MOSCATO: Japan friendly invaluable for CanWNT in 2020 Olympic prep

The Canadian women’s national team headed to Japan earlier this week for a lenghthy training camp that will include an international friendly against the Japanese in the Reds’ first game since the FIFA Women’s World Cup in France this past summer.

The Oct. 6 match in Shizuoka also comes during a FIFA window and at the official beginning of the team’s road to qualifying for the 2020 Tokyo Olympics. A positive result against Japan will be critical for Canada in setting the mindset for a new campaign towards the Olympics, marking a step forward after a disappointing early exit from the World Cup. In addition, after dropping two spots in the recent FIFA rankings from No. 5 to No. 7, Canada will use this game to attempt to regain critical FIFA ranking points against tenth-ranked Japan.

After this summer’s “best ever” Women’s World Cup , as stated by FIFA President Gianni Infantino, I was asked as TSN’s Canadian national team analyst to share my thoughts on what Canada needed to do in the women’s game moving forward in order to find itself in a World Cup final in 2023.

Although it’s a loaded and complex question, some ideas were obvious to me, the most prevalent being that more “Tier 1 games” are needed, and more often throughout the quadrennial.

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In the case of choosing Japan as the opposition for this tour, it makes sense as it will be a relevant game against a top side from the Asian confederation that will prove valuable in eventual tournament play, especially with the Japanese set to host next summer’s Olympics.

The Japanese women’s team have been trailblazers in tactical excellence for over a decade. Their structural expertise, both in and out of possession, combined with sublime timing in their cohesive player movements have often times made them undefendable and impenetrable. This was highlighted by their 2011 World Cup final win when they took down the highly-touted United States.

The 2019 Women’s World Cup TSG (Technical Study Group) report that was recently released noted that more teams are on track to employ the same playing style. The TSG called it “Player Movement and Rotations” as general emergent theme of the tournament.

It’s fair to say Japan has been the model for this playing style, with teams only catching up within the last four years. Japan is currently in a natural talent cycle, meaning they’ve retired key players such as Homare Sawa, Naho Kawasumi and Aya Miyami, bringing down their overall player age and experience level. Simply put, their roster is young – in fact, Japan had the second youngest team in the World Cup.

These aspects of the Japanese soccer DNA coupled with their technical ability on the ball in all positions will create the perfect challenge for Canada to try to break down. The more on-field problems this Canadian team can solve, the more they will track towards being the most “tactically adaptable team in the world,” a long-standing goal of the team dating back to 2012 under former coach John Herdman.

Kenneth Heiner-Moller and Shelina Zadorsky during training. (Photo: Martin Bazyl/Canada Soccer).
Kenneth Heiner-Moller and Shelina Zadorsky during training. (Photo: Martin Bazyl/Canada Soccer).

Looking back at this summer, the reality is a World Cup is all exposing. It tests teams and showcases both strengths and weaknesses during games with the highest pressure moments for both players and coaches.

Canada’s pair of losses in the tournament and early exit came at the hands of a dynamic Dutch team in the group stage finale and an impenetrable Sweden side in the round of 16. Those results took on more context after the competition was over, and we were able to observe that Canada’s setbacks came against the World Cup’s second and third place teams, respectfully.

Canada lost those matches by “inches and yards and moments,” as they say, with only one goal separating the teams at the time. The more concerning statistic, however, came from the lack of meaningful, dangerous opportunities created by the Canadian side.

The xG metric can help put Canada’s World Cup performance into perspective. xG, in its simplest terms, is a score assigned to each chance by a player or team, representing the likelihood of that chance resulting in a goal. On average Canada generated 15.8 shots per match, but only 3.5 on target. This calculated to an xG score of 5.4. By comparison, the U.S. are operating at a 12 xG rate, meaning they need far less opportunities to score a goal.

Statistics aside, creativity, combination play, shooting from distance, patience, urgency, and competition in the box are all themes that apply to Canada’s improvement areas in the final third.

Post-tournament, Canadian coach Kenneth Heiner Möller was quoted as saying, “It’s not that we didn’t know that those were the key factors that we had to put attention into, which was the final third. I thought we did, but obviously we didn’t put enough attention into that. Or it didn’t transfer into the matches. So that’s what we’re looking at. That’s the main learning from that tournament.”

You can only respect the candor in which the Canadian national team coach addressed the tournament learnings.

But the reality is that Canada has less than a year to convert the learnings from the devastating early exit at the World Cup and turn them into podium performances at next summer’s Tokyo Olympics – and the first step is Japan on Sunday.

Carmelina Moscato scored two goals in 94 appearances for the Canadian women’s team from 2002 to 2015, helping the Reds win an Olympic bronze medal in 2012. Today, Moscato serves as Commissioner of League1 Ontario Women’s Division, as well as Manager of Women’s Professional Football Development for Canadian Soccer Business (CSB).