Canadian women regain confidence ahead of Olympics with pair of friendly wins
Clean sheets against Wales, England show what country is capable of in Tokyo
The high hopes for the Canadian women's national soccer team have been re-established thanks to two confident victories in a recent European friendly series.
Canada, ranked eighth in the world, leaves its April camp and friendlies against Wales and England with two clean sheets and two multi-goal games. Of the five goals they scored, four were from different goal scorers.
And they accomplished all of it without two of their best players — international soccer's all-time leading goal scorer Christine Sinclair (who was injured early in the game against Wales) and reigning Canadian player of the year Kadeisha Buchanan (who was not medically cleared due to a COVID-19 outbreak at her club team, Lyon).
There certainly seems to be a shift in confidence with the team. So what have we learned about Canada with the Tokyo Olympics less than four months away?
WATCH | Christine Sinclair suffers injury:
Coach Bev Priestman has ignited this team
There's a new pep in the step of the Canadian players. After five matches under Priestman, it's clear the team is playing with more confidence than the past two seasons, where it struggled to beat Tier 1 opposition.
Priestman hasn't been afraid to play younger or newer players or experiment with her lineup. The newfound commitment of playing out of the back, pressuring opponents with their speed up front and minor tweaks to formation have served the team well so far.
It's worth noting that all of this has been done in a short period of time. Priestman only took the reins in October and conducted her first camp in February ahead of the SheBelieves Cup. At that tournament, she was handed a raw deal with injured, unavailable and out-of-season players, but this latest stretch showed what she's asked of the group: ruthlessness at both ends of the pitch.
Priestman has earned rave reviews from her players for her preparation, communication and competitive atmosphere she's created. She's made it clear that every position is up for grabs for Tokyo and beyond.
WATCH | Jessie Fleming scores impressive goal against Wales:
Canada can win without Sinclair, Kadeisha Buchanan
That's saying something. It's obviously not an ideal situation and one that likely won't repeat itself on the road to Tokyo, but here's the skinny.
Sinclair recovered from the injury that kept her from the SheBelieves Cup only to pick up what's been described as a minor knock early in the game against Wales. Though sidelined, the captain stayed with the squad, passing her knowledge to players such as Evelyne Viens, who replaced her in the No. 9 role against England. Sinclair's leadership, even when she's not playing, is crucial to this team.
Buchanan's absence has given a chance for others to step up, notably Vanessa Gilles. Gilles has been excellent, and in this author's assessment, played her way onto the Olympic squad. She's a typical centre back, a magnet on the ball, heading the ball out of dangerous spaces, providing timely tackles and not afraid to play direct out of the back. In an Olympic Games, if there's an injury or a card situation with Buchanan or Shelina Zadorsky, having another centre back is insurance.
Has the lack of goal scoring been solved?
Yes and no. That was the question after Canada scored just one goal in three games at the SheBelieves. Three goals against world No. 31 Wales was nice, especially with how textbook the finishing was. Both goals against England were from defensive miscues, but Canada's relentless pressure and pace were definitely contributors. Again, it's just two games, so it's hard to get a real read, but the confidence and clinical finishing was significantly higher than at SheBelieves.
A couple things to consider in the goal scoring department going into Tokyo. Canada has yet to score directly from a set piece. In international football, in tight games against top-10 teams, that's often the make-or-break moment in the game. Delivery has been solid from Janine Beckie and Jessie Fleming, but someone needs to finish.
Canada still hasn't shown it can be a consistent threat from distance. Fleming scored a beautiful bending goal from just inside the 18, Sinclair had a strike stopped against Wales and Quinn had a good chance against England from 25 yards out, but outside of that there wasn't much of a willingness to have a go from outside the box. Variety in attack will be key against those top nations.
WATCH | Evelyne Viens lifts Canada over England
Canada can beat a Tier 1 opponent
As long as it's England. Kidding. Canada was mired in an awful 10-game winless drought against Top 10 nations going into the friendly against England. During the woeful stretch they were 0-8-2 and were outscored 20-3 (you read that correctly). The last win came in April 2019, a 1-nil decision over England.
What was apparent is Canada is a much different side than they were at the SheBelieves Cup. The addition of Sinclair (albeit short), Lawrence and Huitema give Canada much more talent and depth and now that the North American players are getting back into match shape that will only improve as the clock ticks down to Tokyo. Add in one of the top centre backs in the world in Buchanan and Canada looks ready to challenge Tier 1 opposition.
The question is whether can they do it on a game-in, game-out basis.
"We've done it in patches, but we want to be able to compete and win consistently against these quality sides," Zadorsky told reporters after the England game. "This is such a good step forward for us, but it comes with humility knowing that we need to be able to do it back-to-back-to-back, so we'll take all the positives, we'll learn from things we can touch up on, but we're in the direction we want to be.
"Obviously the Olympics are around the corner so we have to be able to beat teams like this."
Too bad you can't carbon copy Ashley Lawrence
No kidding. It's wishful thinking and certainly one of the more intriguing discussions around the team. Lawrence shines at right back, where she plays for both club (at Paris St-Germain) and country, but she grew up as a midfielder and could really help Canada in the middle of the pitch.
Midfield is the engine of any team and for Canada, it's been an area that needs more oomph. Fleming continues to grow her game and the competitive atmosphere at Chelsea has helped toughen her up. Quinn answered a lot of questions with their excellent play against both Wales and England, while Scott is a mainstay in that holding midfielder role. But depending on the opponent, especially one with a dominant midfield (the United States or Netherlands), you want one of your best players in the centre of the action, especially one like Lawrence that has that attacking mindset, but can also mark up with the best in the world.
This is a debate not only for fans of the team, but likely the coaching staff, too.
Are we any closer to knowing who will be on Olympic team?
Yes and no. Priestman and her staff have had two camps and five matches, plus plenty of scouting time to narrow down the final roster for Tokyo. There are a few positional battles and a few injuries to clear up before that decision is made.
Given that all but three players are returning from the squad that won bronze at Rio 2016, there will be some difficult choices to be made. For reference, in Brazil, John Herdman and his staff, which included Priestman as an assistant, chose two goalkeepers, six fullbacks, five midfielders and five forwards.
Outside of who's in top form, Priestman said there are other factors that will go into the decision-making, including versatility and fitness. Players who can play multiple positions will be an asset in the short Olympic tournament, as will players who can play 90 minutes in back-to-back games, and then some. Canada could play up to six games in 18 days.
"That 18 players is really, really difficult," Priestman admitted to reporters after the England match. "It's a great problem to have as a coach, but I also think it's a great problem for pushing players to be better.
"No shirt is a given and they know that. It's all about now pushing and pushing and pushing to take the best 18 players to the Olympics Games to do Canada proud."