The scene is set and the countdown is well underway for Canada’s quarter-final clash with England at BC Place on Saturday afternoon in the 2015 Women’s World Cup.
Both countries are still looking to make history in this year’s tournament, with Canada looking to advance to the semi-finals for only the second time in their history and improve on their fourth placed finish in 2003.
England have already equalled the furthest they’ve ever gone before in the competition, having been quarter-finalists on three previous occasions in 1995, 2007 and 2011.
If the tension is mounting amongst the fans, it’s certainly not affecting the English players, who are in a calm and confident mood. So what’s the feeling like in the England camp as kick off approaches?
“Pretty awesome actually,” England striker Jodie Taylor told AFTN when we chatted with her on Friday morning. “Everyone’s excited and focused on the game. We just can’t wait for it to come now. There’s a real good confidence across the squad. We all 100% believe that we can beat Canada.”
It’s the quarter-final match-up many people were predicting, including ourselves in Podcast 113. We also tipped England for the win though, so let’s hope that doesn’t come true as well!
Both teams will also have expected to be facing each other at this stage and they know each other’s game inside and out.
The two sides have played each other a number of times recently, most recently in a pre-tournament friendly in Hamilton, where Canada narrowly won thanks to a wonder strike from Sophie Schmidt.
You can’t read too much into friendlies of course, and the more worrying match for Canada to be concerned with is England’s 3-0 win over them in this year’s Cyprus Cup Final in March.
That’s a win that certainly has the English girls believing they can book a semi-final place come Saturday night.
“We’ve played them quite a bit actually,” Taylor told us. “Obviously beating them in Cyprus was a boost. We played them not too long pre World Cup in Hamilton and lost 1-0. Every time we play them it’s a physical battle, it’s a scrap. There’s not many opportunities in it. It is kind of a close game and that’s what we expect as well. So it is going to be a hard game, an even game, but we have every belief that we can beat them and win.”
Taylor didn’t play in that friendly against Canada at the end of May. After suffering a non-contact knee injury while training with her NWSL club side, Portland Thorns, in April, the 29-year-old striker wasn’t even sure if she’d be recovered in time to play a part in her first ever World Cup.
“Obviously it was an unfortunate time with the injury,” Taylor mused. “All the time throughout rehab it was a race against the clock. At times it was going well and looking really good and at other times it looked like I might miss out here. Fortunately there was just enough time to make it back, so step foot on the field again was good news.”
After some intense rehab work back in England, Taylor recovered just in time, and made her World Cup debut in England’s final group game against Colombia, coming on as an 81st minute sub. She almost scored too.
A second substitute’s appearance came in the Round of 16 win against Norway, with Taylor coming on in the 63rd minute with the scores tied at 1-1 and playing an important part in England’s win.
The appearances have been the pinnacle of Taylor’s initial goals in the tournament. She didn’t just want to be part of the squad, she wanted to play a part in it and play a part in making history for the English girls.
So after all those weeks of rehab and being touch and go to even make it, how did it feel to step out on that pitch in Montreal against Colombia?
“It felt pretty special,” Taylor enthused. “It was just amazing, but at one point I thought I might have just missed it. Then coming on against Norway and playing a part in helping us make history was amazing.
“I’ve got goosebumps even talking about it! Obviously that’s something that we want to continue on and we have every chance of doing it this weekend.”
The signs are there that England are starting to hit their stride in this World Cup, highlighted by the fighting back quality they showed to beat Norway.
After losing their first game in this year’s tournament 1-0 to France, England have regrouped and ground out three straight 2-1 victories to set up this quarter-final clash. Scoring two goals in a game seems to be something of a pipe dream for Canada these days.
The next target for Taylor is a World Cup goal. She already has four for England in her 10 appearances to date, including a hat-trick against Australia at this year’s Cyprus Cup.
Taylor could even get the start against Canada, if England coach Mark Sampson wants to mix things up a little. He’s certainly not afraid to do that, having already used every outfield player during the tournament.
