On Friday 12 August, Canada’s Sophie Schmidt woke up in Sao Paulo, a very long way from her home city of Winnipeg, with the feeling that her day was going to be a good one. Over her morning coffee she decided to share that sentiment with her team-mates, despite the fact that it might pile on even more pressure ahead of the day’s quarter-final with a strong France side at the Women’s Olympic Football Tournament Rio 2016.
“I just had a feeling and so in the morning I said I was going to score a goal,” said the midfielder, one of the most experienced in this Canada squad with over 130 starts to her name, to FIFA.com. And what was said, was soon done as Schmidt netted the only goal of the game at the Arena Corinthians. “It’s crazy. How’d it happen? I don’t know, but I had a really powerful feeling. My team-mates were asking me whether I’d score a wonder goal or a tap-in and I said that it didn’t really matter, did it? I just knew I was going to make it happen.”
In the end, it was a genuinely fine goal, featuring the crucial involvement of Janine Beckie. The striker worked a piece of magic out on the left, lifting the ball over a defender’s head and supplying a pinpoint cross, which Schmidt dispatched with both power and panache. “Scoring like that was like a dream goal, it’s the kind you only picture yourself scoring when you’re sleeping. I think it’s probably the most important goal I’ve scored in my career,” she said, after a strike which took the London 2012 bronze-medallists into a semi-final meeting with Germany.
Yet for someone who is one of the Canucks’ all-time leading scorers, surely it is not such a surprise for her to get on the scoresheet? “We’ve been taking on tough teams that press a fair bit higher up than us, so you have to put a bit more emphasis on defending. And we’ve got Sophie doing that, carrying out a more balanced role,” said Canada coach John Herdman, speaking to FIFA.com, on the additional responsibilities handed to his gifted 28-year-old charge. “When we’ve got the ball she plays her normal game, but when we don’t she has to work really hard. She’s fully bought into the idea and it’s getting results.”
Indeed, as a team, Canada’s defensive discipline over their first four games has been exemplary, the players defending as a compact unit, keeping their lines very close together and shutting down spaces. Proof of that is just two goals conceded, the second-best record of the four semi-finalists, behind only hosts Brazil. In attack, meanwhile, it is the pace of Herdman’s team that stands out, as well as a lethal strike duo and onrushing midfielders with an eye for goal, Schmidt among them.
Making a fine impression among opponents and technical observers alike, Canada are driven by a determination to put the disappointment of their quarter-final exit as hosts at the FIFA Women’s World Cup 2015™ behind them. In Herdman’s view, the lower pressure on his squad is also enabling them to unleash more of their potential. “[In 2015] we had the weight of a nation on our shoulders,” he said.
“The players aren’t performing with the hopes of an entire nation on their shoulders this time; playing a World Cup as hosts is something else. They’re now playing with freedom. They’re getting support back home, but they don’t even know about it. They’re in a bubble, totally focused.”
Within that bubble, Schmidt still managed to predict - and subsequently put away – the biggest goal of her career, the type of achievement that ties in perfectly with her team’s ascent. “We’ve come on a lot since last year,” she said, as the interview concluded.
“We’re hitting form at the right time, with the feeling we can tackle any opponent on any given day.” And though the date may not matter, how Schmidt feels on matchday morning just might...