Sinclair and Co. taking a well-deserved bow in B.C., and then back to work for World Cup qualifying
2 games also serve as a tune-up ahead of summer's CONCACAF qualifiers
On the heels of the men's team qualifying for the World Cup for the first time in 36 years, the Canadian women's team is back in the spotlight as they get ready to celebrate their historic Olympic gold medal in front of family, friends and fans in a two-game exhibition series against Nigeria in British Columbia this week.
First, it's time to take a well-deserved bow. Then, it's time to turn the page. Their own World Cup qualifying is just three months away. And there's work to be done.
The Celebration Tour, which began in Ottawa and Montreal in October, continues Friday at BC Place in Vancouver and Monday at Langford's Starlight Stadium on Vancouver Island.
"The two home games we had were very special and again here, it just helps it all sink in what we achieved in so little time," coach Bev Priestman told CBC Sports. "But there's more to come yet, that's for sure."
It'll be the first time fans in Vancouver will be able to fete hometown captain Christine Sinclair's international goal-scoring record, which she broke in January 2020. The 38-year-old Burnaby native now has 188 goals in 308 appearances in a Canadian jersey.
"Typical Sinclair won't want any of the celebration to be about her, but the all-time leading goal scorer is something we can't ignore," said Priestman, who took over the team just nine months before the Tokyo Olympics. "I think the chance to play at home in front of her family will be special."
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"It happened so long ago that personally and as a team, we've moved on and we've achieved so much," Sinclair told Canadian Press reporter Gemma Karstens-Smith. "It will be great to celebrate it with my friends and family, but so much bigger things have happened since then, important things. So I'm focusing on that right now.
"But none of us play this sport for the individual awards. It's the team awards, the gold medals, things like that. We've got those in our back pocket now. So we're just out there to prove everyone wrong and show day in and day out what we're all about and get better."
Sinclair missed the Arnold Clark Cup in February due to the death of her mother, Sandi, after a long battle with multiple sclerosis.
For retiring veteran goalkeeper Stephanie Labbe, affectionately nicknamed Canada's Minister of Defence after her standout performance in Tokyo, it will mark her final matches in a Canadian jersey.
"Steph had an unbelievable Olympic campaign, stood up in big moments, oozed confidence, which translated itself into the team," Priestman said. "I saw her in B.C. a few weeks ago and she told me she feels fresher than ever because she's taken some time off. She's been training with boys to get herself ready. Just an incredible career and probably ended her career at the height of her game, which is maybe a good way to go out."
Preparing for CONCACAF World Cup qualifying July 4-18 in Monterrey, Mexico, begins with these two friendlies against Nigeria, the 11-time African champions.
Priestman expects them to be more organized than Nigerian teams past, thanks to new coach Randy Waldrum, an American who also coaches at the University of Pittsburgh.
"They're very player-orientated in terms of man marking and that's totally different to what you grow up with in Canada, so a lot of our players aren't used to that week in, week out," Priestman said. "They've got a killer transition and that's going to be critical because this summer we'll face a little bit of that. You're talking about your Haitis, your Jamaicas, there's similar styles and trends there that we need to practise against.
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"We need to change gears from playing top 10 opposition, understand a different style and get used to playing that again."
Canada has qualified for every FIFA Women's World Cup except the inaugural one in 1991. Its best finish was fourth in 2003, which was the only time it advanced past the quarter-finals. Expectations had been high the past two World Cups after Olympic bronze medals in 2012 and 2016, but Canada was bounced in the quarter-finals of their home World Cup in 2015 and only made the Round of 16 in France three years ago.
One thing Priestman has been intentional about is beefing up her player pool. There are 29 players called into the Nigerian friendlies and there are at least a dozen more players who are on the radar.
"It's a good problem to have," said Priestman of the program's depth. "It keeps the level of hunger, desire, no shirt's a given attitude … People are on the heels of players and you've got to be at your best to stay in the team. When you look at high performance and comfort zones, that's the key ingredient for success. Yes, it's a challenge, but you've got to balance the now and the future."
Because they don't have a down year where they would really assess the player pool, they're back in the performance phase. She says seeing new players face-to-face on the training pitch alongside some of Canada's core players shows whether the newbies can compete or not.
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That was one of the team's key traits that led to the gold-medal win - a balance of veterans and fresh faces. It's very much the blueprint of this squad.
The future looked bright at the Olympics with the winning penalty kick by 21-year-old Julia Grosso, now a midfielder with Juventus, and at the Arnold Clark Cup with a notable performance by 21-year-old Olympic fullback Jayde Riviere.
Priestman has capped eight new players since her time at the helm, including strikers Evelyn Viens and Cloe Lacasse. But that doesn't mean the team's top striker isn't still top of mind.
"There's life in Sinclair yet. I'm excited to continue to work with her because for a lot of my time in charge she's been injured," Priestman said, noting Sinclair's absence from the SheBelieves Cup and the England friendlies in 2021. "I feel like there's a lot more for us to get an understanding sense and get the best out of Sinclair going forward."
Another positive for Priestman is seeing the national youth teams back in action after long layoffs due to COVID-19. The under-20 team, coached by Cindy Tye, recently qualified for the 2022 World Cup in Costa Rica this August and the under-17 side, under coach Emma Humphries, begins its World Cup qualifiers April 23.
"I think the youth program in this country has been massive and quite leading in terms of giving people opportunities and caps. What's exciting for me is that's not going to stop because there's talent there."
with files from Canadian Press