Coach Rhian Wilkinson dismisses any suggestion that Canada, just one win away from the championship game, is a team of destiny at the FIFA U-17 Women’s World Cup in Uruguay.
Hard work and talent have powered this squad.
“Not destiny because they’ve worked very hard at it,” the former Canadian international said from Montevideo. “I’ve played a long time and the teams that are successful in tournaments are the ones that grow through them.
“We had some wonderful moments where we showed our real resilience and we took some knocks on the way to get here. Every one of those moments (was) important to where the team is now.”
Canada plays Mexico at Montevideo’s Estadio Charrua on Wednesday after New Zealand plays Spain in the other semifinal. The winners meet Saturday, hoping to join France, Japan, South Korea and North Korea (twice) as under-17 world champions.
Four of those finals (2008, 2010, 2012 and 2016) went to extra time or penalty shootouts.
Canada, Mexico and New Zealand are all first-time semifinalists at this level. Spain, which beat Canada 5-0 in round-robin play, reached the semifinals in 2010, 2014 (when it reached the final) and 2016.
Wilkinson’s team is already in rare territory. Canada’s previous best finish at the U-17 tournament was seventh in 2008 and 2012.
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. on home soil at the FIFA U-19 Women’s World Championship.
Wilkinson’s crew has already at the least matched the fourth-place finish by the Canadian senior team at the 2003 Women’s World Cup.
Canada reached the semifinal by beating Germany 1-0 Sunday on the strength of captain Jordyn Huitema’s 83rd-minute goal. It started with a lung-busting run from Caitlin Shaw, who found Kaila Novak on the left flank.
Huitema, showing her predatory skills, glided into space between two defenders to knock in Novak’s cross for Canada’s first win in a FIFA women’s youth tournament knockout match since 2002.
“I thought they played with a maturity that they’ve been building throughout the tournament. In terms of just living on the ball and feeling what they are capable of,” said Wilkinson, her voice still hoarse from the quarterfinal.
“I think maybe it’s surprising people back home but this is a whole new generation of Canadian player coming through.”
For Wilkinson, the team is showing confidence and creativity on the ball.
“The structure is coming alive, which is the next generation,” she said.
The other three quarterfinals went to penalty shootouts. Mexico dispatched Ghana 4-2 on penalty kicks after the game finished 2-2.
Like Mexico, the Canadian women had a long hard road to Uruguay.
CONCACAF pulled the plug on its regional qualifier in April after just six games in Nicaragua because of unrest in the capital, Managua. The tournament was rescheduled to June in Florida.
Mexico beat Canada 2-1 in the semifinals, only to lose 3-2 to the U.S. in the championship game. Canada secured the final qualifying berth for Uruguay by edging Haiti 2-1 in the third-place game on an 89th-minute goal by Andersen Williams.
Wilkinson says Canada did not play well to start against Mexico back in June.
“The first half I don’t know who that Canadian team was because it wasn’t the one I’m used to seeing. They’ve learned a ton since then.”
Canada was forced to change coaches in August after Bev Priestman quit to join the English women’s coaching staff. The 36-year-old Wilkinson, a veteran of 181 senior internationals and seen as a future senior women’s coach, was elevated from assistant coach.
Wilkinson put her own stamp on the roster, bringing in six new faces from the qualifying tournament roster.
Huitema, who has scored three of Canada’s six goals at the tournament, is just the third Canadian player to score in four different FIFA women’s youth matches, joining Sinclair and Brittany Timko.
It’s been a remarkable year for Huitema. She has played for the senior team eight times (with four goals), represented Canada at the CONCACAF U-20 Women’s Championship and is now captaining the under-17 team.
The five-foot-10 striker has also endured some drama as she was sent off in a group game in Uruguay for an errant elbow in an aerial challenge against South Korea. It was an accident, Huitema said after the first red card of her career.
While leading her team through the tournament, Huitema is still pondering her future. She says she has narrowed her college choice to Stanford or UCLA.
Canada, Germany, Ghana, Japan, New Zealand and North Korea are the only countries to have qualified for every edition of the U-17 champion since its inception in 2008.
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Neil Davidson, The Canadian Press