Canada leaves the FIFA Women’s World Cup early and shell-shocked. And, in some cases, in tears.
The Olympic champion Canadians were put to the sword Monday in a shocking, lopsided 4-0 loss to Australia.
It was not pretty, unless you were Australian. The 10th-ranked Matildas needed to win to be sure of moving on to the tournament’s knockout round and they wasted little time getting the job done.
It was one-way traffic from the get-go.
Hayley Raso scored twice as Canada’s vaunted defence was carved open in the first half. It could have been 3-0 at the break but a third Australian goal was ruled offside.
Canada failed to put a shot on target in a first half and looked rattled.
And It got worse as Mary Fowler made it 3-0 in the 58th minute. Rubbing salt in the wound, Steph Catley scored on a stoppage-time penalty after video review confirmed a foul against Canada’s Jessie Fleming on the edge of the box.
Veteran midfielder Sophie Schmidt, who had previously said she was retiring from international football, said after the game she was “gutted, heartbroken.”
“I feel really terrible. I feel like we let down Canadians who woke up early to watch that game,” she added, referencing the 6 a.m. ET kickoff. “Australia came out strong, executed their game plan perfectly. They built momentum.”
Fleming and defender Vanessa Gilles fought back tears as they spoke to reporters.
“A bad night to have a bad night,” said Fleming.
“I just feel a lot of disappointment,” she added, the emotion swelling. “We have a world-class staff back there with us and world-class fans and I don’t think we represented them well enough tonight. I just think this team has so much more in us and such a better performance. That was not seen tonight.”
“The Aussies outdid us today, there’s no hiding from that,” said Gilles.
A draw or win would have moved the seventh-ranked Canadians into the round of 16. But they soon found themselves with a mountain to climb before a partisan crowd announced at 27,706 at Melbourne Rectangular Stadium.
And now they go home after three games, finishing third in Group B with a 1-1-1 record. They are the first defending Olympic champion not to get out of the first round of a World Cup.
It’s Canada’s worst finish at the tournament since it went winless in 2011 and finished last. It’s likely also the Canadian women’s worst game in recent years.
And it’s another body blow for Canada Soccer in a year blighted by a bitter labour dispute, although Priestman and her players refused to point the finger at the off-field distractions.
“Has it been a really really tough year? Absolutely.” said the coach. “But at the end of the day, we came here tonight thinking we should have been able to win. And we didn’t. And we have to reflect on that.”
Talismanic Canadian captain Christine Sinclair, who came off the bench in last Wednesday’s 2-1 win over Ireland, returned to the starting lineup but was one of four players substituted at halftime as Priestman looked for answers. One wonders how long the 40-year-old icon, the world’s all-time leading scorer, will keep going.
In departing her sixth World Cup, the classy captain took some blades of grass from the field with her as a souvenir from her 326th international appearance.
Asked what was next for her, Sinclair replied: “I have no idea.”
While this tournament is over, a two-game Olympic qualifier with No. 43 Jamaica looms in late September.
The Canadians knew a loss Monday might not end their campaign, providing No. 40 Nigeria was beaten by No. 22 Ireland and the tiebreakers were in their favour. Nigeria and Ireland played to a 0-0 draw, snuffing out that scenario.
Australia (2-1-0) wins the group with Nigeria (1-0-2) also advancing. Ireland (0-2-1) finishes fourth.
Group B lived up to its billing. Failing to score in two games and conceding five goals was not enough to survive such a tough neighbourhood.
“Football can be cruel sometimes and I think tonight it was cruel,” said Priestman. “We got punished. We got an early goal (against us) and I think the team lacked belief.”
“I didn’t come here today thinking I was going home, that we were going home,” she added. “But these are the moments that make you. And it hurts like hell now but we’ll learn (from it).”
Priestman credited Australia for its performance. But she was short on answers on why her team was “as rattled as what we’ve seen,” seemingly still processing the disastrous performance during the post-game news conference.
She cited mental performance in deadline with pressure and the team learning to deal with a target on its back as Olympic champion.
