In a World Cup full of underdogs outperforming expectations, Ireland might be the biggest little fish in a vast sea. Indeed, for those of us on Team Chaos this summer, the Girls in Green were a shining beacon of hope. The World Cup debutants seemed to have the tenacity and skill to make their mark and maybe, just maybe, make it out of a deadly Group B. The good news: They did make an impression. The bad news: They’ve been eliminated before the knockout round anyway.
After a frustrating, narrow loss to host Australia in their first match, Ireland started today’s game bursting with confidence. This was in stark contrast to Canada, who looked more like 11 limp noodles than a soccer team. This lethargy was somewhat understandable, seeing as much of the first half was played amidst a torrential downpour, and the Irish stunned everyone by scoring one of the most difficult and unexpected kinds of goals the sport has to offer.
In the fourth minute, Irish captain Katie McCabe took a gorgeous corner kick that, with the grace of a thousand swans, flew the length of the touchline and landed in the net. The olimpico defied even the mighty Kailen Sheridan, who—according to Anthony DiCicco—erred in stepping forward before assessing the ball’s trajectory. These details won’t really matter in our collective memory, though, because this was Ireland’s first ever World Cup goal, and it was every bit worthy of the moment.
The Irish attack continued to threaten, led by the excellent trio of McCabe, Denise O’Sullivan, and Sinead Farrelly. They caused all kinds of problems for Canada, who really didn’t trouble Ireland much at all until Jordyn Huitema’s long-range effort in the 23rd minute. Lucky for the Irish, the shot was no challenge for keeper Courtney Brosnan. Six minutes later, it appeared that Canada was really going to equalize, but Vanessa Gilles did a classically Canadian thing and put a great flick from Kadeisha Buchanan over the crossbar despite being about five yards—metres, sorry—from the net.
These Canadian shots, though misses, were a marked improvement on their sorry opening 20 minutes, and marked a turn in the game’s momentum. The Irish had a final chance at doubling the lead in the 41st minute—McCabe’s long through ball to Kyra Carusa was excellent, yet the striker couldn’t convert—but Canada’s long-awaited equalizer finally came in first-half stoppage time. Midfielder Julia Grosso cut back from the corner, sent a speculative I-hope-the-pounding-rain-helps-this-ball-bounce-its-way-into-the-net cross into the box, and her wish came true with a deflection from Irish defender Megan Connolly.
Thus Canada went into the locker room at the half with energy and hope, and Ireland with disappointment. Unfortunately for those of us rooting for an upset, Canada came out of the locker room having made three critical substitutions, most notably putting in legendary duo Sophie Schmidt and Christine Sinclair. These two veterans have been through enough tough World Cup matches to know how to change the tides of a game, and that they did. Well, kind of—Schmidt was brilliant, but Sinclair was decidedly not. The latter missed repeated gimme shots, in eerie similarity to fellow long-toothed legend Megan Rapinoe’s lackluster performance against Vietnam. But Schmidt was the motor that broke down Ireland’s lines, and it was no surprise when she set up the winning goal just minutes into the half.
After winning a tackle in the middle third, Schmidt had plenty of time to spin around and send a perfectly weighted ball to forward Adriana Leon, who was bolting towards net. Leon controlled the ball deftly, and with a lunge of her leg managed to sweep the ball into the net before the defender could clear the danger. Much to my chagrin, I couldn’t even be mad, as it was a truly beautiful play.
In our Defector soccer sickos chat, this goal and our collective groan prompted us to discuss why we didn’t enjoy rooting for Canada. After all, they’ve got some really great players and are bravely fighting against their federation; what more could you ask? We ultimately decided that, more than their rivalry with the U.S., it’s just because it’s rare that Canada’s play is any fun. Their individual players are all fantastic on their respective club teams, but when they come together internationally, the neutral-solid nature of their country seeps into their (lack of) style. They did win the Olympics two years ago, but as Tobin Heath hilariously pointed out, much of their actual play wasn’t all that inspiring.
The Canadians must have heard our gripes, because that second goal set off a genuinely entertaining half in which they were consistently the better team. No more of their shots found the net, but they were promising enough to elicit multiple gasps from yours truly. That’s as good a sign of fun footy if I’ve ever known one! Schmidt, Quinn, and Ashley Lawrence were excellent for the No Official Nicknames and I am happy for them that they got the win.
Still, the result was a bummer for Ireland. Their flair and grit from the opening half pretty much vanished after Canada went ahead; one could say their previously crisp Lucky Charms marshmallows turned to soggy mush. Frantic attempts at an equalizer were not very skillful and the scoreline was ultimately a just reflection of the run of play. I guess passion and dogged self-belief can’t always power an unseasoned team past a Goliath. I’m looking forward to seeing Ireland build off of this encouraging debut performance, starting with what should be a great match against Nigeria on Monday, and I know they are too. As McCabe said after the game, “We’ve done so much to get here, and now it’s about pushing on, and we know the level now. We’ve had experience at tournaments and we’re gonna be hungry for more.”