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Women's football review: Canada's amazing support for U20 World Cup

This week, Tim Grainey looks at the beginning of the U-20 Women's World Cup in Canada. Out of seven editions, this is the second time that Canada has hosted the event; their first time in 2002 was a seminal moment for the women's game in the country.

 U-20 Women's World Cup Returns to Its Roots

The U-20 has lately been used as a pre-test by FIFA for the host country' organizational abilities and a chance to build publicity and momentum ahead of the full Women's World Cup, which Canada will host next year.

The Canadian U-20 tournament currently being held (from August 5th through 24th), is interesting from a historical benchmark as well. Canada hosted the initial U-20 (then U-19) World Cup in August of 2002. The CSA used only three venues in British Colombia (Vancouver and Victoria) and Alberta (Edmonton) in the west. Just a few months after the men's World Cup in Japan/Korea, it was easy to get the sense that expectations by everyone were quite low and that only parents and friends of the players would pay attention.

However, the two-week-long event became a unifying story nationally and increased the national awareness of the women's game exponentially. Canada won five games to make their first ever world championship game in football at any level, men's or women's. The final was held in Edmonton's Commonwealth Stadium - a venue which is also being used this summer - before a sold-out crowd of 47,784 while another 900,000 watched on television, the largest audience ever on Cable Sports Network TSN at that time. The rapture displayed by Edmonton's fans was particularly shocking since the city had hosted a disastrous men's national team exhibition tournament in 1999 with small crowds, the losses from which forced the CSA to severely cut back its spending that year.

TSN announcer Gerry Dotson, opening the broadcast of the FIFA tournament final while the camera panned over the packed stadium exclaimed, "This thing has transcended sport across the country. It is more than just a game today; this is an event culturally, socially, of course a sporting event. It also is a watershed mark perhaps in the sport of soccer in this country. Things will never be the same, I dare say."

FIFA President Sepp Blatter succinctly labeled the tournament The Miracle of Canada.

Though Canada lost to the United States 1-0 in overtime, it couldn't suppress the magic the team had created.

Forward Candace Chapman said, "[To win the championship] would have just been icing on the cake. We might have lost the tournament but we won the heart of the nation. I think that says it all."

The exciting young Canadian team drove an explosion in media coverage and fan interest, mirroring in some ways what the U.S. team did in 1999 at the senior World Cup. What makes the Canadian story even more extraordinary is that the team was comprised of players between the ages of 15-18; most were still in high school. That team provided a number of full internationals for the side that finished fourth in the Women's World Cup in 2003 and who won Bronze at last summer's Olympics, including forward Christine Sinclair, midfielders Brittany Baxter (Timko) and Diane Matheson and goalkeeper Erin McLeod.

With such a history, inevitably the 2014 Canadian U-20 team has huge expectations on the field and off of it - such as to drive attendances, particularly in Toronto, which will not host games next summer at the Women's World Cup due to their previous award of the 2015 Pan-American Games. The 2002 tournament averaged over 11,000 per game, due to strong crowds over 20,000 for Edmonton's three double-headers during the knockout stage. So far, after three days of the 2014 tournament, the attendance average is 9,977 for the six doubleheaders, ranging from Toronto's high of 16,503 for Friday's group A matches including Canada-Finland, to a low of Moncton's 3,587 for Group C games last Wednesday - including England's tie with Korea Republic. (Note: The 2007 Men's U-20 tournament was also held in Canada and was hugely successful, averaging almost 23,000 per match, albeit with 24 teams and six host cities).

Wide Open Field for 2014 Tournament

In the first round of U-20 World Cup matches on Tuesday August 5, Canada lost in Toronto to a surprising Ghana 1-0 in Group A, while reigning champions USA lost 2-0 to Germany in Edmonton in Group B - the runners-up in 2012. Korea DPR defeated Finland 2-1 (Group A) while China and Brazil (Group B) ended deadlocked at 1-1. On Wednesday August 6, France (5-0 over Costa Rica) and New Zealand (2-0 over Paraguay) opened with wins in Group D while both games in Group C ended in 1-1 deadlocks: England versus Korea Republic in Moncton and Mexico versus Nigeria in Montreal. England's Martha Harris rescued a share of the points when Korea Republic's goalkeeper Min Yukyeong could not clear an indirect free kick. Harris, a defender with Liverpool, pounced on the rebound for the Young Lionesses.

In the second group matches on Friday August 8 and Saturday August 9, Canada came back from a 2-0 deficit against Finland at the half, with substitutes Janine Beckie (Texas Tech University) and Valerie Sanderson (University of Memphis) scoring within two minutes of each other, at the 48th and 50th minute respectively. Speedy forward Nichelle Prince's (Ohio State University) follow-up of a ball that Finland's goalkeeper punched out, sent the Toronto crowd of 16,503 home happy and gave themselves real hope to advance, particularly with Ghana losing to Korea DPR 3-0 in the other match.

In Group B in Edmonton, China came back from deficits on four occasions against the favored Germans, to end tied at 5-5 in an exciting match played in heavy rain. The U.S. defeated Brazil 1-0 on a late Lindsey Horan goal to make their final match Monday against China very pivotal, but leading on points 3 to 2 with Germany ahead with 4, the U.S. should be confident of advancing (the top two in each group advance to the quarterfinals).

On Saturday in Group C, England tied Mexico 1-1 and Nigeria defeated Korea Republic 2-1 in Moncton. Sunderland's Brittany Mead gave England the lead in the 36th minute with a 30 meter drive after nutmegging a Mexican opponent - arguably the goal of the tournament so far. Everton's Nikita Parris hit the post before Tanya Samarzich, who will attend the University of Southern California this fall, scored in the 70th minute after Everton goalkeeper Elizabeth Durack sent a horrible goal kick straight to a Mexican forward with no defender blocking her path to goal. In Group D in Montreal, France stunned New Zealand 4-0 and Paraguay defeated Costa Rica 2-1.

At this level, many of the teams rely entirely on home-based players including England and New Zealand along with the Korea Republic, Korea DPR, China, Finland, Ghana and Paraguay.

For the U.S., they have one player abroad: PSG's Lindsey Horan, who bucked the normal trend to play collegiately in the U.S. for a professional career abroad.

A handful of teams have a player or two currently with U.S. colleges, including French defender Aurelie Gagnet who plays at the University of Kansas, Nigeria forward Courtney Dike who is with Oklahoma State while Costa Rica has two players and Germany has three U-20 national team members playing with U.S. colleges; Germany's head and their coach Marin Meinert played professionally in the States with the WUSA.

The exceptions to the home-based rule are Canada and Mexico. Most of the Canadians are playing collegiately in the States (15 on the 21 player roster) while Mexico has seven members in the U.S., which particularly on the women's side has always been a source of youth prospects for the side, utilizing their diaspora. In addition, three Mexicans played for first-year expansion W-League side Sedona F.C. Strikers in Arizona: forwards Carolina Jaramillo and Luz Duarte and midfielder Greta Espinoza, with Duatre and Espinoza from border towns Nogales, Mexico and Yuma Arizona respectively.

However, since the Strikers were an organizational disaster off the field and supremely overmatched on the field (finishing with a 0-0-12 record with 3 goals scored and 68 surrendered), it is unlikely the trio will return next summer or if Sedona FC will either.

The final group matches for the U-20's are Tuesday and Wednesday with the quarterfinals set for Saturday and Sunday.

 Tim Grainey is a contributor to Tribal Football. His latest book Beyond Bend it Like Beckham on the global game of women's football. Get your copy today.

Follow Tim on Twitter: @TimGrainey

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