Canadian women’s soccer team thinking bigger than bronze in Tokyo

Canada players celebrate their second goal against England during an international friendly soccer match on April 13, 2021. (AP Photo/Rui Vieira)

When Bev Priestman was named coach of the Canadian women’s soccer program, she shot for the moon, rather than temper expectations, when asked about what goals she set for herself and the team.

Priestman was taking over a side that had won back-to-back bronze medals at the 2012 and 2016 Olympics under former coach John Herdman, and another third-place finish this summer in Tokyo would mark an unprecedented achievement for Canada.

But Priestman, a 35-year-old native of Consett, England, who served as an assistant under Herdman, didn’t hold anything back during her introductory press conference last October.

“A team like Canada should be on that podium. I do think we need to change the colour of the medal. Two bronzes [are] unbelievable and it’s a fantastic achievement, and credit to John and the staff and the players that achieved that. [But] to keep moving forward, we have to aim higher than that,” Priestman said at the time.

If Canada is going to “change the colour of the medal” at the Tokyo Olympics, it’ll likely be on the strength of its defence, and in spite of an attack that boasts iconic captain Christine Sinclair, international soccer’s all-time leading scorer, for both men and women. That might sound like blasphemy, but a close examination of Canada’s recent scoring record is concerning.

So far in 2021, Canada has a record of three wins, two losses and two draws, but it has been shut out four times and has scored just six goals over those seven games. Even more worrying is that Sinclair, who has 186 goals in 299 appearances for the national team, hasn’t scored in her previous eight appearances dating back to February 2020.

For years, the criticism levelled at Canada has been that it relies far too much on Sinclair as the primary source of its offence. Nobody has stepped up to take the weight off Sinclair’s shoulders — and that includes Janine Beckie. The Manchester City forward ranks fifth all-time in scoring for Canada (and second amongst active players) with 31 goals in 75 games. But she’s far from a clinical finisher and is the type of player who needs three or four chances per game to score just once. She’s also suffering through a scoring drought, having bagged just one goal in her previous 11 outings for Canada.

Jordyn Huitema was labelled “the new Sinclair” after debuting for Canada as a 15-year-old. But Huitema, now 20, has only 13 goals in 37 games, and the overwhelming majority of those goals came against minnow nations. She’s also mired in scoring slump, with one goal in her last 10 appearances.

Based on recent history, if Sinclair can’t find a way to score in Japan, then Canada is going to struggle for goals, and its hopes at claiming an Olympic medal could be in jeopardy.

While the attack is a cause for concern, Canada has no such worries at the back end of the pitch. Priestman’s side has kept five clean sheets with just three goals against in seven games this year, thanks to a defence anchored by centre backs Kadeisha Buchanan (voted Canadian player of the year in 2020) and Shelina Zadorsky, who is coming off a strong club season in England with Tottenham.

“Both of them have a very balanced approach to defending and attacking, and that’s critical for the way we want to play. We’re asking our team to be brave, and to do that you need centre backs who [have courage],” Priestman said of the Buchanan-Zadorsky duo.

The emergence of Vanessa Gilles, who has six caps to date, over the last year has also bolstered the team’s defensive depth, and she could seamlessly fill in at centre back should either Buchanan or Zadorsky get injured in Japan. Midfielder Quinn has been Canada’s most consistent player headed into the Tokyo Olympics, serving as a defensive bulwark in front of the back four.

Ashley Lawrence and Allysha Chapman are skilled wide players with a wealth of international experience — especially Lawrence, who is considered one of the best fullbacks in women’s soccer, and who can also be deployed as a midfielder.

So while Canada might struggle to score goals in Japan, they likely won’t concede many, either. That alone could be enough to guide them onto the medal podium for a third straight time.

Ranked No. 8 in the current FIFA world rankings, Canada opens play at the Tokyo Games against No. 10 Japan and No. 37 Chile on Wed., July 21, and Sat., July 24, respectively (both games in Sapporo), and then meets Great Britain on Tues., July 27, in Kashima. FIFA does not rank Great Britain, but its team will be made up of players from No. 6 England, No. 23 Scotland, No. 34 Wales and No. 48 Northern Ireland.

It’s a tough group, and there would be tougher potential challenges awaiting Canada in the knockout round should it advance. But Priestman firmly believes in this Canadian side, and nothing short of capturing another Olympic medal will satisfy her.

“On our day, this team can go all the way. I genuinely feel that. We have to show up to every game to do that. I keep saying to the players, ‘Nobody is going to hand us a medal.’ We have to go and work hard for it,” Priestman said.

“We have to get on the podium. For me, that’s what constitutes success.”

John Molinaro is one of the leading soccer journalists in Canada, having covered the game for over 20 years for a number of media outlets, including Sportsnet, CBC Sports and Sun Media. He is currently the editor-in-chief of TFC Republic, a website dedicated to in-depth coverage of Toronto FC and Canadian soccer. To check out TFC Republic, CLICK HERE.

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