After two bronze, Canadian women's soccer team looks to move higher up Olympic podium

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After winning back-to-back bronze medals at the Olympics, the Canadian women's soccer team's goal in Tokyo in simple. Climb the podium.

Changing the colour of the medal has been Bev Priestman's mantra since being named head coach last October. And her 22-player squad is on board.

"This is really a team that can and will do great things," said centre back Shelina Zadorsky, who captains England's Tottenham.

Once again, Christine Sinclair leads the way. The talismanic captain's first outing in Japan will mark her 300th senior appearance, with the forward from Burnaby, B.C., at her fourth Olympics, looking to add to her world-record career total of 186 goals.

At 38, Sinclair is three years older than Priestman, a former Canada Soccer staff coach who took over the top women's job after a stint with the English Football Association. John Herdman led the women in Rio, opting to take over the Canadian men in January 2018.

Kenneth Heiner-Moller was in charge of the Canadian women at the 2019 World Cup but resigned last summer to take a coaching job in his native Denmark.

Priestman, who helped many of the younger players progress through the youth ranks, has had to land on her feet thanks to the pandemic, which kept her team on the sidelines until the SheBelieves Cup in February. Injuries and players being unavailable due to pandemic-related travel restrictions have shortened her preparation time.

"It's been a bit of a sprint … But a lot of other coaches have had that too," she said.

Despite their short time together, her players speak highly of Priestman.

"She's done an incredible job since she took over," said forward Janine Beckie.

"She's very straightforward, she's very prepared. But she also brings a very relaxed personality to the group. (And) fun," she added. "We want to enjoy ourselves while we're doing the work that we need to do."

But Priestman also holds the player accountable

"I think she has high expectations," said Beckie. "And she's pushing every player on this team to play at their top level … She's got a knack for getting the best out of people."

Priestman has not been afraid to rock the boat, citing a "comfort level" in the squad she inherited.

"And I think that comfort level shifted," she said. "When people are uncomfortable, you see things from them that maybe you wouldn't have seen if there's a comfort level."

Midfielder Sophie Schmidt, a veteran of 205 internationals, found herself among the team's four alternates until FIFA opted to include the reserves by bumping the roster up to 22.

The eighth-ranked Canadians play their first two games at the Sapporo Dome, opening play July 21 against No. 10 Japan before facing No. 37 Chile on July 24. They wrap up Group E play July 27 against Britain in Kashima.

Canada has history in Kashima. In June 2001, the Canadian men tied Brazil 0-0 there at the Confederations Cup with Craig Forrest standing tall in the Canadian goal.

Britain will offer few surprises to Beckie. The roster includes 11 of her teammates at Manchester City.

Britain is unranked by FIFA because it draws on players from No. 6 England, No. 23 Scotland, No. 34 Wales and No. 48 Northern Ireland. The British coaching staff includes former Canadian international Rhian Wilkinson, an assistant to head coach Hegge Riise.

Fourteen of the 22 Canadian players were part of the Rio squad including fullback Gabrielle Carle, who was an alternate back then.

Fifteen of the 22 players in the full squad have 50 caps or more with the full roster totalling 1,755 caps, for an average of 80. Nine play their club football in the NWSL, nine in Europe and four in the NCAA.

Canada has experience in goal with 34-year-old incumbent Stephanie Labbe (78 caps) and 38-year-old Erin McLeod (118 caps). Kailen Sheridan has just 11 caps but was a finalist for NWSL goalkeeper of the year in 2019 and, at 25, is likely the future No. 1.

"She's really just coming into her own on this team," Beckie said of Sheridan. "And she's definitely going to be the future face in goal for Canada Soccer, no doubt about it."

Kadeisha Buchanan and Zadorsky make a formidable centre-back pairing with Vanessa Gilles, a power in the air, a talented third option.

Ashley Lawrence is a stylish player comfortable either at fullback or in the midfield. Desiree Scott, whose nickname is Destroyer, is tasked with breaking up opposition attacks. Jessie Fleming is a creative, technically gifted midfielder who at 23 already has 84 caps.

Quinn, who goes by one name, has impressed with their composed play on the field, able to break up attacks and start ones of their own.

Goals have been an issue in the buildup to the Olympics. Canada has scored six goals in seven games (3-2-2) this year and was held to scoreless draws last month with No. 7 Brazil and the 27th-ranked Czech Republic.

The roster has combined for 324 international goals, with Sinclair accounting for 57 per cent of them.

Beckie believes the team has goals in it, citing "an element of flair and risk on the attacking side."

"I think it comes down to the opportunities that we're creating for ourselves … the more risk we take in the attack, the more opportunities we give ourselves at goal," said Beckie, who has 31 goals in 75 international appearances

"I definitely don't worry that we're going to have an issue scoring goals once the tournament starts."

Priestman has not skimped on forward options with Sinclair, Beckie, Jordyn Huitema, Adriana Leon, Nichelle Prince, Deanne Rose and Evelyne Viens.

Viens could be a wild card off the bench. The 25-year-old has just seven caps, including just one start, but has already scored twice.

"Evelyne scores goals … That's why she's in the squad," said Priestman.

Sinclair remains a canny presence on the field, able to drop deep to link up play. And she knows what to do around the goal.

Beckie can be a force, both with her deliveries from set-pieces and the wing. And she proved her mental toughness after seeing her penalty attempt saved in Canada's round-of-16 exit at the 2019 World Cup at the hands of Sweden.

She scored twice in a 3-3 tie with the fourth-ranked Netherlands in a recent training match in Japan.

Canada is 4-7-3 all-time against the Japanese, losing 4-0 last time out in October 2019. The Canadian women have played Britain just once, winning 2-0 in the quarterfinals of the 2012 Games in London.

Canada lost 1-0 in its only previous meeting with Chile, in 2013. The Chilean women are making their Olympic debut, having qualified by defeating Cameroon in a South America-Africa playoff earlier this month.

Chile went 1-2-0 in a tough group in its World Cup debut in 2019 in France, losing 2-0 to Sweden and 3-0 to the U.S. before beating Thailand 2-0. The Chileans missed out on advancing as one of top four third-place teams on goal difference.

Canada beat Britain 2-0 at the 2012 Olympics.

The winner of Canada's opening group will meet one of the two third-place teams that advances in the quarterfinals. The Group E runner-up will play the No. 2 team in Group F. Should Canada win its pool and quarterfinal, the powerful Americans could await in the semifinals.

The Canadians prepared for the heat of the Japanese summer at pre-Olympic camps in Spain and Los Angeles.

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Follow @NeilMDavidson on Twitter


This report by The Canadian Press was first published July 18, 2021.

Neil Davidson, The Canadian Press

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