Rio 2016: Canadian women one win from Olympic soccer medal

SAO PAOLO, Brazil – Allysha Chapman clutched a furry moose, the Canadian Olympic team mascot, with the one arm that wasn’t in a sling after Canada’s quarter-final win over France.

The five-foot-three fullback had been flattened going after the ball in front of the Canadian goal. Her shoulder popped out as she was pancaked into the turf by a bigger Frenchwoman.

ChangSha Night Net

The shoulder popped back in but Chapman, in obvious pain, had to be substituted as the first half counted down in Canada’s 1-0 win over France on Friday night before 38,688 at Corinthians Arena.

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“She’s as hard as they come,” coach John Herdman approvingly. “The last World Cup she was playing with a torn oblique (muscle) in two matches. Which if anyone’s had that is one of the most painful things you can carry around. She was taking injections and just running through things.”

Herdman calls it “Canadian grit.” His players talk of dogged determination, self-belief and giving it their all. Whatever it is, it’s working.

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Canada, ranked 10th in the world, is 4-0-0 in Brazil and has beaten three top-five teams in No. 2 Germany, No. 3 France and No. 5 Australia. Next up is a semifinal rematch Tuesday with Germany in Belo Horizonte.

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“This momentum is scary for the teams that are coming up against us,” said 21-year-old forward Janine Beckie, whose offensive flair has been key for Canada.

No. 6 Sweden faces No. 8 Brazil in the other semifinal in Ro.

A master at connecting his players and then bringing the best out of them, Herdman has found a recipe for success with a team he retooled after a quarter-final exit last summer at the World Cup.

“Bold changes,” says the English coach.

So bold, that few thought the roster could knit together in time to succeed at the Olympics. Instead, his revamped squad is coming of age on the world stage.

His starting 11 against France had an average age of 25.5, with five players 28 and over and five 23 and under. The ages ranged from 33-year-old captain Christine Sinclair and 32-year-old Diana Matheson to 18-year-old Jessie Fleming. A 17-year-old, two 21-year-olds and a 23-year-old waited on the bench.

“That’s what’s unique about the group. These (veteran) girls have embraced these young kids,” said Herdman. “The kids have embraced the seniors as well. It’s a special little chemistry that’s going on there and they’re formed something that you’re seeing on the pitch.

“It’s all right talking about stuff off the pitch – culture and everything – but it’s only ever revealed in adversity. And this group has been revealing it, game after game. Game after game, they keep showing something that tells you that we might be able to do this.”

He means mounting the medal podium again, four years after winning bronze in London. The Canadians are one win away from accomplishing that, with gold on their minds.

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Against France, the Canadians gave up 22 free kicks to a team with big targets like six-foot-one captain Wendie Renard. They repulsed everything fired into their penalty box, with goalkeeper Stephanie Labbe leading the way.

“They couldn’t find a way through us. They had to play around us. And when they did, our Canadian DNA came out,” said Beckie, who carries both Canadian and U.S. passports.

Said Labbe: “Just like Canada does, we stayed tight defensively.”

Their self-belief is stout. And the focus is unwavering. A team official said you could have heard a pin drop on the team bus as it made its way to the stadium.

“We’re developing people, not players,” Herdman said proudly.

Different players have stepped up in each game.

Against Australia, 21-year-old defender Rebecca Quinn filled the void when Kadeisha Buchanan was sent off. Beckie had two goals against Zimbabwe. Veteran Melissa Tancredi scored twice against Germany. Sophie Schmidt delivered the winning goal against France.

Canada has conceded just twice in four games here and believes it can stack its defence against any team in the world. On offence, it has the talent to introduce the “moment of quality” needed, as Herdman says.

As for the 27-year-old Chapman, Herdman said the tenacious defender will be assessed prior to the German match.

“I know Chappie will want to play with one arm. She’ll want to be out there,” he said. “We’ll make sure we take care of her and make the right decision.”

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