Frustrating victories may be the new normal for World Cup-bound Canadian WNT
Reigning Olympic champs had patience tested by Panama at CONCACAF W Tournament
For a woman who just watched her team qualify for next year's FIFA World Cup, Canadian coach Bev Priestman had a look of quiet disdain on her face on Friday night.
Canada had just defeated Panama in a hard-fought 1-0 win at Estadio Universitario in Monterrey, Mexico at the CONCACAF W Championship, a result that allowed it to stamp its passport for the 2023 World Cup scheduled to be co-hosted by Australia and New Zealand.
Yet, for Priestman, a sense of frustration prevailed after Panama's combination of staunch defending and unadulterated chicanery kept Canada at bay for 64 minutes before Julia Grosso scored her tournament-leading third goal to break the deadlock.
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The Canadians dominated the proceedings with their possession game, forcing Las Canaleras (The Canal Girls) onto the back foot by pinning them back deep inside their half for long stretches. But Panama's bruising physicality and its persistent time-wasting tactics led to frequent stoppages in play, preventing Canada from getting into a solid attacking rhythm.
Priestman admitted that Panama's play-acting antics frustrated her team on the night.
"You've seen it, the time wasting from the get-go. That's the CONCACAF experience that we got. That plays into some of the frustrations, and when you get frustrated, your standards drop," Priestman said after the game.
"Credit to Panama, they frustrated us. The first half performance, we weren't good enough. Our standards dropped."
WATCH | Julia Grosso scores again in Canada's win over Panama:
From a statistical standpoint, the Reds outclassed their opponents by a wide margin. Canada enjoyed a staggering 77 per cent of possession, a 14-4 edge in shots, and completed three times as many passes.
It was very much the same story for Canada in its 6-0 win over Trinidad and Tobago earlier in the week. But this time around, Panama's complete disinterest in playing attacking soccer and utter commitment to putting bodies behind the ball left the Canadians grasping at straws for the most of the evening.
"We're not used to having a lot of time and a lot of the ball and when these teams bunker in and you have the ball, you're lured into this false sense of this slow rhythm," Priestman explained.
Such is life for Canada since winning gold at last summer's Tokyo Olympics. Almost every team the reigning Olympic champions now faces goes into games as the decided under-dog, and as such they're going to do whatever it takes to get a result, whether it be by hook or crook. Priestman's side better get used to it because this is their new normal.
Canada is sixth in the current FIFA world rankings, 51 spots ahead of Panama, and that disparity between the two nations was on full display on Friday, even though the final score didn't reflect it. Panama didn't muster much in attack and failed to produce any moments of danger that genuinely worried Canada.
Instead, the Panamanians remained committed to a negative brand of football in the faint hope that they might be able to nick a goal on the counter-attack. That never happened, but it wasn't for a lack of trying, and in doing so, they made things incredibly uncomfortable for Canada.
"Teams are showing us that respect now where they're dropping into a [deep defensive] block and playing with a back five and they're always difficult to break down," Priestman said.
While captain Christine Sinclair had a relatively quiet night and was subbed out after 45 minutes, fellow forward Adriana Leon caused plenty of problems for Panama with her bullish play in the final third of the pitch. Leon's header in the first half flashed over the woodwork, while she expertly pivoted out of tight defensive coverage and unleashed a fabulous shot from 25 yards out that forced Panama goalkeeper Yenith Bailey to tip it over the crossbar in the 47th minute.
Canada's persistence paid off when Jessie Fleming made a run in the box before cutting the ball back into the middle for Grosso. The youngster did well to take a touch to get by Panama defender Yomira Pinzon before confidently poking it home past Bailey.
Those quality moments were few and far between for a Canadian side that looked to have too much time on its hands as it dominated possession, and to be overthinking things in the attack.
"It's about ball speed, tempo, intent, forward runs," Priestman said. "When we do all of that, that's when we put the ball in the back of the net."
Another prize on the horizon
Still, at the end of the day, Canada met its main target at this tournament by qualifying for the World Cup for an eighth consecutive time. There are more big objectives ahead, though, as the winner of the CONCACAF W Championship also qualifies for the 2024 Paris Olympics.
"It's nothing that you can scoff at to get to a World Cup. People dream about that in their lifetime. It's the biggest trophy on the planet and something that Canada has yet to conquer. It meant everything to us to qualify," Priestman said. "I'm awfully frustrated with the game, but at the end of the day, we won and we're going to the World Cup."
She later added: "It's a great learning experience. Was it good enough [vs. Panama]? No. And everybody knows that. But we won…and we move on."
Canada closes out the first round on Monday vs. Costa Rica, with the winner claiming first place in Group B, before playing in the semifinals next Thursday. Canada has won all 14 of its previous meetings against Costa Rica dating back to their first meeting in 1991.