Lack of scoring remains a concern for Canada's soccer women heading into Olympics
'I think we have to be more clinical,' says Canadian head coach Bev Priestman
Bev Priestman didn't temper expectations during her introductory press conference as coach of the Canadian women's soccer team last October.
Priestman inherited a side that won back-to-back bronze medals at the Olympics under former coach John Herdman, and another third-place finish this summer in Tokyo would mark an unprecedented achievement for Canada. But Priestman, who served as an assistant under Herdman at the 2016 Games in Rio, began her reign as head coach by setting the bar much higher.
"A team like Canada should be on that podium. I do think we need to change the colour of the medal. Two bronzes [are] unbelievable and it's a fantastic achievement, and credit to John and the staff and the players that achieved that. [But] to keep moving forward, we have to aim higher than that," Priestman said at the time.
So, it's a silver or gold medal or bust in Japan. However, that could be a tall order for a Canadian team that has struggled to score and lacked attacking creativity.
Thus far in 2021, Canada has a respectable record of three wins, two losses and two draws, but, worryingly, it has been shut out four times and has scored just six goals over those seven games. Even more troubling is that Christine Sinclair hasn't scored in her previous eight appearances for Canada dating back to February 2020.
"I think [the goals are] going to come. I know I sound like a broken record… But absolutely, I think we have to be more clinical," Priestman said after Monday's 0-0 draw with Brazil in an Olympic tune-up.
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Criticism of Canada
For years, the main criticism of Canada has been that it relies far too heavily on Sinclair, who turned 38 last week, to provide inspiration in sparking the attack. But nobody has stepped up in any significant way to lessen the weight of the goal-scoring burden resting on Sinclair's broad shoulders.
Jordyn Huitema debuted for Canada as a 15-year-old in 2017 and was immediately [and quite unfairly] dubbed "the new Sinclair." It hasn't quite worked out that way. Huitema, now 20, has a modest 13 goals in 37 appearances (only 13 as a starter) for Canada, with the majority of her goals coming against weaker teams.
Considered a lock to make the Olympic team a year ago, Huitema might not even be named to Priestman's roster for Japan following a lacklustre season with her pro club, Paris Saint-Germain.
It's also worth noting Canada's poor record against top-tier opponents. Canada is eighth in the current FIFA world rankings, but has just one victory in its last 11 games (with eight losses) against nations ranked in the top 10.
In Tokyo, there will be four teams ranked higher than Canada - five, if you count Great Britain, who isn't ranked by FIFA, but will consist mostly of players from No. 5 England. At some point, Canada would likely have to beat a higher-ranked country in order to win a medal.
It's not all doom and gloom, as there are genuine reasons for Canada to be optimistic that it can collect a third consecutive medal in Tokyo.
As much as the Canadians struggle to score goals, they are defensively sound, with four shutouts in their last seven games. In Kadeisha Buchanan and Shelina Zadorsky, Canada boasts a robust duo in the heart of defence. The emergence of Vanessa Gilles and Quinn over the last year has bolstered the team's defensive depth. Ashley Lawrence and Allysha Chapman are experienced fullbacks who are superb two-way players. Stephanie Labbé and Kailden Sheridan comprise a formidable 1-2 goalkeeping punch.
Olympic rosters are limited to 18 players (World Cup teams carry 23 players), which means coaches will have to rotate through their squad a bit more than usual in Japan. With fewer options, a player's ability to slot into multiple positions is a huge commodity. Canada's versatility should give it a decided edge in Tokyo.
Lawrence will be a key figure for the Reds, whether if she's playing as a fullback or in midfield. A midfielder by trade, Quinn can also slot into the centre of defence. Veteran forward Janine Beckie is capable of playing anywhere across the front line. And Canada has had success in multiple formations, whether it's in a 3-4-3 setup with a trio of centre backs, or in a 4-3-3.
What also bodes well for Canada is that so many of its key players are coming off solid seasons for their pro clubs. Lawrence won a French league title with PSG in a close title race that saw Buchanan's Olympique Lyon side finish in second place.
Zadorsky had a breakout year with Tottenham in the English FA WSL. Midfielder Jessie Fleming earned valuable playing time in England's top division and the UEFA Women's Champions League in her rookie season with Chelsea. Beckie scored some big goals for Manchester City, while Sinclair continues to prominently feature for the Portland Thorns in the NWSL.
If this contingent of Canadian players can replicate their club form for the national side, Priesteman's team can contend for another medal in Tokyo this summer.