Women’s World Cup: Canada Ties Nigeria, but Laments Missed Penalty

Canada’s Julia Grosso, right, and Nigeria’s Michelle Alozie competed to a scoreless draw in Melbourne, Australia.Credit…Robert Cianflone/Getty Images

Not much of what led to this World Cup has gone the way Canada’s women’s team might have wanted. Fights over funding and paychecks and support. A key player lost to injury. A curious absence of match preparation. Nigeria, embroiled in its own bitter pay dispute, probably would say the same.

Both teams had declared they were setting those things aside this week now that the games were here. “Forget about the distractions, and just focus on the game,” the Nigeria striker Asisat Oshoala, who plays for Barcelona, said earlier this week. But it was perhaps fitting, or at the very least unsurprising, that the first steps of the tournament — a scoreless draw on Friday in Melbourne — will leave neither team entirely satisfied.

Canada, which saw its soccer matriarch Christine Sinclair fail to convert a second-half penalty kick, will leave believing it could have, and maybe should have, won. Nigeria, which piled up fouls (16) but not shots on goal (1), will be wondering how it will adapt to the loss of midfielder Deborah Ajibola Abiodun; she was sent off late in the second half for a foul that was upgraded to red from yellow after a video review.

The emotions of the moments after the final whistle suggested both teams were processing the result differently. Nigeria’s goalkeeper, Chiamaka Nnadozie, who had saved the penalty, dropped to her knees as if celebrating a memorable victory. Sinclair, substituted for only the second time in six World Cups, sat glumly on the bench as Canada Coach Bev Priestman whispered encouragement in her ear, perhaps in vain.

“Christine Sinclair has scored many, many, many goals for this country and I’m sure the fans, the team and everyone can forgive missing a penalty kick,” Priestman said.

About the only winner on Friday, it seemed, was Australia. Its victory over Ireland on Thursday, combined with the Canada-Nigeria draw, left it atop Group B. Given that it is dealing with its own crisis of confidence after losing Sam Kerr, that will be a comfort. For now.

Switzerland forward Ramona Bachmann following through on a penalty kick with her right foot, with the ball in the air ahead of her.
Switzerland forward Ramona Bachmann scored on a penalty kick in her team’s opening match against the Philippines. Others have been less successful in this tournament.Credit…Sanka Vidanagama/Agence France-Presse — Getty Images

Five games, five penalties.

If the World Cup’s opening games have been slow to deliver in one statistic — until Spain started to pummel Costa Rica, the tournament had produced only two goals from open play — it is overproducing in another: penalty kicks.

Each of the first five games of the tournament has produced one. A handball by Norway. A shove by Ireland. A trip by Nigeria. A foul by Costa Rica. A very literal interpretation of the rules in Philippines-Switzerland.

Video assistant referees have played a role in several of the calls. The ball that hit the hand of Tuva Hansen of Norway late in its loss to New Zealand, for example, was spotted by the V.A.R. and relayed to the on-field referee, who had not whistled a penalty in real time. The penalties awarded to Canada and Switzerland, too, were only confirmed after officials took a second look.

Being awarded a penalty and scoring a penalty are two distinct actions, however. Only two of the five called were then converted into goals.

The upside of all those early trips to the spot? One of them has produced the play of the tournament so far: Chiamaka Nnadozie’s diving save of Christine Sinclair’s attempt in Nigeria’s draw with Canada in Melbourne.

Co-captain Lindsey Horan, left, and Coach Vlatko Andonovski sitting at a table during a news conference on Friday.
Co-captain Lindsey Horan, left, and Coach Vlatko Andonovski know that there are high expectations on the United States going into their game.Credit…Abbie Parr/Associated Press

On the eve of his country’s meeting with the United States, the reporter from Vietnam got right to the point.

“Are you going to crush us like you did Thailand four years ago?” he asked Coach Vlatko Andonovski and the U.S. co-captain Lindsey Horan.