She will most certainly feature at some point and will be a danger to the Canadian defence. Taylor has scored goals wherever she’s been, after starting her career with Tranmere Rovers as a 15-year-old.
After attending Oregon State University on a scholarship, playing spells in five countries followed, before she headed back to the US in 2014 to play in the NWSL with Washington Spirit.
Despite her successes an England call-up was missing. The reason didn’t appear to be because of her travels or where she was playing, but more to do with the fact that she turned down an invitation to a training camp under previous England coach Hope Powell in order to concentrate on her schooling.
Did Powell hold a grudge? Well, no further call was forthcoming until Sampson took over and brought her into a camp in Spain as a 27-year-old.
In these times of young female international footballers, had Taylor given up ever playing for England or did she always hold out hope that her time would come if there was a coaching change?
“I thought, yeah, if there was a coaching change,” Taylor readily admits. “But I waited a number of years for that and towards the end I kind of accepted that it potentially might not happen. So rather than just have my focus on England and everything like that, I kind of just had to shift my focus a bit on what’s best for my football. How can I just be the best footballer and enjoy what I’m doing? That mentally for me really helped.
“I tried coming to America and playing in NWSL. It’s a great standard, a very good league, professional environment and I love the lifestyle, so for me, they were the right decisions. And as much as I was still training hard and committing and sacrificing as any international footballer would, it was just nice when the coaching change did happen and I did get the chance.”
Taylor is now back in her second home of Oregon, playing with Portland Thorns and loving every minute of it.
As much as she liked her time in Maryland with Washington Spirit last year, it wasn’t her spiritual home. After playing four years with the OSU Beavers, that is Oregon and she jumped at the opportunity to head back.
“Yeah, that’s exactly what it was,” Taylor happily admits. “I enjoyed my football at the Spirit the year before but it never felt like home. The last few years, everywhere I’ve played is to become a better player and that’s the sacrifice I’ve had to make the last three or four years.
“It just got to a point where I want to actually be somewhere where I feel settled and want to be. With the option to come to Portland, it’s a great organisation. They’ve got a good vision as a club. The fans are phenomenal. It’s an awesome place to live. I’ve still got friends there. It just felt like the right move for that stage of my career.”
Taylor says the Thorns have been great with her since she joined them in March, even to the point that depending how much further that England go in the tournament, there’s been no pressure or discussions from them on when they need her to head back Portland.
“It’s not even something I’ve spoken to with the club,” Taylor told us. “They’re very respectful of national team commitments. That’s one thing I really do like with playing in the US in general and the club.
“Especially once I did my knee, eight weeks ago or whenever it was, they were like ‘whatever you need’. If you need to fly straight home to England and get surgery, if you want it here, what can we do for you. So there’s a lot of respect there.
“It depends on what I need. Depending on what the staff here say, they’ll probably go with. If I need a break or if it’s good to straight back into training. I’m happy to do anything. I’ll just do as I’m told really! The league obviously doesn’t really break for this, so I imagine the majority of players will be returning quite swiftly to Portland for the second half of the season.”
Amongst those Portland players heading back to the Thorns after the tournament are three Canadians – Kaylyn Kyle, Christine Sinclair and Rhian Wilkinson. Taylor hasn’t really had the chance to get to know the Canadian girls yet, with them only playing a couple of games each due to their residency with the Canadian national team.
It’s meant there’s not even been the chance to have some inter-nation banter between Taylor and them.
“No, not really” Taylor laughs. “I had a couple of Canadian teammates at Spirit, so probably more so than with those guys. Again, it’s just more so with the timing of being there. They kind of just flew in for a couple of games. It’s all friendly and everything. It’s at the level where it’s not talking shit to each other! Maybe change though, depends how the game goes! But they’re all lovely girls but I just don’t think it’s quite at that level. I’m not a huge shit talker anyway!”
There’s no doubting that Portland is a “soccer city”. To me, it the number one such city in America. Any team that can draw five figure crowds to PDL U23 games is a hotbed of football fervour.
