Canadian women's soccer coach Priestman approaching SheBelieves Cup as Tokyo tune-up
Canada opens invitational tournament against rival United States on Feb. 18
A few days into training for the upcoming SheBelieves Cup in the warmth of Orlando, Florida, the Canadian women's soccer team has shared the requisite happy tears, belly laughs and of course, the shake-off-the-rust practise sessions.
Now, it's time for the real work to begin.
The national team has been in an 11-month standstill due to the coronavirus pandemic, and now, in its first camp since March 2020, has just six months to chase a third-straight Olympic medal at this summer's Tokyo Games.
So what exactly is new head coach Bev Priestman expecting out of her first Canadian camp?
"I already get a sense of real hunger, desire, excitement for the group to get back together," she said on a recent virtual call with reporters.
"It's about connecting again. There's a whole group of players who aren't yet in season and so I think just getting back on the ground and building some of the ideas … and then we're into a back-to-back tournament setting, which is exactly where [we] want to be, playing some of the best teams in the world."
WATCH | Canada coach Priestman targeting podium finish at Tokyo Games:
There are 29 players in training for the SheBelieves Cup, a four-team invitational tournament featuring some of the top nations in women's soccer, including the reigning FIFA Women's World Cup champion United States and No. 8-ranked Brazil.
This year, due to Covid restrictions, Canada (also No. 8) took the place of No. 6 England, while Argentina (No. 31) is filling in for Japan (No. 10).
Canada's European-based players will join the rest of the squad this weekend and the roster will be trimmed to 23 just before Canada opens against its longtime rival, the U.S., on Feb. 18.
New faces look to make impression
There is a freshness to this first camp of 2021. Yes, there's a new coach, but also six uncapped invitees and a few other players with less than five appearances at the senior level.
This team has seen very little turnover since winning bronze at Rio 2016.
Veterans Rhian Wilkinson and Melissa Tancredi hung up their cleats shortly after those Olympics and with a handful of others expected to do the same following Tokyo, Priestman is conscious of the need for new faces and new ideas. Not only ahead of the Olympics, but also as they attempt to qualify for the next World Cup in 2023, hosted by Australia and New Zealand.
Among those hoping for a first crack on the senior side include Canadian youth international player of the year Jade Rose, Evelyne Viens of Sky Blue FC, Bianca St-Georges of Chicago Red Stars, Jordyn Listro of Orlando Pride, Rylee Foster of Liverpool FC and Samantha Chang from the University of South Carolina.
"Every single day that I get to put the jersey on is another step towards my dream."<br><br>Meet 16-year-old Jade Rose, the youngest player on the <a href="https://twitter.com/hashtag/CANWNT?src=hash&ref_src=twsrc%5Etfw">#CANWNT</a> squad in Japan. <a href="https://t.co/bkfqcV4Liw">pic.twitter.com/bkfqcV4Liw</a>—@CanadaSoccerEN
With so many well-established players on the senior team, Priestman said she can't predict whether some of these new faces might make the final 18-player roster for Tokyo, but this is their chance to knock on the door.
"They've been brought in for a reason, they've shown some attributes that I think this group needs, so I've just said to them bring what it is that's brought you here," she said. "But I do know that group of senior players will welcome them with open arms."
Essential to the culture of the Canadian team is the work done over the last 15 years by the senior leadership, some which are still playing (Christine Sinclair, Diana Matheson, Erin McLeod, Sophie Schmidt, Desiree Scott), and those who've retired (Wilkinson, Tancredi).
The veteran group has always made sure that the next generation coming in feels as much a part of the team as those who have been around for over a decade — an integral component to their success.
Priestman saw it first-hand when she was an assistant under former coach John Herdman.
"Any player that went into the women's national team is welcomed with open arms. [The players] know that having that blend of experience and youth with the future in mind is really important."
There are a million clichés about time, but it's also about how you use it.
The reality of the pandemic has meant adapting, whether that's been watching games on TV rather than in-person, holding virtual one-on-ones or group culture meetings, or spending more time writing reports on players and comparing them with other staff members.
"The COVID reality can't be an excuse for this group and it might be the thing that brings a certain amount of freshness in the sense that we're all dying to get on that pitch," Priestman said.
Having a tournament setting against top-tier nations like the U.S. and Brazil, in particular, will give the Canadian staff a chance to go straight into some of the areas they feel they need to address.
"We have to use the tournament for what it is. We have to go in and apply some things that we want to apply for the Olympic Games, we can't go in and say we're going to do what we've always done," Priestman said. "We don't have the time to wait around, we have to approach this tournament with an Olympic Games in mind."