment,” said Birnie. “We’ve had a great tournament to this point and a bronze medal would kind of just cap off that dream run.”
Added Wilkinson: “This is a huge moment for our countries as well as the team itself so we’re taking it seriously.”
Canada finished second in Group D after blanking Colombia 3-0 and South Korea 2-0 and losing 5-0 to Spain. Wilkinson’s team edged Germany 1-0 in the quarterfinals before falling to Mexico.
Runner-up to Ghana in Group A, New Zealand scored its first win over Japan in 16 tries thanks to a quarterfinal penalty shootout.