“That’s new territory and for me that’s the difference,” said Priestman. “The group is actually deeper and arguably more talented in some regards (than the team that won Tokyo gold).”
Melbourne Rectangular Stadium, better known as AAMI Park, was decked in Australian colours — with its green-coloured seats filled with fans wearing gold. It was hard to see red, although there were pockets of Canadian support.
FFA president Gianni Infantino was also in the house.
The crowd didn’t have long to wait for something to cheer about. A rapid-fire Australian attack produced a ninth-minute Raso goal that was initially ruled offside but was given the green light after video review.
Goalkeeper Mackenzie Arnold started the move with a sweeping pass that found Catlin Foord near midfield, She quickly sent the ball forward to Catley, whose ensuing cross handcuffed Gilles and the Canadian defence. The ball found its way through several bodies to Raso, who beat goalkeeper Kailen Sheridan with a low shot.
Fullback Jayde Riviere and Kadeisha Buchanan were unable to corral the Australian surge down the flank.
Raso, who is leaving Manchester City for Real Madrid, almost made it 2-0 four minutes later but a diving Sheridan made a superb one-handed save to parry the ball away.
The Matildas appeared to make it 2-0 in the 34th minute with Fowler hammering the ball into the goal after the Canadians failed to clear their lines. Australian players were literally queuing up to take the shot while Buchanan was down injured on the play.
Video review negated the goal, however, with Ellie Carpenter ruled to be offside.
Australia scored again in the 39th minute off a Kyra Cooney-Cross corner as Canada’s defence was again found wanting. Sheridan’s attempted punch went for naught and the ball bounced off Canada’s Quinn, who goes by one name, to Raso who poked it in from point-blank range.
This time it counted. And the Canadians looked shell-shocked, not for the first time at this tournament.
Priestman sent on Allysha Chapman, Schmidt, Cloe Lacasse and Deanne Rose to open the second half, taking off Riviere, Julia Grosso, Sinclair and Jordyn Huitema.
But it was more of the same, with Australia soon adding a third goal.
A long ball found Foord racing down the left flank and Fowler, despite the presence of six Canadian defenders in the penalty box, flicked her cross off the post into the goal.
Rose tested Arnold in the 66th minute — Canada’s first shot on target — but the Australian ‘keeper was up to the task. In the 76, Schmidt fired a shot high.
Olivia Smith, just 19, came on in the 77th minute for her third cap. Two minutes later, Australia came close again as Fowler’s shot hit the post.
Much of the pre-game talk focused on the health of Australian star forward Sam Kerr, who missed the first two matches with a calf injury. Kerr, Australia’s all-time leading scorer with 63 goals in 120 appearances prior to Monday, started on the bench but wasn’t needed.
Both teams had bumpy rides in their first two group matches.
Canada, looking slightly out of sync, was held to a scoreless draw by Nigeria at the same Melbourne venue with Sinclair seeing her second-half penalty saved. The Canadians then needed a second-half rally to dispatch Ireland in the rain in Perth.
Australia had to hang on for a 1-0 win over Ireland, thanks to a second-half spot kick by Catley, before being upset 3-2 by Nigeria in a game that was not as close as the scoreline suggests.
That set the scene for a wild final round of group games.
Australia faces the Group D runner-up while Nigeria takes on the Group D winner in the round of 16, with both games set for Aug. 7.
No. 4 England (2-0-0) currently tops Group D with No. 13 Denmark (1-1-0) second, ahead of No. 14 China (1-1-0) on a tiebreaker. The final positions in Group D will be decided Tuesday when England takes on China in Adelaide and winless Haiti faces Denmark in Perth.
Canada came into the game 8-7-3 all-time against Australia and had won the last three meetings, including last year’s 1-0 and 2-1 victories in Brisbane and Sydney, respectively.
Canada’s best finish at the tournament was fourth in 2003. Four years ago in France, the Canada exited in a 1-0 loss to Sweden in the round of 16.