Andonovski didn’t give a direct answer. Decorum meant he couldn’t say what many have been thinking (that the U.S. team might, in fact, crush Vietnam). But Andonovski also didn’t know the answer.

Not even he knows how a new combination of U.S. players will work together. Or how Vietnam, in its first World Cup, will fare in its first game, scheduled for Saturday morning in New Zealand at a time that Americans will be able to watch on Friday night (at 9 p.m. Eastern).

What he and Horan do know, however, is that the world of women’s soccer has changed since the United States thumped Thailand, 13-0, at the last World Cup.

There are not easy games that before you were just like, oh, this is going to be 6, 7-0 or whatever,” Horan said. “it’s not how it is anymore.”

Fears that an expanded tournament, now at 32 teams, might usher in more routs haven’t come true, at least not yet. The first two World Cup debutantes to take the field, Ireland and the Philippines, both lost, but in close games.

But the U.S. team isn’t the same as it was four years ago, either. Horan was reminded of that on Thursday morning when Becky Sauerbrunn, the team’s longtime captain who is out with an injury, texted her to wish her good luck. Sauerbrunn, Horan said, told her to embrace her new role as captain.

Horan and her co-captain, Alex Morgan, lead a team that includes 14 World Cup rookies of its own. It is their job to show the newcomers how to win games under pressure, to live up to the expectations of a dynasty and to do it with the whole world watching.

Andonovski said Thursday that he would have the full roster at his disposal. Rose Lavelle and Megan Rapinoe, who have been nursing injuries, might see limited minutes. Julie Ertz, who has rushed back after having her first child last year, is “100 percent.” It is very important, he said, for him to see the team connect on the field after it hasn’t played together, with all of its parts, in a while.

“Regardless of what happened in the past, it is important for us to win this tournament, to do well in this tournament,” he said.

He also didn’t give a direct answer to another question from a different reporter from Vietnam, likely because it addressed a subject he doesn’t want to think about.

That reporter asked, “What will happen if U.S.A. cannot win against Vietnam?”

One of the toughest parts of watching the Women’s World Cup this year may be keeping track of all the time zones in Australia and New Zealand where the matches are being played.

That will require lots of math and, in some cases, middle-of-the-night alarms. So let us help!

Our friends at The Upshot have created a handy tool that allows you to see the World Cup schedule easily, accurately and in the time zone of your device’s location.

Credit…Madison Ketcham

The third time around, Megan Rapinoe’s reaction to a potentially career-ending knee injury went no further than an eye roll. She had torn her anterior cruciate ligament. She could reel off the recovery schedule from the top of her head. She could see, crystal clear, the next nine to 12 months spooling out in front of her.

The surgery, the painstaking rehab, the grueling weeks in the gym, the anxious first steps on the turf, the slow journey back to what she had once been. As she considered it in 2015, she felt something closer to exasperation than to despair. “I was like, ‘I don’t have time for this,’” she said.

The first time had been different. She had torn the anterior cruciate ligament in her left knee at age 21, when she was a breakout star in her sophomore year at the University of Portland. At that time, she felt what she called “the fear” — the worry that it might all be over before it had begun.

Over the last year or so, that fear — and the searching questions it prompts — has coursed through women’s soccer. The sport has at times seemed to be in the grip of an epidemic of A.C.L. injuries, one so widespread that at one point it had sidelined a quarter of the nominees for last year’s Ballon d’Or.

Vivianne Miedema of the Netherlands, whose knee injury will keep her out of the World Cup, pointed out that, this season alone, almost 60 players in Europe’s five major leagues had torn their A.C.L.s. “It is ridiculous,” she said earlier this year. “Something needs to be done.”

Working out precisely what that might be, though, is more complicated than anyone would like.

