VANCOUVER — The aftermath of Canada’s exit from the Women’s World Cup was gut-wrenching.
Captain Christine Sinclair, who had strapped the team on her back and tried to carry it to the final four, was in tears as she needlessly apologized to coach John Herdman following Canada’s 2-1 quarter-final loss to England.
Teenage defender Kadeisha Buchanan, who deserves to be on the tournament all-star team, sobbed as she knelt on the field at B.C. Place Stadium.
“They gave their best. And our best just wasn’t good enough,” said Herdman.
It was a moment of public clarity from a charismatic and talented coach who pulls every string on the Canadian team. There is little unscripted from Herdman. But he was gutted Saturday night.
“I’m a bit emotional at the minute,” he confessed.
Goals conceded in the 11th and 14th minutes did eighth-ranked Canada in. Lack of offence, a chronic problem, prevented a comeback although Sinclair took advantage of a goalkeeping gaffe to pull Canada within one in the 42nd minute.
Herdman accepted blame for the second goal, a set piece that saw England’s Lucy Bronze take advantage of fullback Allysha Chapman’s lack of height. England captain Steph Houghton said later it was a matchup her team had targeted.
The first goal came off a handling error by centre back Lauren Sesselmann.
“You play at this level (and) what’s going to win a match, it’s an error like that or a set piece and we got done in both situations,” said Herdman.
When a reporter trying to get a comment on Sesselmann’s play by asking about the “girl who made the mistake tonight,” Herdman replied: “Which one?”
“There was a few mistakes tonight,” he said.
His point was that Sesselmann was not the villain of the piece.
Herdman was forced to defend his lineup selections, saying the team’s leadership had endorsed it. Still he drew criticism from Fox TV commentators.
“There’s a coach who feels that he’s such a good motivator that he can make his players better than they sometimes are. I think he got this one wrong,” said former U.S. international Eric Wynalda.
“He has mismanaged this World Cup for his team,” added former Canadian international Christine Latham.
If anything Herdman can be accused of micro-managing a squad limited in depth and hampered by injury. Players like Sophie Schmidt (hip), Buchanan (abdominal sprain) and Chapman (oblique) were playing through pain.
But the bottom line is his players love him and Herdman has put women’s soccer on the map in this country.
He acknowledges there is more work to be done.
“This is where we’re at,” said Herdman when asked if we had seen the best of Canada at the tournament.
Herdman pointed to Canada’s previous coaching turnover, saying that meant there was no 10-year master plan to have players peak at this tournament.
“But we did it. Our country got behind us, they’ve had a great time, great experience. and there’s going to be a new generation of women, players, coaches that have been motivated by what they’ve seen … So I’m absolutely clear that, whatever happened, we needed to get to the knockout rounds, we needed to get to the quarter-finals.
“If we’d went all the way, we were punching well above our weight but I believe this team had the spirit to do it.”
The team that had inspired Canada with its 2012 Olympic bronze medal run showed it still had the nation’s heart. The Canadian women drew 241,904 fans to their five tournament games and each one was a love-in.
While the numbers say exiting in the quarter-finals is about right for No. 8 Canada, the World Cup draw was very benign for the hosts. Finishing first in a group with the 12th-ranked Netherlands, No. 16 China and No. 17 New Zealand earned Canada a date with No. 19 Switzerland.
Canada, a cut below elite teams like Germany, France, Japan, and the U.S., was never going to win the tournament. But the semifinals beckoned given the draw.
No. 6 England represented Canada’s first higher-ranked opponent.
With just four goals in five games, Canada’s offence ranked 10th at the tournament. Its three goals conceded represented the fourth stingiest defence.
The Canadian women tied for sixth with 61 shots and 10th in shots on target (20). They hit the woodwork four times, most in the tournament.
Herdman was incredulous as he recounted Sinclair’s tearful post-game apology. Sinclair single-handedly triggered a stirring fightback with her 155th career international goal.
“She can’t say sorry. She was just a legend again tonight. She was outstanding,” said Herdman. “Answered some of the critics. Stood up in the big moment when she needed to.”
Sinclair, who denied playing through injury, said she will be back.
Herdman pointed to Sinclair, veteran goalkeeper Erin McLeod and particularly youngsters Buchanan and Ashley Lawrence, as the day’s standout performers.
“When you look at those youngsters, I think there’s a new DNA coming through. There’s a new breed of Herdman that we’re bringing through and it was a transitional team, we knew that.”
The 2016 Olympics are the next hurdle and Herdman will be forced to cull his squad somewhat since the Olympic roster is 18 instead of the World Cup’s 23.
While the Canadian women need not hang their heads for their performance on the field, they did not win kudos for their reaction to Saturday’s loss.
After keeping the media waiting for close to two hours, they walked through the mixed zone almost en masse, leaving Sinclair and Schmidt to talk to print reporters while others made their escape.
Representing your country comes with responsibility. Win or lose.
While disappointing, Canada’s emotional and somewhat petulant off-the-field exit does not come as a surprise. The team clearly felt during the tournament that it was getting unduly harsh criticism from the domestic media.
Herdman, meanwhile, nearly lost it when a cheeky English reporter asked whether he rued not taking the England job in 2013.
“This is a real football country, OK? (A real) women’s football country,” he said, his eyes flashing.