Canada's Christine Sinclair (#12) celebrates with head coach John Herdman after scoring a penalty kick against China in the FIFA Women's World Cup on June 6, 2015 in Edmonton. (Photo: FIFA via Getty Images)
EDMONTON, Canada – It wasn’t necessarily the start that Canada head coach John Herdman had hoped for on Saturday, but it was certainly the finish.
Playing in its FIFA Women's World Cup opener in front of more than 50,000 fans at Commonwealth Stadium in Edmonton, Herdman’s unit was uncharacteristically casual with the ball in the game’s early stages — especially in its own third — leading to numerous chances for a resurgent Chinese team desperate for a result.
However, when the dust settled, it was Herdman who was left smiling, crediting a mixture of youth, tactics and bravery for three points and a job well done.
“I think was a good start to the tournament for Canada,” said an emotionally exhausted Herdman after the match. “I’m really proud that we can come out, dominate possession and sneak a win. It’s a good start for us, three points in the bag…exactly where we want to be.”
Despite commanding significantly more possession (63%-37%) and out-shooting their opposition 14-5, the Canadians struggled to breakthrough a resilient Chinese side that looked content with a draw. With the second half ticking away and the score locked at 0-0, it was a late shift in tactics and some inspiring performances from the team’s youth that eventually set the stage for a dramatic Christine Sinclair winner.
After Portland Thorns holding midfielder Kaylyn Kyle was brought on to shore up the defense, Herdman then turned to 17-year-old Jessie Fleming – the Golden Ball winner at the 2013 CONCACAF Under-17 Women’s Championship -- and 22-year-old Adriana Leon to provide some additional venom off the bench. With Fleming and Leon on the field, Herdman pushed his fullbacks high and shifted from his initial 4-3-3 formation to a more attack minded 3-4-3 for the final ten minutes of the game. Running the risk of being exposed with just three in the back, Herdman showed faith in his youngsters. It was quickly repaid.
“We made the subs and always knew that the 3-4-3 strategy would come in to play,” Herdman noted. “We’ve been working on that. I thought it was great to see the young players step up. Fleming just blended into the game well. That’s a 17-year-old kid playing in front of over 50,000 people — she and Leon really stepped up. The youth movement was good today…if you’re good enough, you’re old enough.”
Midfield maestro Sophie Schmidt echoed Herdman’s sentiment, praising the younger players for their efforts.
“They play like senior players,” said Schmidt who was handed Player of the Match honors. “Every time someone comes onto the field as a sub, I know they will bring something different and be a positive impact. I’m so proud of how our subs played.”
With the youth in high-gear and the Canadians pouring forward in injury time, it was a familiar face that sealed the victory as captain Christine Sinclair converted a late penalty, slotting home and sending the host nation in to delirium.
“When that goal went in, I nearly cried to be honest," finished Herdman. “It was an emotional moment for our team because we’ve worked bloody hard.
“It was always going to end the right way.”