Canadian soccer vets Tancredi, Wilkinson, Nault set to wave goodbye in friendly

Canadian soccer veterans set to wave goodbye

VANCOUVER — No one was quite sure what Melissa Tancredi would say or when she would say it.

Handed the captaincy for Canada’s final group game of the women’s soccer tournament at the Rio Olympics, the veteran forward was tasked with leading a team that already had two wins in the bag and a spot booked in the quarter-finals.

Some believed the best route to a medal would be to lose the match against Germany and set up a meeting with a weaker opponent in the next round.

Usually one to lighten the mood with her quick wit or locker-room dancing, Tancredi was having none of it during a passionate pre-game speech where she hit a number of key notes and inspired Canada to a 2-1 win over the European powerhouse.

“She hummed and hawed a bit,” Canadian head coach John Herdman recalled. “I don’t think she wanted that pressure because she just wanted to play the game. We didn’t know when she was going to speak. She just opened up and my goodness, it had an impact.”

That Olympic story is one of many being shared this week in Vancouver with Tancredi, Rhian Wilkinson and Marie-Eve Nault set to play their final game for Canada on Saturday in a friendly against Mexico at B.C. Place Stadium.

Canada made six changes to its lineup for its final group game in Brasilia, but Tancredi still spearheaded an historic victory with two goals for the team’s first-ever win over the Germans in 13 attempts dating back to 1994.

“Any time you wear that captain’s arm band it just does something to you,” said Tancredi. “It touches your heart.”

Canada would down France 1-0 in the Olympic quarters, but fell 2-0 to that same Germany squad in the semis before rebounding to beat Brazil 2-1 in the bronze-medal match on Aug. 19.

“That was her moment,” Wilkinson said of Tancredi’s speech. “We play for Canada. We don’t throw matches. We don’t ever go on the field without giving 100 per cent.

“She essentially told us she expected to beat Germany, she was going to lead the way and we had to follow her … and we did.”

“All of a sudden Tanc started talking,” added striker Nichelle Prince. “She told us how much this game meant to her and how much it meant for our country. She had so much passion and so much emotion. Everyone was taken aback.”

Saturday’s game marks Canada’s first appearance on home soil since Brazil and is being billed as a celebration of back-to-back Olympic bronze medals after also finishing third at London 2012. But it will also serve as a tribute to three veterans whose tireless efforts have helped get the country to No. 4 in the world.

“There’s a Canadian grit that these women instill in this team, this fight right to the end, because they’ve been fighting through everything all through their careers,” said Herdman. “You can’t replace that, but they’ve been passing the torch well.”

Tancredi, 35, has 27 goals heading into her 125th appearance, while Wilkinson, a thoughtful 34-year-old defender will play in her 181st match. Nault, also 34, has suited up 70 times for her country and was an important piece back at the 2012 Games when two defenders ahead of her in the pecking order went down with injuries.

“It’s like losing a sister,” midfielder Desiree Scott said of the impending retirements. “They’re like family.”

Wilkinson made her debut in 2003, while Tancredi and Nault joined the setup the following year.

“They’re our best friends. I’ve literally grown up playing beside these people,” said captain Christine Sinclair, 33. “It’s going to be sad to see them go, but man, they’ve left a mark on this country.”

The game against No. 26 Mexico at B.C. Place is Canada’s first at the venue since crashing out as hosts of the 2015 Women’s World Cup in a devastating 2-1 defeat to England at the quarter-final stage.

“We’ve experienced some great Olympic qualifiers here, we’ve experienced a World Cup disaster here,” said Tancredi. “It’s just our way of saying thanks to the fans and really celebrating a great year for us.”

Tancredi, Wilkinson and Nault leave the national team in good shape with preparations for the 2019 World Cup and the 2020 Olympics already underway.

Coming off a recent camp in California, Canada called up 19 of the 21 women who were at the Olympics for the Mexico game — stars Ashley Lawrence and Kadeisha Buchanan weren’t released by their new French clubs —but Herdman has also sprinkled seven players under the age of 21 into the squad, including five teenagers.

“You just know the future of this team is so bright,” said Sinclair. “A lot of (the credit) goes to players like Rhian, Tanc, Marie-Eve that are leaving a legacy.

“A lot of these youngsters started playing soccer because of players like those three. It’s going to be an emotional day.”

Notes: The Canadian Soccer Association says more than 20,000 tickets have been sold for Saturday. … Canada and Mexico will also play a closed-door friendly on Tuesday.

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Joshua Clipperton, The Canadian Press

Canadian Press