After winning bronze medals in a row at the Olympics, the Canadian women’s soccer team scored an easy goal in Tokyo. Take the podium.
Changing the color of the medal has been Bev Priestman’s mantra since he was named head coach last October. And their 22-strong team is on board.
“This is really a team that can and will do great things,” said central defender Shelina Zadorsky, England captain of England’s Tottenham.
Once again Christine Sinclair leads the way. The Talisman captain’s first appearance in Japan will be her 300th A game, with the Burnaby, BC forward aiming to expand her world record career of 186 goals in her fourth Olympics.
At 38, Sinclair is three years older than Priestman, a former Canada Soccer coach who took over the top position in women after a stint at the English Football Association. John Herdman led the women in Rio and decided to take over the Canadian men in January 2018.
Kenneth Heiner-Moller was responsible for the Canadian women at the 2019 World Cup, but resigned last summer to take a coaching job in his native Denmark.
Priestman, who helped many of the younger players move up to the youth class, had to land on his feet thanks to the pandemic that kept her team on the sidelines until the SheBelieves Cup in February. Injuries and player absenteeism due to pandemic travel restrictions reduced their prep time.
“It was a little sprint … but a lot of other coaches had that too,” she said.
Despite their short time together, their players praise Priestman.
“She has done an incredible job since she took office,” said striker Janine Beckie.
“She is very straightforward, she is very prepared. But she also brings a very relaxed personality to the group. (And) fun, ”she added. “We want to enjoy ourselves while we do the work we have to do.”
But Priestman also blames the player
“I think she has high expectations,” said Beckie. “And she urges every player on this team to play at the highest level … She has a knack for getting the best out of people.”
Priestman wasn’t afraid to rock the boat and cited a “comfort level” in the crew that inherited it.
“And I think the level of comfort has shifted,” she said. “When people feel uncomfortable, you see things from them that you might not have seen if there was a level of comfort.”
Midfielder Sophie Schmidt, a veteran of 205 internationals, was among the team’s four substitutes until FIFA decided to include the reserves by increasing the squad to 22.
The Canadians in eighth place will play their first two games at the Sapporo Dome, starting July 21 against Japan No. 10 before taking on the No. 37 Chile on July 24. They will conclude the Group E game against Great Britain in Kashima on July 27th.
Canada has history in Kashima. In June 2001, the Canadian men scored 0-0 at the Confederations Cup against Brazil while Craig Forrest was in the Canadian goal.
Britain will have few surprises for Beckie. The roster includes eleven of their teammates at Manchester City.
Great Britain is not rated by FIFA as it uses players from England No. 6, Scotland No. 23, Wales No. 34 and Northern Ireland No. 48. The British coaching staff includes former Canadian international Rhian Wilkinson, an assistant to head coach Hegge Riise.
Fourteen of the 22 Canadian players were on the Rio squad, including defender Gabrielle Carle, who was a substitute at the time.
Fifteen of the 22 players in the full squad have 50 or more caps, with the total squad totaling 1,755 caps, an average of 80. Nine play their club soccer in the NWSL, nine in Europe and four in the NCAA.
Canada has experience in goal with 34-year-old incumbent Stephanie Labbe (78 caps) and 38-year-old Erin McLeod (118 caps). Kailen Sheridan has only made 11 caps but was a finalist for NWSL Goalkeeper of the Year in 2019 and is likely the future No. 1 at 25.
“It’s only just beginning to come into its own on this team,” Beckie said of Sheridan. “And she will definitely be the future face in Canada Soccer’s goal, there is no doubt about that.”
Kadeisha Buchanan and Zadorsky form an impressive center-back pairing with Vanessa Gilles, a force in the air, a talented third option.
Ashley Lawrence is a stylish player who is comfortable both as a full-back and in midfield. Desiree Scott, nicknamed Destroyer, has the task of dissolving enemy attacks. Jessie Fleming is a creative, technically gifted midfielder who made 84 international appearances at the age of 23.
Quinn, who has a name, has impressed with his serene play on the field, being able to break attacks and launch his own.
Goals were an issue in the run-up to the Olympics. Canada have scored six goals in seven games (3-2-2) this year and drew goalless draws against number 7 Brazil and 27th place the Czech Republic last month.
The squad has scored 324 international goals, with Sinclair accounting for 57 percent of that.
Beckie believes the team has goals and cites “an element of flair and risk on the attack side”.
“I think it depends on the chances we create … the more risk we take in attack, the more chances we give ourselves in goal,” said Beckie, who scored 31 goals in 75 internationals
“I’m definitely not worried that we will have any problems scoring goals once the tournament starts.”
Priestman didn’t skimp on forward options with Sinclair, Beckie, Jordyn Huitema, Adriana Leon, Nichelle Prince, Deanne Rose and Evelyne Viens.
Viens could be a wildcard from the bank. The 25-year-old has just played seven international matches, only one start, but has already scored twice.
“Evelyne scores goals … that’s why she’s in the squad,” said Priestman.
Sinclair remains a cunning presence on the field that can drop low to tie the game together. And she knows what to do around the goal.
Beckie can be a force, both with her set-piece supplies and with the grand piano. And she showed her mental strength after saving her penalty attempt when Canada was eliminated in the round of 16 at the 2019 World Cup against Sweden.
She scored twice in a 3-3 draw against fourth-placed Netherlands in a recent practice game in Japan.
Canada are 4-7-3 all-time against the Japanese, losing 4-0 for the last time in October 2019. The Canadian women have only played once against Great Britain and won the quarter-finals of the 2012 London games 2-0.
Canada lost 1-0 in their only previous encounter with Chile in 2013. The Chilean women make their Olympic debut after qualifying by beating Cameroon in a South America-Africa playoff earlier this month.
Chile went through a difficult group 2-1 on their World Cup debut in France in 2019, losing 2-0 to Sweden and 3-0 to the USA before beating Thailand 2-0. The Chileans missed promotion as one of the top four teams in terms of goal difference.
Canada beat Great Britain 2-0 in the 2012 Olympics.
The winner of the opening group of Canada will meet one of the two third-placed players who will advance to the quarter-finals. The runner-up in Group E will face number 2 in Group F. Should Canada win their pool and the quarter-finals, the hard-hitting Americans could wait in the semi-finals.
The Canadians prepared for the heat of the Japanese summer in the pre-Olympic camps in Spain and Los Angeles.