Canada still relies far too heavily on iconic captain Christine Sinclair

Under normal circumstances, a draw against the host nation in your opening match at the Olympics would be celebrated and viewed as a valuable point earned. But it’s rarely ever been that straightforward when it comes to the Canadian women’s soccer team.

Canada comfortably enjoyed the bulk of possession and the balance of play before conceding late in a 1-1 stalemate against Japan in its tournament opener on Wednesday in Sapporo.

“They’re very, very technical with the ball. We knew that, but we had identified that we have to use our strengths and we wanted to impose ourselves without the ball against Japan, and I think we did that at times,” Canadian coach Bev Priestman said in the post-match press conference.

It’s far too early to sound the alarm bell, but there are legitimate reasons to be concerned going forward, and there’s no escaping the lingering question that longtime followers of this team have routinely asked for the past several years: Aside from Christine Sinclair, where are the goals going to come from for Canada?

Sinclair marked her 300th international appearance by bagging her 187th career goal, and the iconic Canadian captain now has 12 goals in 15 matches at the Olympics, having scored in four Olympic tournaments. So long as the 38-year-old forward is on the field, the Reds will always have a chance to win games.

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Captain Christine Sinclair gives Canada a 1-0 lead over Japan with her record-extending 187th international goal of her career. 1:16

At the same time, the Canadians could have used a lot more incisive attacking play, as they lacked a distinct cutting edge in the final third of the pitch against a very average Japanese team. While fullbacks Ashley Lawrence and Alysha Chapman, as well as Janine Beckie and Nichelle Prince all had good looks on goal, Canada managed just one shot on target, which led to Sinclair’s strike in the sixth minute.

That’s simply not good enough for a Canadian side that still relies far too heavily on its iconic captain to lead the offence, and for a team whose lack of clinical finishing was a major issue coming into the Tokyo Olympics. Clare Rustad, a former Canadian women’s team player and current CBC Sports broadcaster, can’t help but wonder who will step up to lessen the goal-scoring burden resting on Sinclair’s shoulders after Canada’s somewhat timid attacking display against the host nation.

“It’s no secret that goals have been difficult to come by for this team, and that’s the big takeaway from this game. I’m still not clear where goals are going to come from [besides Sinclair], or even where really dangerous chances are going to come from,” Rustad said.

“There were a lot of positive things, and there was some nice build-up play. But it’s that willingness to be the one who shoots that was missing. There were multiple times where players should have had a crack on goal, and instead they get into the penalty area and want to pass the ball off, or want to try to force it into the six-yard box. More of their attacking players need to have the bravery to just have a shot on goal.”

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Canadian goalkeeper Stephanie Labbé is injured in a collision but is called for penalty. Labbé makes the save on Mina Tanaka then is substituted out of the game for Kailen Sheridan. 3:02

It’s not just about being brave in taking a shot, either. Canada’s attackers have to be more clever in terms of trying to get in behind opposing defenders, rather than simply attempting to go through them. 

“They seem to want to play what’s right in front of them, but if you think a pass or two ahead, then you can play the ball through and find that runner, and unbalance opposing teams,” Rustad explained.

That’s what happened on the tying goal in the 84th minute. Forward Mana Iwabuchi latched onto a fabulous through ball played out from inside Japan’s half and found a small gap between Canadian centre backs Kadeisha Buchanan and Shelina Zadorsky before beating goalkeeper Kailen Sheridan with a shot at the near post.

“The Japanese were not that great today, by any means, but their goal was somewhat emblematic of what both teams need to do – be willing to try to find those spaces as strikers, make it difficult for centre backs to know who’s marking you, and find those little spaces to get in behind,” Rustad explained.

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Too many times, Canada simply lumped a ball into the box in the vain hope that Sinclair would run onto it. Beckie was one of the worst culprits, and although the forward looked more dangerous deployed in a midfield role, there were times when she should’ve held onto the ball to draw a teammate into the play.

“The move of dropping Beckie back in the midfield made her a little bit more dangerous going forward and made her more able to contribute to the attack. I’m still not convinced she can be consistently threatening around the opposition’s goal, though,” Rustad said.

“If you’re going to deliver a ball into the box, it just can’t be lobbed in there. It has to be driven into the box, it has to be targeted for someone.”

Canada can take comfort in the fact that it made life very uncomfortable for Japan for a long stretch before it notched the equalizer, especially after Priestman made a very aggressive substitution in the 73rd minute in replacing holding midfielder Quinn with Deanne Ross. The youngster’s nimbleness and fleet-footed movement with the ball ignited Canada’s attack with a dangerous spark, as she was continuously looking to link up with a teammate.

“Deanne Rose kept her head up and tried to find someone and pick them out with an accurate pass. That has to be everybody for Canada. Everybody has to be thinking like that,” Rustad stated.

Évelyne Viens and Adrian Leon came on with five minutes left in regulation, and although the forwards didn’t score, they did stretch Japan’s defence with their probing runs, offering hope as possible future sources for goals for Canada at this tournament.

“Canada’s substitutes give me hope. We saw Leon and Viens a little too late, and neither really had a chance to make an impact, but they along with Rose might be where Canada is looking to for more goals; to be those impactful substitutes who come on late in the game and inject some life into the front line,” Rustad offered.

WATCH l CBC Sports’ The Olympians feature on women’s soccer:

Watch CBC Sports’ The Olympians feature, on Women’s Soccer. 6:02