In 2021, Canada finally broke through as a powerhouse soccer nation
Women's Olympic gold, men's World Cup surge highlight year to remember
It took a while, but the Canadian men's and women's soccer teams finally landed on the same page in 2021.
For the longest time, both programs were badly out of sync. When one team was winning, the other wasn't. When one flourished, the other faltered.
But now, they are experiencing a golden period in unison. Make no mistake about it — 2021 was a breakout year for Canadian soccer, with the women's team winning gold at the Tokyo Olympics and the men's side establishing itself as a rising power in the CONCACAF region.
Canadian women's team coach Bev Priestman didn't mince words on her first day on the job. The English manager inherited a side that had won back-to-back Olympic bronze medals under John Herdman, and was in the top 10 of FIFA's world rankings when she succeeded Kenneth Heiner-Møller in October 2019.
WATCH | Top 5 Canadian soccer moments of 2021:
A third consecutive podium finish in Tokyo would have been an unprecedented achievement for Canada. But collecting another bronze medal didn't interest Priestman, who saw getting more out of the team as a major part of her mandate.
"A team like Canada should be on that podium. I do think we need to change the colour of the medal. Two bronzes is unbelievable and it's a fantastic achievement, and credit to John [Herdman] and the staff and the players that achieved that. [But] to keep moving forward, we have to aim higher than that," Priestman said during her introductory press conference.
The Canadians not only aimed higher — they fulfilled Priestman's target by winning gold in Tokyo following a magical run that was capped by a dramatic penalty shootout win over Sweden.
Julia Grosso's penalty that sealed the victory was the defining moment, but the young midfielder was hardly the only one to come up big for Canada in Tokyo.
Iconic captain Christine Sinclair provided inspiration and leadership throughout the tournament. Midfielder Jessie Fleming was masterful in marshalling the midfield. Goalkeeper Stephanie Labbé earned the moniker "Minister of Defence." Ashley Lawrence demonstrated why she is considered one of the best fullbacks in the women's game. Vanessa Gilles and Kadeisha Buchanan combined to brilliant effect in the middle of Canada's back line.
WATCH | Canada wins 1st Olympic women's soccer gold:
The women's team went from strength to strength with each game in Japan, bringing a captive audience back home along for the thrilling ride. Over 4.4 million viewers tuned into the Canada-Sweden match on CBC, making it the most watched event by Canadians at the Olympics and underlining just how much this team had come to mean to the country.
Their male counterparts also had an important year.
World Cup surge
The Canadian men's team's only World Cup appearance came in 1986 in Mexico when it bowed out of the first round after three shutout losses. Since then, it's been one disappointment after another, with the 2000 Gold Cup victory proving to be merely a minor blip on the radar.
But the men's side came of age in 2021 under Herdman, and established itself as a top nation in CONCACAF. It all started when Canada breezed through the preliminary stages to advance to the final round of World Cup qualifying for the first time since the buildup to the 1998 tournament in France. The Reds then advanced to the final four of the Gold Cup over the summer, dropping a heartbreaker to Mexico in the semifinals.
Buoyed by that performance, Canada went unbeaten through its first eight games of the final round of the CONCACAF World Cup qualifiers, including valuable road draws against Mexico and the U.S. and capped by memorable victories over Costa Rica and the Mexicans last month in Edmonton.
In the past, Canada has relied on strong goalkeeping and defence to beat opponents. But there is something very different about this current Canadian side. Brimming with talented players who ply their trades at top clubs across Europe, Canada is playing with a level of confidence and an attacking verve that it has historically lacked.
Leading the way are 21-year-olds Jonathan David and Alphonso Davies, who are considered among the best youngsters in the world. It was Davies' highlight reel goal at home over Panama in October that not only secured an important win for Canada, but also went viral and caught the attention of Canadian rapper Drake, who sought and received a post-game audience with Davies and his teammates.
WATCH | Davies' remarkable solo effort seals victory over Panama:
The men's team struck a chord with Canadians in 2021, with over 1.1 million tuning in to watch Canada's win over Mexico — nearly double the TV audience the Toronto Maple Leafs garnered on the same night. Tickets for Canada's match against the U.S. next month at Hamilton's Tim Hortons Field sold out in less than a day.
The Canadians' victory over Mexico — its first in 21 years — saw them climb to the top of the qualifying table going into 2022, putting themselves in pole position to qualify for next year's World Cup in Qatar. It also helped Canada, which rose 32 spots to place 40th in the year-end FIFA rankings, flip the narrative from being known as under-performers to a side that is now a force in the region.
"We are a top team in CONCACAF," forward Cyle Larin said after the Mexico win. "I believe that, the team believes it. And we think we can make the World Cup."