What went wrong for Canada at Women's World Cup?
Craig Mercer/MB Media / Getty Images Sport / Getty

Expectations, at least internally, were high for Canada coming into the Women's World Cup. They were measured - this is Canada, after all - but there was a quiet confidence in the Canadian camp that something special could be brewing in France.

Christine Sinclair, the 36-year-old captain who has seen the program develop throughout her storied career, called this team the best the country had ever produced heading into a major tournament. An ideal blend of young talent and veteran savvy, highlighted by Sinclair, created a legitimate belief that Canada could be in line for its best-ever World Cup finish.

Matching the quarterfinal berth from four years ago was the minimum projection.

Well, about that.

Canada's tournament ended with an unceremonious thud Monday, a dispiriting and, frankly, drab 1-0 loss to Sweden sending Kenneth Heiner-Moller's squad home before the last eight.

How did things go so wrong?

Conservative approach

Joosep Martinson - FIFA / FIFA / Getty

It became apparent very quickly that Canada, despite boasting a squad laden with talented attackers, had no intention of engaging in shootouts during this tournament. Safe passing and a stout defensive structure was the approach, frustrating as it often was to watch.

In fairness, the results leading up to the World Cup suggested Heiner-Moller was right to eschew fluidity in favor of a reserved setup. Canada arrived in France undefeated in 2019, winning five of eight matches and conceding just a single goal during that stretch. The likes of Norway, England, Spain, and even round-of-16 opponent Sweden all failed to break down the resolute Canadian backline during their pre-tournament encounters.

Things were never going to change once the competition kicked off.

And yet, it's impossible not to feel like they should have.

The Canadians had all of two shots on target against the Swedes. One of those was Janine Beckie's now-infamous penalty, expertly denied by Hedvig Lindahl. That just isn't a sufficient attacking output for a team with title aspirations. Not conceding goals is great - crucial, obviously - but, rudimentary as it sounds, at some point you have to try to score one or two of your own.

Canada never took the handbrake off and paid for it.

The decisive sequence against Sweden, which ended with Stina Blackstenius' tally, was a microcosm of Canada's problems. A once-promising attack stalled on the edge of the Swedish penalty area as multiple players decided against a risky pass to cut open the defense, instead opting to go backward and retain possession.

After Canada worked the ball all the way back into midfield, an errant pass sent the Swedes on the counter, and they capitalized.

Canada never had a sniff of Lindahl's goal from open play after that.

Questionable substitutions

THOMAS SAMSON / AFP / Getty

The players aren't without fault, but in the aftermath of the bitter last-16 defeat, criticism has been aimed at Heiner-Moller, whose in-game management left plenty to be desired.

It was difficult to glean too much from comfortable, if underwhelming, wins over inferior opposition in Cameroon and New Zealand earlier in the tournament. But the cracks started to show in a must-win Group E finale against the Netherlands.

Victory over the Dutch would have secured Canada a far easier path to the semifinals; the Netherlands, meanwhile, needed just a draw to top the group. The Canadian approach, then, should have been clear: Take some risks. This was not the time to be overly conservative.

Instead, with the decisive clash knotted at one apiece in the 68th minute, Heiner-Moller made the perplexing decision to take off Sinclair, who had scored the team's lone goal to that point. The look of confusion on Sinclair's face - "me?" - when the fourth official's board went up and showed her number told the whole story.

With Sinclair watching from the bench, the Dutch went on to secure a 2-1 win, condemning Canada to second place and a meeting with Sweden.

In that tilt with the Swedes, Heiner-Moller again made bewildering substitutions late in the match. Down 1-0 with his side struggling to craft scoring opportunities, the Danish bench boss didn't make his final moves until the 84th minute after an earlier swap that introduced Adriana Leon.

His last two changes saw attack-minded full-back Jayde Riviere and holding midfielder Rebecca Quinn join the fray. Integral attacker Beckie, meanwhile, was taken off. Teenage phenom Jordyn Huitema, expected to assume the mantle as Sinclair's long-term replacement, wasn't called upon at all.

Those questionable moves weren't the reason Canada was sent packing, but they certainly didn't help.

Beaten at its own game

Craig Mercer/MB Media / Getty Images Sport / Getty

Against more explosive, gung-ho sides, Canada's cautious setup is an ideal approach to a knockout match. Defensive solidity, the team's calling card since Heiner-Moller replaced John Herdman on the touchline, would usually allow Canada to repel futile attacks before the likes of Beckie, Nichelle Prince, and Jessie Fleming hit back the other way, exploiting the spaces left behind by the opposition and, ideally, teeing up Sinclair.

Sweden, though, presented a wholly different test. Other than Canada itself, no team in the knockout stage was more adept at grinding out boring wins than Peter Gerhardsson's side. It's no coincidence the two nations combined for a mere four shots on target Monday. The tediousness of the affair was very much by design for both countries.

They arrived in Paris with exactly the same blueprint; their encounter truly was the Spider-Man meme come to life.

Sweden just executed a little bit better. While Beckie couldn't convert Canada's one golden opportunity from the penalty spot, Blackstenius had no such trouble when she was sent through on goal in the 55th minute.

"We got the one counter wrong," Heiner-Moller said after the game. "That's all you need to get wrong in these matches."

Score on your only sight of goal, and lock things down at the other end. Sometimes you just get beaten at your own game.

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What went wrong for Canada at Women's World Cup?
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