Canada's senior women's national team headed to August's Pan American Games in sun-soaked Rio de Janeiro shrouded in gloom and self doubt. With Amber Allen, Amy Apps and Robyn Gayle forced to stay home with major injuries, Canadian misfortunes continued once the team reached Brazil, losing Tanya Dennis, Amy Walsh, Candace Chapman, Melanie Booth and Martina Franko to various injuries over the course of their six matches.
Despite the setbacks, Even Pellerud's team - widely regarded as the second-best in the CONCACAF region behind the USA - started their Pan Am campaign brightly enough. Top scorer Christine Sinclair hit a hat trick in a 7-0 opening-day dismantling of Uruguay. Kara Lang repeated the dose two days later when she grabbed three in a 4-0 drilling of Ecuador, and then scored again in an 11-1 thumping of Jamaica in which Sinclair proved her pedigree once again by scoring four.
However, this is precisely where Canadian dreams of glory and Gold came crashing down.
In their fourth group-stage contest, the wheels came off for the North Americans, who were hoping to use the Pan Am games as a springboard for September's fast-approaching FIFA Women's World Cup in China. Suffering losses through injury, the Canadians were thrashed 7-0 by hosts and eventual champions Brazil. While goal queen Sinclair was held scoreless by the smashing South Americans, Brazilian Marta went on a rampage, showing the Canucks how it's done with no less than five goals on the day.
"Obviously we are not where we need to be heading into a world cup," Canada's Norwegian coach Pellerud remarked after the shocking defeat. "Our biggest problem right now is individual defending, we're losing fights all over the field and that's a huge problem."
For a team renowned for their fighting spirit and physical combativeness, the problem will be a particularly worrisome one for Pellerud, who led the Canuck ladies to the semi-finals of the last FIFA Women's World Cup in the USA in 2003.
As if to highlight their current defensive woes and pour salt into open wounds, the Canucks then lost out 2-1 to archrivals USA - who sent their U-20 team to compete in Rio - in the semi-final, leaving only Bronze as a medal option. The Canadians rebounded to beat Mexico 2-1 with goals from Kristina Kiss and Sinclair in the third-place game at the famous Maracana to head for home with slightly better than shattered confidence.
"Obviously we still have a lot of work to do before
we're ready [for the upcoming World Cup in China], but at least
we beat Mexico and played pretty well during the game," said
Sinclair who finished the ten-team tournament with eight goals.
"At least we're a little more confident now than we were
after the Brazil and USA games."
Pellerud echoed Sinclair's concerns and knows things will need to improve before the team kicks off their China 2007 campaign against his birth country of Norway in Hangzhou on 12 September.
"Overall, it (the Mexico game) was a better performance than before. The worst was Brazil, and we were slightly better against USA," the coach remarked. " And we were even better than that today. It was good to finish on a high note, but it was never great."
"This is not World Cup level, we need to be better," the coach concluded, knowing his team have only one friendly left (against Japan) before China 2007 gets underway.
The players will now have two weeks to recover from various knocks and strains before getting back to full-time training in Vancouver. "We are ten times better than we showed in Rio," said defender Martina Franko defiantly. "We're going to come back, and want it. This isn't going to hold us back," added Karina Leblanc.
When asked if there is enough time to get the team in fighting shape for China, Pellerud was unwavering. "I'm convinced," he said.