Is Ashley Lawrence Canada's best soccer player in Tokyo right now?
Left-back a key player for Olympic medal hopeful Canadian squad
Can we talk about Ashley Lawrence for a second?
...No, really, can we?
It doesn't seem like we discuss the rampaging left fullback nearly as much as we should given how much she has meant to the Canadian women's soccer team over the years, and how she is one of the key players upon which the Reds' hopes for a medal hinge at the Tokyo Olympics.
Soccer fans and pundits were reminded of Lawrence's importance and quality on Tuesday in Kashima, as the Toronto native put in a star-of-the-game performance by collecting an assist and making a goal-saving tackle in helping Canada earn a 1-1 draw against Great Britain. In doing so, the Canadians finished second in Group E and advanced to the knockout round of the competition, keeping alive their hopes for a third consecutive Olympic medal.
Canada will face Brazil in the quarter-finals on July 30 in Rifu.
Although Lawrence wasn't able to etch her name onto the scoresheet in any of her team's three first-round matches, CBC Sports analyst Clare Rustad has no doubts as to which member of Canada's 22-player roster has been the most influential thus far in Japan.
"She's been Canada's best player, and I don't think that's really up for debate," offered Rustad, an Olympian herself and a former defender who earned 45 caps for the Canadian women's team.
Captain Christine Sinclair still garners the majority of the headlines for Canada, and rightly so. The iconic Canadian captain has long been the heartbeat of the women's side, her ascent to become the all-time top scorer in international soccer, for both men and women, allowing the veteran forward to cement her status as one of Canada's greatest athletes.
But spare a thought for Lawrence who at age 26 has the world at her feet, having established herself as one of the best fullbacks in the entire women's game. Whenever Sinclair decides to hang up her boots and retire – and let's hope it's not any time soon – someone else will become the public face of the Canadian women's program, and chances are it will be Lawrence.
WATCH | Canada advances to knockout round:
A starter for one of the biggest clubs in the world, Lawrence is coming off a sensational season in which she featured in the UEFA Women's Champions League, helping Paris Saint-Germain reach the semifinals where they lost to eventual winners FC Barcelona Femení.
She also played a starring role for her team on the domestic front, as PSG won the French title for the first time in history, ending Olympic Lyon's staggering run of dominance that saw them claim the previous 14 consecutive league championships.
After a gruelling club season that saw her compete in multiple fronts, Lawrence hasn't missed a beat at the Tokyo Games, illuminating Canada's attack with her probing runs and fabulous service down the left side, while also fulfilling her defensive responsibilities with aplomb. Lawrence was at her very best against Great Britain, showing off her skills as a great two-way player who is equally adept at creating as she is at defending.
In a painfully dire opening 45 minutes that saw both teams struggle to get into an attacking rhythm, it was the Brits who crafted the only dangerous scoring chance. English midfielder Rachel Daly latched on to a through ball and drove into the penalty area, taking advantage of a Canadian defence that was playing a high line.
With Daly clear in on goal, it looked like stranded Canadian goalkeeper Stephanie Labbé would be easily beaten. But Lawrence turned on the jets and made a fantastic recovery run to block Daly's shot and force a corner kick. Crisis averted, and Canada went into the halftime break knotted at 0-0.
With the result and first place in Group E still teetering in the balance, and with both teams still struggling to create something, Lawerence boldly stepped into the breach to conjure a goal out of nothing.
With an eye towards the British goal, the Canadian fullback set forward on a penetrating run down the left side after collecting the ball inside her half. She gained speed as she furiously scampered down the flank, leaving a trail of opposing players in her dust as they tried in vain to catch up with her.
After breaking into the penalty area, she picked up her head and played an exquisite pass across the box that eluded several British players before landing at the feet of teammate Adrian Leon. The Canadian forward made no mistake, capitalizing on Lawrence's perfect feed by hammering the ball home into the top right corner. It was a sublime finish by Leon, but an even better setup by Lawrence.
Lawrence was brilliant beyond those two key moments in the game. She put in a diligent shift off the ball, doing the type of defensive grunt work that is unglamorous but is so vital for Canada.
British threat neutralized
English right fullback Lucy Bronze is the 2020 FIFA Women's Player of the year winner, and one of Great Britain's most potent attacking threats. Used to having her way down the right side with opposing defenders, Bronze was effectively neutralized by Lawrence, with the Canadian defender sticking to her English counterpart like glue. Lawrence used her physical strength to bully Bronze off the ball, while tracking back with great speed to close Bronze down on the rare occasions she found open space.
With Bronze finding little down the left flank, Great Britain was forced to try and create down the right side and through the middle. The pained expression on Bronze's face before her team equalized in the 85th minute (after Lawrence was subbed out) told the story. Great Britain was forced to change its attacking game plan thanks in large part to Lawrence's suffocating defensive play that shut down one of the best players in the world.
It's interesting to note that the passionate debate Canadian soccer fans have about Alphonso Davies – whether he's best used as a fullback or further up the pitch when he plays for the men's team – is the exact same one that happens with Lawrence, who can also slot in at midfield. Lawrence played as midfielder as a youth player with Canada, but she's mostly been deployed as a fullback since making her senior team debut in 2013.
"The move to play her at fullback, certainly at a time when they were struggling for [quality] fullbacks, was a good move. I would really like to see her in [midfield]," Rustad said.
Whenever she plays, Lawrence has proven to be hugely important for Canada at the Tokyo Olympics, and if the group stage was anything to go by, it will progress through this tournament as far as Lawrence will guide the Reds.
WATCH l CBC Sports' The Olympians feature on women's soccer: