Canada's women's soccer team faces some big games as its labour fight simmers

CBC Sports' daily newsletter explains the Canadian women's soccer team's labour dispute and the importance of its upcoming tournament in the United States.

SheBelieves Cup is a key test on the road to the Women's World Cup

A women's player, in a red jersey, claps during a game.
Christine Sinclair and the Canadian women's soccer team are set for a key World Cup tuneup event amid a bitter labour dispute. (Fernando Llano/The Associated Press)

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A big year for the Canadian women's soccer team has quickly turned chaotic as the squad gets set to begin the final leg of its journey to this summer's World Cup.

Last Friday, the reigning Olympic champions announced they were going on strike over cuts to their program by Canada Soccer. They returned the next day after the national governing body threatened legal action. But the team made it clear that they'll be playing the SheBelieves Cup — an important World Cup warmup event that kicks off tomorrow in the United States — under protest against what they see as inequitable working conditions.

The players' grievances boil down to their feeling that they're not being afforded the same resources the Canadian men's squad received in the lead-up to its much-celebrated World Cup return last year. The women cited their downsized training camp for the SheBelieves Cup and the lack of a scheduled home game before the Women's World Cup as examples of Canada Soccer squeezing them at a time when it ought to be flush with cash from the meteoric rise of its national teams.

At the root of this dissonance is a short-sighted deal Canada Soccer made in 2018 with Canadian Soccer Business, an entity formed by founders of the men's Canadian Premier League ahead of its inaugural season. Under the 10-year agreement, CSB controls (and gets the revenue from) the sponsorship and broadcast contracts for the Canadian men's and women's national teams in exchange for a guaranteed payment to Canada Soccer — reportedly $3-4 million a year currently.

This may have seemed like a good deal for Canada Soccer five years ago, when the national teams were not attracting much interest and Canada Soccer was eager to help a long-desired domestic league get off the ground. But now that the women are Olympic champs and the men are, even more surprisingly, preparing for their second straight appearance in the World Cup (which Canada is co-hosting in 2026), those sponsorship and broadcast-rights deals suddenly look a lot more valuable. The players wanted a piece of that pie, only to discover that Canada Soccer had already sold much of it.

WATCH | Canadian women to play in SheBelieves Cup under protest:

CanWNT to play 'in protest' at SheBelieves Cup after pay equity dispute with Canada Soccer

3 months ago
Duration 1:51
CBC Sports' Shireen Ahmed breaks down the Canadian women's national team's pay equity dispute Canada Soccer.

While CSB claims it's "misunderstood" and says it wants to help the men's and women's national teams, they both remain locked in contentious talks with Canada Soccer on a new collective bargaining agreement in large part because of the CSB deal. The men's team, which also briefly went on strike back in June, has been especially vocal in its criticisms of the arrangement, calling it "cloaked in secrecy" and, most pointedly, "to the benefit of the owners of for-profit minor league professional soccer teams."

Canada Soccer said last week that it is "committed to a path to addressing each of the demands made by the players" and promised that a labour settlement "once concluded, will be a historic deal that will deliver real change and pay equity in Canadian soccer." But the men and women are growing increasingly impatient, calling for new leadership at Canada Soccer if the current brass can't satisfy their demands. They've even suggested the federal government should get involved in the talks. Yesterday, women's captain Christine Sinclar said her team is "at our wits' end" and called their labour battle "our most important fight that we'll ever have as national team players, and it's one we're determined to win."

Sinclair also promised her team will "go out there and... try and win" the SheBelieves Cup, one of the precious few opportunities for Canada to sharpen itself against quality opponents ahead of this summer's Women's World Cup. After this, there's room to schedule just two more truly competitive matches, during the international window in April. But the players will be in a legal position to strike then, and Sinclair said the team won't play unless its demands are met. Another two matches can be played right before the World Cup kicks off July 20 in Australia and New Zealand, but those would be at less than full speed.

The SheBelieves Cup is an annual four-team tournament held around this time of year in the United States. It started in 2016, but Canada's only other appearance came in 2021, when it placed third in the lead-up to its historic Olympic gold-medal victory in Tokyo a few months later. The format is a straight round-robin. The team with the best record after three matches wins the Cup.

WATCH | CBC Sports' Shireen Ahmed discusses labour dispute:

Canada’s women’s soccer team to play She Believes Cup under protest

3 months ago
Duration 5:22
CBC Sports contributor Shireen Ahmed gives an update on the Canada women’s soccer strike.

This year's edition is stacked. All four teams are headed to the World Cup and sit high in the world rankings. Joining sixth-ranked Canada is the top-ranked United States, which is going for its third straight World Cup title, No. 9 Brazil and No. 11 Japan.

Canada opens with a marquee matchup vs. the U.S. on Thursday at 7 p.m. ET in Orlando, Fla. The Americans are 52-4-7 (wins-losses-ties) all-time vs. Canada after defeating them in the CONCACAF championship final last July. But the Canadians beat the U.S. in the 2021 Olympic semifinals to break a 20-year winless run and make this a more credible rivalry. After the Americans, Canada faces Brazil on Sunday in Nashville and Japan on Feb. 22 near Dallas.

Much of Canada's Olympic championship team is here. Sensational goalkeeper Steph Labbé retired last year, but the roster for the SheBelieves Cup still features Sinclair, the all-time leading goal scorer in international soccer, and other Olympic standouts like Jessie Fleming, Julia Grosso, Ashley Lawrence, Kadeisha Buchanan, Janine Beckie and Quinn. Midfielder Desiree Scott and forwards Deanne Rose and Nichelle Prince are out due to injuries.

The SheBelieves presents a great opportunity for others to step up and prove their worth against top-flight opponents, and coach Bev Priestman has raved about the improved depth in Canadian women's soccer, saying it gets "more and more difficult to select a roster" each time. But, even before her players went on strike, Priestman alluded to being hamstrung by Canada Soccer's penny pinching when she said "I probably could have invited, budget allowing and everything, another 10 players into this [pre-tournament training camp] to be looked at... There's a whole lot of talent out there." Instead, with some players absent from camp due to European club duty, Priestman was allowed to invite only 18 players — not even enough for a full 11-on-11 scrimmage.

Meanwhile, Priestman faced questions about her own possible restlessness today after a report out of England said she's considering offers from several women's clubs to join them after the World Cup. "Obviously, post-[Olympic] gold medal there's been regular opportunities put in front of me," Priestman told reporters. "But I think that the biggest thing is I'm committed to this group of players and I've shared some incredible moments with them. And I want those moments to continue."

Read more about what Canada hopes to achieve at the SheBelieves Cup in this piece by soccer expert John Molinaro. Read more about the Canadian women's labour struggle in this piece by CBC Sports contributor Shireen Ahmed.

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