Short-handed Canadian WNT faces tough test in key friendlies against Australia

Canada's Ashley Lawrence, left and Christine Sinclair, seen during the CONCACAF W Championship in July, will help lead the women's national team in a pair of important friendlies against Australia on Saturday and Sept. 6. (Fernando Llano/The Associated Press - image credit)
Canada's Ashley Lawrence, left and Christine Sinclair, seen during the CONCACAF W Championship in July, will help lead the women's national team in a pair of important friendlies against Australia on Saturday and Sept. 6. (Fernando Llano/The Associated Press - image credit)

The 2023 FIFA World Cup is more than 10 months away, but the Canadian women's team's preparations begin in earnest this week.

Canada plays the first of two international friendlies against Australia on Saturday at Brisbane's Suncorp Stadium. The two sides will meet again on Sept. 6 at Sydney's new Allianz Stadium.

These games are very important for the reigning Olympic champions, as they'll help them prepare and acclimatize for the World Cup, which will be co-hosted by Australia and New Zealand from July 20 to Aug. 20, 2023.

"This window is about us experiencing the conditions we will face next summer, particularly the significant travel and jet lag, which we will look to adapt and learn from," Canadian coach Bev Priestman said. "It should be two incredible games that are only going to help us in our experience."

Beyond getting used to the conditions, it's also vitally important that Canada takes advantage of every international window between now and then to test itself against tough opponents, the likes of which it could face at the World Cup. Australia fits that bill, as it sits No. 12 in the current FIFA world rankings, five spots below Canada.

Australia is also one of the few nations that has a winning record against Canada, as it leads the all-time series with seven wins and three draws in 16 meetings since their first game against each other on Dec. 12, 1997. In their previous encounter, Canada earned a 2-0 win during the group stage of the 2016 Rio Olympic tournament.

"I've scouted this Australian team well now for a few weeks, and they're a top side, I've got to say. They look physical. They remind me of a U.S.-type [team], and we'll have to defend well against them, and they're a great defensive team, too," Priestman stated.

Australia's roster includes Chelsea forward Sam Kerr, who was the top scorer in England's FA WSL last season, and finished third in voting for the 2021 Ballon d'Or Féminin, awarded to the best player in the world. Also named to the squad were defender Steph Catley and forward Caitlin Foord of Arsenal, and Manchester City defender Alanna Kennedy.

"She's an absolute handful. … She's a top player that we have to pay respect to," Priestman said of Kerr.

WATCH | Signa Butler breaks down Canada's newest players:

Key starters missing

There are some notable absences in Priestman's 22-player roster for these two games. Defender Kadeisha Buchanan, fullbacks Vanessa Gilles and Jayde Riviere, and forward Deanne Rose have been ruled out by injuries. Fullback Ashley Lawrence is unavailable due to personal reasons. All of them were part of Canada's gold-medal team at the Tokyo Olympics.

"I think you really can't hide from the fact that [we're] missing some key starters," Priestman admitted.

Priestman has called up two newcomers in midfielder Simi Awujo and forward Clarissa Larisey. Awujo, 18 and born in Atlanta, is a sophomore at the University of Southern California, and recently competed for Canada at the FIFA U-20 World Cup in Costa Rica.

"I think her profile is quite different, she's tall, very dangerous in the box, and can travel with the ball very, very well," Priestman said. "So, it's quite different to what we've got, a bit of a blend of a couple of people that we currently have in our midfield. So, when you talk about a new profile, I think she could score goals in the box, so I'm excited about what Simi can be."

Larisey, a 23-year-old from Ottawa, joined Celtic from Icelandic champions Valur last summer after cutting her teeth in NCAA soccer with the Memphis Tigers, where she scored 31 goals in 48 games across three years.

"She probably could play across multiple positions, winger, a No. 9 [forward], maybe the No. 10 [playmaker], she's played wingback, as well," Priestman said. "So, when you talk about that versatility for tournament rosters, I think that opened the door for her.

"Plus, individually, what I've seen from her, she's got pace, she's direct, she scores goals."

Tactical evolution

Canada is coming off a disappointing 1-0 loss to the United States in the final of the CONCACAF W Championship in July, staged in Mexico. Priestman's side benefited from balanced scoring at the tournament, as eight different players accounted for their 12 goals. The Canadians remained true to their core values of being a defensively-sound team, but at the same time they looked far more adventurous and fluid in their attacking play.

Priestman wants to build on Canada's tactical evolution that took foot at the CONCACAF W Championship, feeling that the Reds can't afford to stand still or they run the risk of falling behind, if this summer's European Championship is anything to go by.

"I feel like we're moving forward," Priestman said. "It's just a case now of trying to cement our roster, trying to see who could be in our 23 come next summer. And then tactically, we are evolving, [changing] some things, and trying to work on being the fittest team at the World Cup, as those little things I think can make all the difference.

"Look at the Euros, the standard of the game has gone up again, so fit teams, tactically organized teams — those are the standard of the women's game now."

Canada's group stage opponents for next summer's FIFA World Cup will be determined during the official draw on Oct. 22 in Auckland.