The U.S. team during a match against Wales leading up to the World Cup.
Credit…Marlena Sloss for The New York Times

Sports are often about gaps: talent gaps, experience gaps, compensation gaps. And in the weeks and months before the Women’s World Cup that began on Thursday in Australia and New Zealand, the players on the U.S. national women’s soccer team have found an unlikely bond in jokes, jabs and stories related to what may be their most notable feature: a generation gap.

The team’s oldest player is Megan Rapinoe, 38, the iconic athlete who recently announced that she would retire after this World Cup and the end of her current professional season. The youngest is Alyssa Thompson, who is 18, just graduated high school and still lives with her parents. At least three of Thompson’s teammates — Morgan, Crystal Dunn and Julie Ertz — have children of their own.

Thompson said that her older teammates sometimes play music that she doesn’t recognize, but that the different age groups find a middle ground with Cardi B. Sophia Smith, a 22-year-old forward, said she does recognize the music, though by genre, not by artist. “They sound like what my parents listen to,” she said.

Smith admitted last month that she never has used a CD player and that she refuses to watch TV shows or movies if the video quality is “grainy.” One exception: videos of the 1999 Women’s World Cup final, a historic victory by the United States that spurred rapid growth of women’s soccer in America. Unlike some of her teammates, Smith has no memory of watching that team play — the final was played more than a year before she was born.

Players for England stand in a semicircle around their coaches on a soccer field.
England players at a training session on Friday in Brisbane, Australia.Credit…Dan Peled/Reuters

Another of the top contenders for a Women’s World Cup title takes to the field Saturday, when England opens its campaign against Haiti. The English won the European Championship last year and are looking to build on that success. Despite missing two key players, the Lionesses have enough pieces of their Euro roster to make a real run.

Denmark and Japan are also two teams to watch throughout this tournament. Japan wants to get back in the contender conversation after last reaching a World Cup quarterfinal in 2015, and started with a dominant win Saturday against Zambia. Denmark has beaten Sweden, Norway and Japan in the last year.

Japan looked impressive against Zambia, not only putting up five goals — the most for any team in a game in this tournament so far — but also holding Zambia without a single shot. Yes, that’s correct, Zambia had zero shots. Japan, meanwhile, looked fluid and comfortable as it wove through the Zambia defense.

Japan has long been a fixture in World Cup competition and is the only Asian team to have won the women’s tournament, beating the United States in a penalty shootout in 2011. But the past few years haven’t gone Japan’s way — the team made an early exit from the 2019 World Cup in the round of 16, then lost in the quarterfinals of the Tokyo Olympics in 2021.

Zambia, led by Barbra Banda, is among the newcomers in this year’s tournament. But the team has been embroiled in allegations of sexual abuse after players accused staff members, including Coach Bruce Mwape, of demanding sexual favors. The Football Association of Zambia and FIFA are conducting investigations.

Aside from the United States, England may be facing the greatest expectations of any team in the tournament. The English won the 2022 Euros on home soil, catapulting the team’s players to household-name status. But some of those names are missing from England’s current World Cup roster, after the Euro captain Leah Williamson and the star forward Beth Mead both tore anterior cruciate ligaments.

England still has a competitive squad that will look to make a deep run. Its first obstacle will be Haiti, one of eight newcomers to this year’s Women’s World Cup. Because of gang violence and instability in the country, the women’s national team has had limited opportunities to train and no sponsors. While Haiti is unlikely to make it out of the group stage, the team is hoping its play inspires more girls on the island to take up soccer.

China’s lone appearance in a World Cup final came in 1999, when it lost to the United States in a penalty shootout at the Rose Bowl in California. At the 2019 World Cup, the team lost to Italy in the round of 16, a stage it hopes to reach again this year, unlikely as that is. According to their coach, Shui Qingxia, the Chinese are looking at this World Cup as an opportunity to reintroduce themselves to the world stage.

That reintroduction will begin Saturday against Denmark, a team that has missed the past three World Cups and is looking to make up for lost time. A successful run for the Danes would see them make the round of 16, and a win over China would be a first step in that direction.

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