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Wheeler: Women's team has work to do ahead of World Cup

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Gareth Wheeler
6/3/2013 12:31:40 AM
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It was billed as "The Rematch".  True vitriol is a rarity in women's soccer.  The hard feelings between Canada and the United States are about as heated as it gets.  Canada hosting their rivals was an opportunity for some closure after the injustice of the controversial loss to the Americans in the semi-final match at the 2012 London Summer Olympic Games. 
 
This time out, the Canadian Women's National Soccer team hardly lived up to their lofty billing, coming out flat and unable to keep the ball in a 3-0 loss to the US.  Canada was taught a lesson in build-up play and ball possession.  There is work to be done ahead of the FIFA World Cup in 2015. 
 
The result in a stand-alone friendly hardly matters.  Sure, a win would have played well with the patriotic home crowd.   But bigger picture, the importance the match was treated with and corresponding electric vibe made clear Canada against the United States in women's soccer is a marquee event.
 
The most prestigious of all Canada versus US in women's competition used to come on the ice.  With a lack of genuine other competition in women's hockey, Canada/US is basically all there is.  The budding soccer rivalry between cross border nations is now the most compelling in Canadian women's team competition, and worthy of the special feel the spectacle had on the Lakeshore in Toronto.
 
The true sporting rivalry got spicier when Canadian-born American player, Sydney Leroux scored in stoppage time and promptly mocked the crowd and paid homage to the American badge on her jersey.  An act as such is an absolute no-no in soccer.  You don't pay homage to the badge against your former team, let alone the country of your birth.  The Leroux storyline line will further galvanize support of our women and what it means to be a Canadian National team player.
 
It was an incredible scene at BMO Field, otherwise known as our National Soccer Stadium.  Kids, families, Canadian soccer supporters and the curious lot captivated by Canada's run in London formed a sea of red and white, engaged from start to finish in 90 plus minutes of football.  The match was played in front of 22,453, the most ever to take in a game at BMO Field.  And despite a disappointing 3-0 loss, the team did a lap of honour as adoring Canadian fans showed their affection for their soccer heroes. 
 
It's a true injustice Toronto is not a host city for the 2015 FIFA Women's World Cup.  How the City of Toronto can let arguably the world's biggest event for women's team sport not come to Canada's biggest and most prominent city is beyond me.  Spending taxpayers dollars on the largely irrelevant Pan Am Games instead of the moneymaker of hosting World Cup matches will never make sense.  That story has been told, and still upsets me to this day.  And on a wonderful afternoon as Sunday, it digs a little deeper.  The brimming cultural attachment to Canada's finest women's players makes Toronto's decision to not host that much more exasperating.
 
Women's soccer holds a special place among Canadians.  It came to the forefront in the build up to the 2003 FIFA Women's World Cup, culminating in an unexpected 4th place finish.  It was an unlikely run by a group who were either at the end or the beginning of their international career.  With growing television and media exposure, the Canadian women captured the hearts of soccer families coast-to-coast, giving young girls playing the game something bigger to aspire to.
 
Since that time, Canadian women's soccer has matured and mattered.  But it's never mattered as much as now.  The 2012 Summer Olympic Games was a defining moment.  Through adversity came a new developed culture; a culture where results matter.
 
Strangely enough, the women's game in this country is where the men's game wants to be: culturally relevant and taken seriously.  It's both quite spectacular and equally sad the women's national team has become more popular than the Canadian men's team.  No other women's team sport I can think of is more popular than their male counterparts in any other country.  Men's national teams, not women's, define footballing nations.  That's not the case in Canada.  Christine Sinclair is the most recognizable player, man or woman.  While the women's team is praised and revered, the men's team is mocked.  It's a remarkable achievement by our women's players and also an indictment on our men's program.
 
Success has something to do with it.  But it's inaccurate to say that's the only reason.  No offence, but Cyprus Cup and Olympic qualifying victories are resume builders, not widely celebrated accomplishments.  Some may not acknowledge as much, but preferential treatment towards the women's game started years ago at the club level.
 
It's much more difficult to produce top-level Canadian men's players than women's.  The global men's game is incredibly competitive at all levels and Canada continues to play catch-up.  Creating a clear path for men's players to become true professionals is a difficult one to make.  The emerging professional club structure in Canada is hoping to bridge the gap.  But there's a ways to go. 
 
The women's game is still growing and Canada has been progressive in providing opportunity.  The goal for most soccer clubs has been traditionally to put their players in a position to get scholarships to American universities.  It's proven to be much easier to promise your young girl a legit shot at a scholarship than to assure your young boy the same.  Sheer numbers dictate that.  It became lucrative for clubs across the country to back the emerging women's game where Canada could be leaders, rather than minnows.
 
Well-regarded club coaches switched from coaching boys to girls.  Not only could coaches avoid the never-ending politics of boys' soccer, but also it sure looks good on a resume helping so many young girls get free education at American schools.  College coaches and scouts were regularly brought across the border to scout Canadian girls players and clubs did a good business.  Many boys' players were forced to fend for themselves, leaving their local clubs where the women's game was priority in search of another.  Scholarships were still the goal, unless your boy was fortunate enough to have a proper visa to allow the player to pursue a spot at a European based soccer academy where professional ambition could be met.
 
The scholarship route is still the preferred road to International success in the women's game.  Conversely, very few Canadian players coming out of the University system are deemed good enough for the Men's National team.  But because girls' soccer remains profitable at a micro level, clubs continue to feed the system and the women's game continues to benefit.  The fact remains from a National team perspective, the potential monies to be made in the men's game trumps the women by a significant margin.  The men's team qualifying for a World Cup would make the Canadian Soccer Association more money than ever can be made in the women's game. 
 
The purpose of this commentary isn't meant to create a men's versus women's game argument.  Both programs can thrive.  And truthfully, Canada's women's team finding success benefits the men, and vice-versa.  It's more a testament to how the positive narrative surrounding Canada's women's program has come through grassroots development.  The program hasn't been built through some elaborate marketing campaign, selling the team and players as something they are not.  The players are likeable and the team is relatable.  They are fun to cheer for, and likewise enjoyable seeing the passion the players have for the game.  They are real.  It's not contrived.  They wear the Maple Leaf with pride.  They play for each other and country.  They represent what sport at its finest and purest level is all about.
 
The build towards 2015 is going to be a whole lot of fun.  If Sunday is any indication, the team is nowhere near ready.  But judging by the crowd and atmosphere, Canadian soccer fans certainly are.

You can reach Gareth at gareth.wheeler@bellmedia.ca or follow him on Twitter, @WheelerTSN 

Zurrer, McLeod and Sinclair (Photo: The Canadian Press)

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(Photo: The Canadian Press)
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