The Canadian women’s team is gearing up for an incredibly important summer.
Next month’s Concacaf W Championship in Mexico serves as the qualifiers for the 2023 FIFA World Cup with four berths at stake. Canada will be competing in a group alongside Trinidad & Tobago, Panama and Costa Rica, and must finish in the top two in order to advance to the semifinals and punch its ticket to the World Cup.
The Concacaf W champion also automatically qualifies for the 2024 Paris Olympics, with the second- and third-place teams facing off against each other in September for the region’s second Olympic berth.
Before that, though, the Canadians will play an international friendly against South Korea at Toronto’s BMO Field, its only tune-up match ahead of the Concacaf competition.
Here are four Canadian players to watch in Sunday’s match against the South Koreans.
There are five active players on the women’s team who have at least 100 caps to their credit: captain Christine Sinclair (310), midfielders Sophie Schmidt (212) and Desiree Scott (175), plus defenders Kadeisha Buchanan (118) and Ashley Lawrence (105). Midfielder Jessie Fleming is expected to officially join that elite group when she makes her 100th appearance for Canada on Sunday.
Fleming, a 24-year-old from London, Ont., is fresh off a spectacular campaign at Chelsea in which she won her second English league championship and FA Cup in just her second season as a professional.
Her outstanding form at the club level didn't escape the attention of Canadian women’s team coach Bev Priestman earlier this year. When Sinclair was unavailable for February's Alan Clark Cup, a four-nation tournament held in England, Priestman turned to Fleming to serve as Canada's captain for its opening game against the host nation.
"I've seen the hunger and desire, and she's come into her own in the last year," Priestman said.
This current Canadian squad is missing veteran goalkeeper Stephanie Labbé for the first time since 2008, following her retirement in April. Also absent is goalkeeper Erin McLeod (120 caps). With Labbé out of the picture, Kailen Sheridan has taken over the starting job in net for Canada.
“It’s been sort of well-documented that Kailen has been listed as the No. 1, she’s had an incredible season and so has Sabrina [D'Angelo],” Priestman stated.
“I think going into this tournament, that No. 1 would sit with Kailen, but at the same time, every player has to earn the right to start. I don’t want to shut the door on anyone pushing Kailen, but Kailen has had an incredible season and has been very consistent in our environment.”
Indeed, Sheridan, a 26-year-old from Pickering, Ont., is enjoying a standout NWSL campaign with the San Diego Wave, recording four shutouts as the expansion club sits in first place after 10 games.
Christine Sinclair didn't play in the Portland Thorns’ last two NWSL games after sustaining a lower leg injury. But there was no question that Canada’s iconic captain would be named to Priestman’s 28-player roster for this game against South Korea.
Sinclair, a 39-year-old native of Burnaby, B.C., is international soccer’s all-time top scorer (among both men and women) with 189 goals for Canada since debuting as a 16-year-old in 2000. She scored in her previous appearance for Canada during April's international window, which saw her make a rare cameo appearance as a substitute off the bench.
“For me, if you look at the last international window, that window told everyone that this team needs Christine Sinclair,” Priestman said. “She comes on as a [substitute], it was the first time as a [substitute] for me, and you wonder how she will react to that role? It took her three minutes and she goes and scores.”
What a year it’s been for midfielder Julia Grosso. The 21-year-old native of Vancouver scored the winning goal in Canada’s penalty shootout win over Sweden in the gold-medal game at last summer’s Tokyo Olympics.
Grosso followed that up by turning professional when she signed a short-term deal with Juventus last December and went on to help the Turin-based club win an Italian league championship and an Italian Cup. She also made her debut in the UEFA Champions League as Juventus reached the quarterfinals before bowing out to eventual champions Olympique Lyon.
Juventus was so impressed with Grosso that they have since signed Grosso to an extension, tying her to the club until 2024. It’s an incredible story of a player who a year ago was still playing NCAA soccer, and was once described by Christine Sinclair as someone who “can do whatever she wants in this game — she’s that talented” while she was still at the University of Texas.
John Molinaro is one of the leading soccer journalists in Canada, having covered the game for over 20 years for several 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. TFC Republic can be found here.