Olympic bronze could be just the start for Canada and their bright youngsters

Christine Sinclair of Canada celebrates after scoring against Brazil in the bronze medal match on August 19, 2016 in Sao Paulo, Brazil. (Photo by Alexandre Schneider/Getty Images)
Alexandre Schneider/Getty Images

Just one year ago, it was clear the Canadian women’s national needed to start to move away from its crop of veterans, but whether that transition would happen smoothly or quickly was a lingering doubt.

But then, the Rio Olympics happened. With a crop of youngsters leading the way to a bronze medal, fears about the team’s future were replaced by optimism and excitement. Yes, Canada are a squad in transition, but as it turns out, it’s a transition that is going pretty darn well.

With a win over host nation Brazil on Friday and a young roster where two-thirds of the players have never competed in an Olympics, one thing became clear: Canada don’t need to wait to rely on their next generation of players — the young guns are ready to carry the team forward now. Players like 17-year-old Deanne Rose and 21-year-old Janine Beckie had breakout tournaments and there is a crop of others not far behind.

That’s a pretty incredible turnaround from the Women’s World Cup last summer. Canada and coach John Herdman relied on a veteran team and had one of the oldest teams at the tournament, but fell agonizingly short of expectations in a quarterfinal exit. They had Christine Sinclair — the greatest soccer player Canada has ever produced — but she, along with many key players on the squad, was over 30. How Canada could handle it was a major concern.

But in this Olympics, Herdman injected more youth and more newcomers into the roster and they rose to the occasion. Just look at Rose, the 17-year-old who only made her debut for Canada in December. She broke through on Friday against Brazil in the 25th minute on a cool finish, assisted another goal scored by Sinclair in the 53rd, and fired a shot off the crossbar later in the second half. Brazil are one of the best teams in the world, and Rose dismantled them.

The emergence of Rose as an Olympic hero capped off an especially good Olympics for another youngster, Beckie, the Houston Dash rookie who was excluded from Canada’s World Cup team in favor of more veteran talent. She scored the fastest goal in an Olympics within her first minute on the field against Australia (up until Neymar snatched the record away from her this week). Against Zimbabwe, Beckie would notch a brace, leading Canada to win their group as the only team to win all three group-stage matches.

Janine Beckie of Canada scores what was then the fastest goal in Olympics history against Australia on August 3, 2016 in Sao Paulo, Brazil. (Photo by Alexandre Schneider/Getty Images)

Newcomers like 21-year-old forward Nichelle Prince and 21-year-old defender Rebecca Quinn are another pair that did not make the World Cup roster, but were included in the smaller Olympics roster. Neither played huge roles in Brazil, but they look poised to be important pieces for the Canadian squad going forward as Herdman continues to work them in.

It seems that when Herdman gives his youngsters a chance to step up, that’s what they do. Kadeisha Buchanan was Canada’s youngest player at the World Cup last summer at 19, and as a defender, she played every minute of the tournament and did well help Canada preserve three shutouts along the way.

Midfielder Jessie Fleming played a minor off-the-bench role in the World Cup, but the 18-year-old has since then looked to be hitting her stride as she became a regular starter in this Olympics squad and was arguably the best player on the pitch in the bronze medal match. Ashley Lawrence, 21, also took a giant step forward, going from playing just once last summer to being a key substitute for Canada through the Olympics.

That’s not to say that Canada doesn’t have a serious challenge looming. Though goals from Beckie and Rose were key in helping Canada reach bronze, Melissa Tancredi, 34, and Sinclair, 33, were Canada’s other two top scorers in this Olympic tournament. Diana Matheson, another key player, is 32. Whether they can continue to be as productive by the time the 2019 Women’s World Cup rolls around is a real question. If they aren’t able to play important roles, any team would be impacted by the loss of such quality.

The pressure is on Herdman to continue to identify and develop talent in the next three years. The pipeline right now holds a lot of promise, but a lot can happen in three years’ time. And women’s soccer in Canada is at the top-tier, so seeing Canada drop out of contention for major titles like a World Cup or an Olympics would simply be unacceptable.

That this is even the conversation just one year since their listless World Cup last summer is pretty remarkable, though. The young Canadian core has already proven they are the real deal and ready to step up. Herdman, to his credit, has managed to fold in new talent, set up youngsters to succeed and find a way to strike a balance between veterans and the next generation.

Canada’s showing in the Olympics should put to rest fears that the Canadian team is in trouble. They’ve managed a repeat of their 2012 Olympics bronze and the kids, it seems, are alright. There’s plenty for Canadians fans to be excited about — now it’s just a matter of the Canadian women delivering on the potential they’ve already shown.

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