Canada takes its first step towards the 2023 FIFA Women's World Cup against co-host Australia in a pair of friendlies Down Under.
Seventh-ranked Canada plays No. 12 Australia on Saturday at Brisbane’s Suncorp Stadium (capacity 52,263) before the two teams meet again on Tuesday at Sydney’s newly rebuilt Allianz Stadium (capacity 42,512).
For Canada coach Bev Priestman, it's the first gathering of her squad since qualifying for the soccer showcase, which is being co-hosted by New Zealand, by virtue of its second-place finish at the CONCACAF W Championship in July.
While the Canadian women won't know their exact road at the 32-team World Cup until the draw in October, the trip is a welcome chance to get a feel for what awaits them next July.
Priestman said captain Christine Sinclair had told her she was "so glad we came," given the chance to experience the jet lag and other challenges that come with the 12,000-kilometre journey to Australia.
"I'm lucky I lived in New Zealand and did a lot of travel to and from these parts of the world," said Priestman, who worked for New Zealand Football from January 2009 to June 2013. "But I think for a lot of players, it's new to them and we're learning strategies around sleep and everything that they've felt.
"That's a huge part of why we came here. It's different to what we tend to face … When it's a first official step on a World Cup journey, which it is for us, to play Australia in Australia (at) World Cup venues and (stay) in possibly (tournament) hotels, I think these are all insights you can get that's going to help you."
While Australia holds a 7-6-3 edge over Canada all-time, the Canadians have lost just two of the last nine meetings (5-2-2) and won 2-0 when the teams last met — in their opening game at the 2016 Rio Olympics.
The Australians won the last meeting Down Under, 2-1 in May 2008 in Sydney.
Priestman calls Australia "a top top team" that will be among the contenders at the World Cup.
"They've got major threats," she added. "You can't hide from a Sam Kerr but not just Sam Kerr. I think they've got four or five top players that are playing in top top leagues. I think it will be a tough game for us defensively. We'll have to be really armed for an Australian side that has proven that they can score goals."
The Canadian defence has been hit hard by injuries with Priestman missing Kadeisha Buchanan, Allysha Chapman, Vanessa Gilles, Jayde Riviere and Deanne Rose as well as Ashley Lawrence (personal reasons) — a list that includes her entire starting backline.
Priestman admitted the injury bug had her "starting to think that the world's against you."
But she pointed to the SheBelieves Cup in 2021, her debut as Canada coach, when Gilles got her chance to play in the absence of Buchanan. Gilles turned heads in just her second start for Canada and is now part of Priestman's first-choice centre-back pairing with Buchanan.
"There's massive opportunity for anyone that steps on that pitch," said Priestman.
Newcomers include 18-year-old midfielder Simi Awujo, a sophomore at the University of Southern California, and 23-year-old forward Clarissa Larisey, who has scored nine goals in 27 appearances for Glasgow Celtic in the Scottish Women’s Premier League.
Awujo impressed at the recent FIFA U-20 Women’s World Cup 2022 in Costa Rica. Centre back Jade Rose, Canada's captain at that tournament, is also in Priestman's squad. The 19-year-old Rose has already won two caps at the senior level.
The two teams have plenty of club ties.
Kerr, the Matildas captain and star attacker, and Canadian midfielder Jessie Fleming both wear Chelsea FC colours when not representing their country.
Kailen Sheridan, Canada's No. 1 'keeper, is a teammate of Emily Van Egmond at the NWSL's San Diego Wave.
Australia's Katrina Gorry, Charli Grant and Clare Polkinghorne play alongside Canadian goalkeeper Sabrina D'Angelo at Sweden's Vittsjo GIK. And veteran Canadian midfielder Desiree Scott and Australian Chloe Logarzo both call the NWSL's Kansas City Current their club home.
The Australian squad also features vice-captain/defender Steph Catley and forward Caitlin Foord (Arsenal) and defender Alanna Kennedy (Manchester City).
Goalkeepers: Sabrina D’Angelo, Vittsjo GIK (Sweden); Lysianne Proulx, SCU Torreense (Portugal); Kailen Sheridan, San Diego Wave FC (NWSL).
Defenders: Gabrielle Carle, Kristianstads DFF (Sweden); Marie Levasseur, Fleury FC (France); Jade Rose, Markham, Ont., Harvard (NCAA); Bianca St-Georges, Chicago Red Stars (NWSL); Shelina Zadorsky, Tottenham (England); Sura Yekka, Le Havre AC (France).
Midfielders: Simi Awujo, USC (NCAA); Jessie Fleming, Chelsea (England); Julia Grosso, Juventus (Italy); Quinn, OL Reign (NWSL); Sophie Schmidt, Houston Dash (NWSL); Desiree Scott, Kansas City Current (NWSL).
Forwards: Janine Beckie, Portland Thorns (NWSL); Jordyn Huitema, OL Reign (NWSL); Cloe Lacasse, SL Benfica (Portugal); Clarissa Larisey, Glasgow Celtic (Scotland); Adriana Leon, Manchester United (England); Nichelle Prince, Houston Dash (NWWL); Christine Sinclair (capt.), Portland Thorns (NWSL).
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This report by The Canadian Press was first published Sept. 1, 2022
Neil Davidson, The Canadian Press