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Fewer mind games, more focus would help a scrappy Canadian side

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Canadian players Sophie Schmidt, left, and Christine Sinclair react after losing 4-3 in extra time women’s soccer action against the United States at the Olympic Games in London on Monday August 6, 2012.

By CATHAL KELLY , The Globe and Mail

Throughout their disappointing World Cup, the Canadian team wanted it both ways.

They told people they weren’t very good. Players and coach said that over and over again. At the same time, they thought they had a chance to win it.

It got harder to hold on to those opposing ideas as things went on, but Canada’s confidence seemed to grow.

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They couldn’t score, but, to hear them tell it, that wasn’t a problem. They made terrible errors at the back, but that wasn’t an issue either. Couldn’t get organized; very little skill on the ball; Christine Sinclair aside, no star quality whatsoever – nope, nope, nope. All good. Just trust us.

Maybe this bafflingly upbeat approach in the face of so much evidence to the contrary was the result of time spent in coach John Herdman’s famous Brain Room. If so, perhaps somebody needs to build a Practice Room, and spend a little more time in there. This team was proof that motivation without talent is as useful as a parachute without shoulder straps.

Canada played five games over three weeks, looking out of sorts for long stretches in every one of them.

Despite all the time in the world to make adjustments or tinker with the roster, it never got any better. It just was. And not in the good Zen way.

The bulk of this team has been together for a decade. They play like they just met in the tunnel mouth, and have decided they don’t like each other very much.

There was one breach of the Great Wall of Positivity, when former Canadian player and current Fox TV analyst Christine Latham reported she’d been told there was dissent in the camp. Everyone rushed to jump on Latham’s head for making up stories, but she was plainly right. If the verbal shiftiness of Canada’s denials wasn’t enough to convince you, the way they (don’t) play in concert should have been.

Thanks to FIFA fixing the draw in their favour, they managed to avoid all the good opponents. But as soon as unimpressive England decided to put the shoulder in, Canada folded.

The English team is Canada’s mirror image – up-for-it, unskilled and unapologetically brutish. The difference was they put their best 11 on the field.

Ticking off his locker-room debts, Herdman ran out a series of veterans who didn’t belong in the game. Don’t blame Lauren Sesselmann for taking a header over the ball on the first goal. Blame Herdman for putting her in a position to fail, when he should have acknowledged she was mentally shot after an error-ridden tournament.

The game was decided when Herdman opted to field a London Olympics Dream Team instead of one designed to win.

He’ll face the same decision at Rio 2016. He can’t make the same mistake twice. The old guard should be thanked for its long service, and then gently pushed out the door. Now. The longer he waits, the harder that will get.

That’s what makes a battling 2-1 loss such a disaster. It will allow some elements in the Canadian soccer set-up – including players – to convince themselves they were right there.

They never were. They weren’t even close.

The best sides in the world – Germany, France, Japan, et al – are getting better. Canada is standing still.

Saturday’s choppy, thuggish game had one great moment, very early on. Christine Sinclair took the ball on the flank, nutmegged two successive English players, moved infield, and side-footed an inch-perfect 40-yard pass to Melissa Tancredi.

It was incredible stuff from Canada’s only incredible player. As Sinclair was fading into nothingness during the second half, you realized no one else has anything approaching that level of ability. Young, old, in-between – they’re all her mediocre children.

As age catches her up, Sinclair is becoming this program’s Ozymandias – Look on her works, ye mighty, and despair. Nothing beside remains.

The main point of this tournament was proving that Canada has something besides Sinclair to look forward to. This was where the program established a beachhead to the future. From that perspective, it was a failure.

Canada has many fine young players – Kadeisha Buchanan, Ashley Lawrence, Jessie Fleming. But they’re all tireless, complementary types. There’s no cunning to any of them.

Buchanan and Sinclair aside, there isn’t a single Canadian player who would make – never mind start for – Germany or France. They lack the basic skills and smarts, the sort of training that starts at a kindergarten age.

Based on Herdman’s demonstrable faith in the next generation (i.e. none at all), it isn’t getting any better. In four years, the best in the world will have begun to lap us.

So if any good is to come of this World Cup, it is the death of Canada’s we-think-we-can, we-think-we-can approach. It doesn’t work.

It’s not Herdman’s job to convince a bunch of jobbing pros they’re 1970 Brazil. Nor is it his task to create a happy soccer family. He’s not a hypnotist or a therapist, and he should stop talking like one.

It’s his job to pick the best players, regardless of allegiances and intrasquad cliques, and show them how to win.

We could have a long discussion here about developmental techniques, grassroots funding and domestic pro leagues, but it’s largely pointless. Money follows success. Nobody’s going to spend the money until the senior team is successful. And it’s headed in the other direction.

Don’t ask taxpayers to save Canadian soccer. It’s on the players to do that for themselves. They’ll have one more chance at next summer’s Olympics. If they blow that as well, people will start to forget about them. This tournament, powered by the memories of 2012, will have been the high-water mark.

Knowing that should be all the motivation this team needs

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