World champs put Canada in early rut at Olympic women's soccer tourney

Nicholas J. Cotsonika
Yahoo Sports

COVENTRY, England – One more goal and Canada could have kicked off the 2012 Summer Olympics with a comeback story. Thanks to an incredible defensive play and a gorgeous offensive effort, a deficit that could have been three was one. Suddenly, the Canadians had a chance to equal the Japanese, the reigning world champions in women’s soccer.

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Canada's Diana Matheson (right) reacts as Japan's Aya Miyama (8) celebrates her first goal with teammate Nahomi …

But the equalizer never came Wednesday. The Canadians suffered a 2-1 loss in their opening match, and reality hit home hard. The tight score wasn’t fooling anyone who watched the mostly lopsided contest, and coach John Herdman knew it.

"Yeah, I thought Canada dominated the game start to finish,'' Herdman said, leading off his news conference.

He smiled.

"I’m kidding,'' he continued, as reporters laughed. "Listen, we knew it was going to be a tough game tonight. They’re the world champions. They’re the world champions for a reason. They can handle the ball better than any team in the world. But I’ve got to give credit to the girls. They dug in.''

One of the wonderful things about the Olympics is that everyone dreams big, especially two days before the Opening Ceremony. When the flame hasn’t even been lit yet, how can yours flicker out?

[Related: Sesselmann's goal-line save could be crucial for Canada]

A medal is still possible for the Canadians. This was not a must-win match, just the first of three in the preliminary round. A second-half goal may have a big role to play should goal differential become a factor.

But make no mistake: This was a test against one of the best, and the loss makes it more difficult for the Canadians to come out of their group - and more difficult to imagine them on the podium if they do.

"Moral victories aren’t going to get us into the next round,'' Canadian midfielder Diana Matheson said. "We’re going to have to get some points, and we need a result against Sweden, for sure.''

Oh, for sure. The Canadians play the Swedes on Tuesday. The Canadians are ranked seventh in the world, the Swedes fourth. That match could determine whether the Canadians advance.

But let’s not forget the Canadians have to play South Africa first on Saturday. It’s a match they should win easily, considering the South Africans are ranked 63rd in the world. But it’s also a match they pretty much have to win now. A team that flamed out with three losses in last year’s World Cup – scoring only one goal along the way – cannot afford to look past anyone, even if it did make a coaching change won the Pan American Games and then qualified for these Summer Games at home.

"By far, I think they’re the hardest games, because everyone always kind of lets their foot off the pedal a little bit, whether consciously or subconsciously,'' Canadian goalkeeper Erin McLeod said. "But I think what we learned from the World Cup is, no matter who we’re playing, we’ve got to show up.''

Herdman wanted the Canadians to come out with a relentless attitude Wednesday. He figured if they were going to win, they were going to have to win ugly against Japan, currently ranked third in the world. The Japanese are quick, tactical. They sneak the ball into tight places you wouldn’t expect. The Canadians would have to play tough. The ball would have to bounce their way.

They played tough. They tackled hard. They battled in the box. They cleared the ball out of several dangerous situations in front of McLeod.

"That’s what this team’s got to be about in (these) games,'' Herdman said. ''So the first line’s beaten, the second line’s beaten. But someone’s going to put their body on the line and make sure the third one’s not, and that’s what I loved about them tonight''

[Related: U.S. storms back to beat France]

But why is that what this team must be about? Because this team isn’t the better team in these games.

The bottom line Wednesday is that the ball was near the Canadian net too often and the Japan net not nearly enough. Said McLeod: "I seemed pretty busy or felt pretty busy the whole game.'' Added star captain Christine Sinclair: "I think we had one shot maybe.'' Sinclair was uncharacteristically quiet.

The Japanese struck in the 33rd minute, when Shinobu Ohno drew the ball back smartly with her right foot and set up a sharp finish by Nahomi Kawasumi. They made it 2-0 in the 44th minute on a miscalculation by McLeod, allowing Aya Miyama to head the ball into an empty goal.

McLeod went after the ball even though at least three of her defenders were there. She collided with them and failed to grab the ball, dropping Carmelina Moscato to the pitch as the ball bounced into the net. “My defenders had it covered, and I came too far out, basically,” McLeod said.

It could have gotten ugly. Yuki Ogimi had the ball alone a few feet in front of an open net in the 51st minute. But Lauren Sesselmann materialized and cleared the ball off the goal line, crashing into the left post.

"It was like, 'Oh, crap,''' Sesselmann said. "The mood lifted after that, and then we got a goal, and it was incredible.''

Just 4 ½ minutes later, Rhian Wilkinson fired a cross from the right side. Melissa Tancredi got in front of her defender and tapped it into the net. The Canadians sustained some pressure after that. “We started to get there and rock the Japanese a little bit,” Herdman said.

But only a little bit. The Japanese regained control, and defender Candace Chapman left with a leg injury (and left the stadium on crutches). In the end, Herdman could say only that the Canadians matched the world champions “for periods.” He tried to keep high hopes in check without dashing them.

On one hand, Herdman said: ''I think you’ve got to keep the expectations real.'' On the other hand, he said: ''It’s the first game of the tournament. There’s another five to go for us, hopefully.''

Another five?

There is hope. Just less than there was before.