Canada vs. USA takeaways: Reds shake off the cobwebs

VANCOUVER – It’s always interesting whenever Canada and the United States square off in women’s soccer. There’s a lot of history between the two teams, the players know each other well, and the rivalry continues to pique the interest of fans on both sides of the border.

Thursday’s chippy battle at B.C. Place was an entertaining friendly between two nations pushing one another to be better. For the Americans, it was a return to the city where they captured the 2015 FIFA Women’s World Cup. For the home side, it marked a chance to show the growth the Canadian program has made in recent years by testing itself against the top-ranked team in the world.

Here are my three takeaways from Canada’s 1-1 draw with the U.S.

Shaking off the cobwebs

It’s been a while since Canada hit the pitch. Although it hosted Costa Rica in June, no disrespect to the Central Americans, Canada’s last formidable opponent was in early 2017 when it played both Sweden and Germany.

Understandably, the rust was visible early against the Americans. Passes weren’t always made, the distribution was either a little long or too short, and it took a while for the hosts to get their feet under them.

Just a handful of Canadians have been playing consistent minutes over the last few months: the NCAA players (Rebecca Quinn, Jessie Fleming and Deanne Rose), Ashley Lawrence (Paris Saint-Germain) and captain Christine Sinclair, who won her second title with the Portland Thorns of the National Women’s Soccer League. As a result, the coaching staff said they didn’t want to begin training for this friendly series in a conventional way. Instead, they did things like deep water training and threw out what coach John Herdman referred to as “fun, fun, happy, happy, joy, joy”.

Canada settled down as the game stretched on thanks to the veteran-laden starting 11. However, the opening goal from American striker Alex Morgan came after a miscue in the back line after the Canadians didn’t clear their lines. If you give the Americans a second or third lucrative chnace, they will make you pay.

A substitution by Herdman near the 30-minute mark saw Rose swapped out for Adriana Leon. The switch shook things up and the Canadians had some of their best pressure of the night moments later. Leon has always been a player who can provide a spark coming off the bench. Her gusto was crucial on Canada’s goal that made it a 1-1 game. The sequence leading up to the goal wasn’t pretty, but they all count and the hard work that went into it cannot be discounted.

With 90 minutes in the books, Canada went toe-to-toe with the world’s best team. I can say with confidence that everyone in that stadium went home entertained.

Lawrence, the Swiss Army Knife

Herdman said he was “over the moon” at the late addition of Ashley Lawrence. The 22-year-old wasn’t on the original roster as this game and Sunday’s return match in San Jose fall outside of the FIFA window, and European clubs were therefore not obligated to release their players.

After training this week, Herdman spoke glowingly of Lawrence, stating that over his coaching career, he’s rarely come across someone like her who has “stood on guard for her country.” He said Lawrence could’ve easily stayed in France, but she stepped up and worked with her coach at PSG to get released.

Lawrence’s versatility is tremendous. She can play anywhere on the pitch and still make a difference – hence, the Swiss Army Knife comparison. Lined up as a fullback versus the U.S., she was active across each third of the pitch and did an excellent job delivering balls for her midfielders and strikers, while also tracking back and covering her defensive responsibilities. She had her hands full marking Megan Rapinoe on the right and knew when she could and couldn’t make a run deep into the American end.

Her time in France has added an extra layer to her already dynamic repertoire. What’s most exciting about Lawrence is that she hasn’t peaked. She’s learning finesse and skill as a professional in Europe, and thinking about a future Canadian core featuring her, Rose, Jessie Fleming and Jordyn Huitema is something to get excited about.

Looking ahead to Sunday

In my years of covering this Canadian team, especially in the Herdman era, they always seem come out stronger in the closer of a two-game set. It happened versus Costa Rica in June and against Brazil in 2016 during their Olympic preparation. I expect much of the same on Sunday.

One thing I hope they take with them into San Jose’s match is the high press from the strikers. Rose, Leon, Janine Beckie, and Nichelle Prince showed no fear going full throttle toward goalkeeper Alyssa Naeher and her defenders. I also liked Rebecca Quinn moving forward during goal kick distribution and offensive corners. She’s tall and skilled at using her head.

Finally, it’s not that Canada should tone down the physicality. It should just be slightly scaled back and used as a weapon.

NOTES: Maegan Kelly was subbed into the game at the 72-minute mark to make her Canadian debut, and she had two shots on goal, including one that nearly beat the American ‘keeper to take the lead. Sportsnet spoke to her earlier this week… For those players who didn’t see time on Thursday, there’s a good chance they’ll get minutes in the closing leg. Herdman told the media after practice on Wednesday that he’d like all of his players to see some action… 28,017 fans were on hand in Vancouver for Thursday’s match, the largest attendance for a women’s friendly at BC Place… Three players were honoured during halftime in Vancouver: Kelly Parker, Chelsea Stewart and Brittany Baxter. The trio helped Canada capture bronze at the 2012 Olympics in London. Sportsnet caught up with Parker last summer in a special retrospective piece about the team’s run to the podium.