Leon's highlight-reel goal lifts Canada past Australia in women's soccer friendly

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BRISBANE, Australia — Less than a year away from the Women's World Cup, Olympic champion Canada got the best of tournament co-host Australia in a 1-0 win Saturday.

The Canadians survived a depleted backline with goalkeeper Kailen Sheridan coming up big on numerous occasions. And the Canada offence, which has been muted in the past, bristled with attacking options as the game wore on.

Australia had more chances in the first half but went into the break trailing 1-0. Canada turned up the pressure in a wide-open second half that saw both sides threaten.

"Overall (I'm) really, really happy," Canada coach Bev Priestman said of the performance. "To be honest, it's the stuff that I love about this team. When you're faced with that level of adversity, they step up and they do whatever it takes to win … I really enjoyed some of the football we played. It was dynamic."

Adriana Leon's 11th-minute rocket proved to be the difference in an entertaining contest before a crowd of 25,016 at Suncorp Stadium.

The play started with a Jessie Fleming free kick from the left touchline. The ball was cleared by an Australian defender but only as far as Bianca St-Georges who sent it over to Jordyn Huitema. The OL Reign striker teed the ball up for Leon, who hammered a right-footed shot from the edge of the penalty box past the outstretched hands of diving goalkeeper Lydia Williams for her 25th goal for Canada.

"Her quality always shines through," said Priestman. "She scores goals."

The seventh-ranked Canadians meet the 12th-ranked Matildas in a rematch Tuesday at the newly rebuilt Allianz Stadium in Sydney.

Both venues will host matches at next year's World Cup, which kicks off next July in 10 stadiums in nine host cities across Australia and New Zealand. Canada will learn its path at the 32-country tournament at the draw in Auckland in October.

Australia coach Tony Gustavsson will be hoping his team makes better use of its chances Tuesday.

"It's a bit unbelievable that it ends 1-0 to Canada, to be honest," he said.

"Just one of those days," he added. "Another game, we score three."

The Matildas pressed for a late equalizer with Sheridan pushing a header from Sam Kerr off an Australian corner in stoppage time to preserve the win.

Kerr, the Matildas' star striker, had a slew of scoring opportunities but could not beat Sheridan.

Both teams were missing players.

With Kadeisha Buchanan, Allysha Chapman, Vanessa Gilles, Jayde Riviere and Deanne Rose injured and Ashley Lawrence unavailable for personal reasons, the Canadians were missing their entire starting back four.

Bev Priestman's starting 11 featured just four starters from the 2021 Olympic final in Tokyo: captain Christine Sinclair, Fleming, Janine Beckie and Nichelle Prince.

Veteran Shelina Zadorsky anchored the backline, earning her 83rd cap alongside fellow centre back Sura Yekka. Beckie moved back to fullback with St-Georges on the other side.

The 24-year-old St-Georges, who plays for the NWSL Chicago Red Stars, impressed in just her fifth senior appearance.

Fleming and Julia Grosso were deployed in midfield ahead of the back four, with Leon, Sinclair and Prince playing behind Huitema.

Sinclair, the world's all-time leading goal-scorer with 190, earned her 316th cap for Canada to tie American Carli Lloyd for second place on the world’s all-time appearance list. Former American international Kristine Lilly leads with 354 appearances across a 24-year career.

Clarissa Larisey and 18-year-old Simi Awujo came on in the 75th minute for their first Canadian senior caps.

Kerr, who plays alongside Fleming at England's Chelsea, captained Australia which was also missing players.

The Matildas were beaten 1-0 by Sweden in the Olympic semifinal and finished fourth in Tokyo after losing 1-0 to the U.S. in the bronze-medal game. Canada won gold, dispatching the Swedes 3-2 in a penalty shootout after the game finished knotted at 1-1.

Saturday's game was the first for Canada since July when it qualified for the World Cup by virtue of finishing runner-up to the top-ranked Americans at the CONCACAF W Championship in Mexico.

Canada improved to 7-2-3 in 2022, with the losses 1-0 to No. 8 Spain at the Arnold Clark Cup in February and 1-0 to the U.S. at the CONCACAF W Championship.

The Australian women fell to 5-3-1 in 2022. They last played in June when a depleted squad tied No. 27 Portugal 1-1 and was humbled 7-0 by Spain.

While Australia held a 7-6-3 edge over Canada all-time going into the two-match series, the Canadians had 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.

Australia won 2-1 the last time the two played Down Under, in May 2008 in Sydney.

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This report by The Canadian Press was first published Sept. 3, 2022

The Canadian Press