But it’s not just the male Timbers sides that draw exceptionally well, the Thorns also pack in the numbers and it warms Taylor to her English cockles to see how the city treat the club and the players.
“Growing up in England, it’s a big football place but not yet for women’s football,” Taylor says. “In Portland, I feel they equally respect the men and the women. You can tell by the crowds that they do. It’s just nice. It’s nice to be respected for what you do.”
Football is a world’s game and Taylor has actively explored that, playing in five countries and three continents, with spells in America, Canada, Sweden, Australia and obviously England.
It also hasn’t affected her international chances. She spoke about that with English coach Sampson who told her to play where made her happy. It was only her form that mattered, and that form saw her on the England Player of the Year shortlist in 2014.
With all that’s she’s seen on her travels, how does she feel the women’s game is growing around the world? The gap between the top four or five nations and the middle chasing pack certainly seems to be narrowing if this World Cup is a gauge.
“It is now, definitely,” Taylor feels. “When I look back to when I left England when I was 18 to now, you would just never have imagined the strides that it’s made. The US has stayed quite consistent I would say. It’s probably harder to tell.
“It was a huge jump going over to college when I was 18, just in terms of professionalism and training every day. The high professional standards. That, for me, is where I’ve developed in that area because I’ve been around it so much.
“But now, if I compare the English league to the college, then yeah, I think the standard in the English league playing full time. So that just shows how much it’s grown. I’ve just had a great experience going abroad and you can see the different styles, different philosophies, what other countries implement. It’s helped me become a more well-rounded player.”
Amongst those travels were three summers spent with Ottawa Fury in the W-League from 2007.
“I loved my experience in Ottawa,” she continued. “It was during Oregon State, so with the nature of having the summer off and the W-League, they sort of go hand in hand. I played most summers in college. It’s better than taking the summer off and doing my own running, so I just decided to play W-League.
“My first time doing it was with the Boston Renegades and it was just from there. The next summer Ottawa had contacted me. I think we had played them the year before and I’d heard that it was a good set up, so I gave it a go and it was a really, really good organisation.
“I can say it was one of the better organisations I’ve been involved in, in terms of the clubs I’ve played for in the past. I loved it. It was really good. I’ve played, I think, three summers total there. It was just a great way to stay fit during the summer. Obviously it’s amateur status, but professional standards. That’s what I loved about it.”
She’s used to Canadian crowds cheering for her, but on Saturday she’s going to have over 53,000 cheering against her in Vancouver.
On such a big occasion, for both countries the crowd could be a big factor. Both sets of players are used to playing in front of big crowds, but Taylor feels that the massively pro-Canadian crowd could actually be an advantage to the English in terms of the pressure they will provide to the home nation.
“We’ve kind of discussed it,” Taylor admits. “Obviously we know it’s going to be a huge factor, the crowd. When you compare it to being from England, and it’s a real football culture and you’ve got a real football crowd. Even experiencing men’s football, I don’t think the Canadians, and no disrespect to Canadians, but as a nature, as the game goes on, they don’t really cheer and support at the right time.
Now, before Canadians are up in arms. She has a point. You see it at MLS games and you’ve seen it in this tournament.
Even last Sunday, the BC Place was loud, at times. On other occasions they fell quiet and the whole tension of the occasion seemed to set the mood for a large patch in the middle of the match.
“They cheer and do different things that probably we would expect to see,” Taylor continued. “I think it will be a little erratic to be honest, but we’re expecting that. The crowd may cheer at something which maybe a normal crowd wouldn’t cheer at or go silent when a normal, experienced crowd would probably help.
“I think it’s one of those, we’ve just got to take it as it comes. We do have experience playing front of a big crowd. We played at Wembley in November, which was a huge occasion for us.
“But on the plus side, knowing the pressure on us in that game at Wembley, you can flip that around and say well the pressure’s massively going to be on Canada and it has been. You can see it throughout the tournament. The pressure’s been on them the whole time and it’s only going to get more for them, so we can kind of take that as an advantage to us.”