Bev Priestman calls it a "baptism of fire, in a good way."
The 34-year-old English native makes her debut as Canada coach on Thursday against the top-ranked Americans at the SheBelieves Cup women's soccer tournament in Orlando. And she is doing it without captain Christine Sinclair, veteran midfielder Diana Matheson, defensive linchpin Kadeisha Buchanan and four other players who didn't make it to camp or had to leave early due to injury or pandemic-related issues.
"Obviously coming into this tournament it's not how I originally imagined my first tournament would be, particularly playing No. 1 in the world. But it's a great opportunity for anybody to step up and try and get their name on that Olympic roster," Priestman told reporters Tuesday from Florida.
"What am I expecting? I think in some ways I don't know what to expect," she added. "Like today (Tuesday), for example, it'll be a first session in for (Chelsea midfielder) Jessie Fleming. Today's the only day we've had the whole group together.
"So that first game will be a baptism of fire, in a good way. But I've asked the group to be really brave and step up and go towards the opportunity in front of us. I know that every player's going to put their body on the line. We're going to be a hard team to beat, that's what I've asked of them. And so, yeah, I'm really exited to see how players do on that opening game."
The 37-year-old Sinclair and 36-year-old Matheson, who have 502 caps and 205 international goals between them, didn't make it to camp because of injury. Veteran goalkeeper Erin McLeod and uncapped defender Bianca St-Georges returned to their clubs after picking up injuries at camp.
Priestman said she expects Sinclair, Matheson and McLeod to be ready for an April 13 friendly against England.
Buchanan (Lyon), fullback Ashley Lawrence and forward Jordyn Huitema (both Paris Saint-Germain) were denied release by their French clubs.
The tournament falls during a FIFA international window, which would ordinarily require clubs to release players for international duty. But France recently imposed a seven-day quarantine for travellers due to COVID-19. FIFA, trying to limit player absences, is allowing clubs to keep players if they face a quarantine longer than five days.
Sinclair, Matheson, McLeod, Buchanan, Lawrence and Huitema have 845 caps and 229 international goals between them. Sinclair leads the soccer world with 186 international goals.
Clearly looking to see the glass half-full, Priestman sees the tournament as an opportunity to test some talent.
"I believe in these moments actually you find out a lot about people," said the former Canadian youth coach and England assistant coach.
She will do so against a team that has lost to Canada just three times in 60 meetings. Canada, currently tied with Brazil for eighth in the FIFA world rankings, is 3-50-7 against the U.S.
The American women are currently riding a 34-game unbeaten streak against all opposition and have scored two or more goals in 30 of those games. The U.S. also is unbeaten in its last 50 home matches (45-0-5), a run that has seen the Americans outscore their opposition 179-27.
Head coach Vlatko Andonovski has won his first 13 games at the helm, a record for the team.
On the plus side, the last 14 meetings with Canada since 2011 have produced three ties and four one-goal wins for the U.S. The Americans won 3-0 last time out in the Feb. 9, 2020, final of the 2020 CONCACAF Women’s Olympic Qualifying Tournament.
Sinclair, Buchanan and Lawrence all started that game with Huitema coming off the bench.
The Canadian women last played March 10 in a 2-2 tie with Brazil at a tournament in France.
Priestman took over the team in November after Kenneth Heiner-Moller left to take a coaching job in his native Denmark.
Priestman, who worked for Canada Soccer from 2013 to 2018 before joining the coaching staff of England's Lionesses, says there will be "some tweaks" to the Canadian team under her direction.
"It's not about me ripping everything up. We haven't got the time to necessarily do that going into the Olympics. But there will absolutely be some tweaks and I hope that that's evident in the first game you see."
She is asking the team to play with a little edge and a lot of accountability.
"I've asked the group to demand more of each other and keep pushing and pushing and pushing. because that's what we have to do. The world's moving forward in women's soccer and we have to do the same."
Olivia Smith, a 16-year-old forward, and Victoria Pickett, a 24-year-old midfielder, both missed out on the 23-woman tournament squad named Tuesday.
Lindsay Agnew (North Carolina Courage), Sarah Stratigakis (University of Michigan) and Pickett (taken by Kansas City in the second round of last month's NWSL draft) were late additions to camp.
After the U.S., the Canadian women face Brazil on Feb. 21 and No. 31 Argentina on Feb. 24.
The Argentines were a late addition to the field after No. 10 Japan pulled out, citing the pandemic.
While the Canadian roster has been ravaged, it still features 12 players who won bronze at the 2016 Olympics in Rio.
There are five uncapped players: goalkeeper Rylee Foster, defender Jade Rose, midfielders Jordyn Listro and Samantha Chang and forward Evelyne Viens.
Priestman said she has chosen a skipper in Sinclair's absence but declined to identify her at this time.
Goalkeepers: Stephanie Labbe, FC Rosengard (Sweden); Rylee Foster, Liverpool FC (England); Kailen Sheridan, Sky Blue FC (NWSL).
Defenders: Allysha Chapman, Houston Dash (NWSL); Jade Rose, Super REX Ontario; Shelina Zadorsky, Tottenham (England); Quinn, OL Reign FC (NWSL); Gabrielle Carle, Florida State University; Jayde Riviere, University of Michigan; Lindsay Agnew, North Carolina Courage (NWSL); Vanessa Gilles, Girondins de Bordeaux (France).
Midfielders: Julia Grosso, University of Texas at Austin; Samantha Chang, University of South Carolina; Sarah Stratigakis, University of Michigan; Desiree Scott, Kansas City (NWSL); Sophie Schmidt, Houston Dash (NWSL); Jessie Fleming, Chelsea (England); Jordyn Listro, Orlando Pride (NWSL).
Forwards: Deanne Rose, University of Florida; Evelyne Viens, Sky Blue FC (NWSL); Nichelle Prince, Houston Dash (NWSL); Janine Beckie, Manchester City (England); Adriana Leon, West Ham (England).
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This report by The Canadian Press was first published Feb. 16, 2021
Neil Davidson, The Canadian Press