Concacaf W Gold Cup Takeaways: Canada’s set piece play helps them stay perfect

Canada midfielder Jessie Fleming (17) takes a penalty kick but the ball hits the post during stoppage time during the second half of the CONCACAF W Gold Cup match against Paraguay, Sunday, Feb. 25, 2024 at Shell Energy Stadium in Houston. (Yi-Chin Lee/Houston Chronicle via AP)

You couldn’t ask much more from the Canadian women’s team in the first round of the Concacaf W Gold Cup. 

Canada finished the group stage with an unblemished record following Wednesday’s 3-0 win over Costa Rica in Houston. Shelina Zadorsky bagged a brace and Jordyn Huitema also scored to help Canada clinch first place in Group C and the No. 1 seed for the quarter-finals of the tournament.  

Canada and Brazil were the only two sides in the 12-nation field to go a perfect 3-0-0 in the group stage, but the Canadians scored more goals (13) than any other team while also registering a trio of clean sheets. 

“We want to be No. 1 in this tournament. We’re sitting there now but we know the challenges are going to get greater and greater. And we have to get our standards higher and higher and higher,” coach Bev Priestman said after Wednesday’s win. 

Here are three takeaways from the game. 

A statement performance by Shelina Zadorsky 

Things haven’t been easy for Canadian centre-back Shelina Zadorsky since the 2021 Olympics.

Once a key figure in Canada’s back four, Zadorsky lost her role as a starter in Tokyo to Vanessa Gilles and Gilles hasn’t relinquished her spot in the starting 11 ever since. Even over the past 12 months when coach Bev Priestman switched to a system using three centre backs, it was Jade Rose, who plays NCAA soccer at Harvard University, who more often than not got the call, bumping the more experienced Zadorsky down the team’s depth chart. 

In the aftermath of the Tokyo Olympics, Zadorsky, a 31-year-old from Kitchener, Ont., twice tested positive for COVID-19 and further medical evaluations revealed she’d contracted glandular fever and tested positive for celiac disease. Last April, the veteran centre back opened up about her health and personal struggles in a social media post after she had recovered. 

On Wednesday, Zadorsky had one of the best performances of her national team career, which has seen her earn 97 caps since making her international debut in 2015. Currently on loan to West Ham United from Tottenham, Zadorsky netted a brace against Costa Rica to increase her international goal tally to six for Canada. The goals were her first for the Reds since Nov. 12, 2022. 

Zadorsky has impressed in her two starts at the Gold Cup — she also featured in Canada’s opener — with her steadying presence in the back line and by working in tandem with Gilles and fellow central defender Kadeisha Buchanan without any glitches.

“Shelina has applied herself brilliantly because she hasn’t secured that starting [role]. She’s been in and out and I felt this tournament was a chance to let Shelina step up. Today, she absolutely did that,” Priestman said. 

Whether Zadorsky has done enough to convince her coach that she’s worthy of regaining her role as a starter is too soon to tell. But in the meantime, her mere presence has bolstered the squad’s spirits.

“You can see the whole team celebrate her goals. That’s what Shelina means to this team,” Priestman said.

Canada capitalizes on set pieces, aerial strength  

All three of Canada’s goals against Costa Rica were scored on headers, with two of them coming off of set pieces.

Captain Jessie Fleming was afforded all kinds of time and space as she lingered in possession in the 11th minute before delivering a gorgeous ball over top of Costa Rica’s back line to the edge of the six-yard box. Huitema timed her run to perfection before connecting on a diving header that blew past goalkeeper Daniela Solera and nestled inside the post.

The Canadians doubled their advantage midway through the half when Ashley Lawrence’s corner kick to the far post was headed home by Zadorsky after Costa Rica failed to properly deal with it. Early in the second half, substitute Olivia Smith’s corner kick found Zadorsky at the back post and she out-jumped a Costa Rica defender to head it in and put the game away.

Set pieces have been the bane of Canada’s existence since the Tokyo Olympics as the majority of the team’s goals have come from open play. Fantastic deliveries into the box by Lawrence and Smith changed the narrative on Wednesday night, which gave Priestman untold joy considering how much the team has been working on its set pieces in recent training sessions.

“We should have had more [set piece goals] up until this point. We gave it some extra work yesterday and it paid off in the game. We have to be creative. We know in major tournaments you might get two corners in a game against a very top team and those two corners are going to matter. Being more clinical in that space was a challenge we set for today,” Priestman said.

She later added: “I felt in the last game we made a lot of crosses but [weren’t] always getting on the end of them. So, I’m just constantly pushing the team to commit, to be relentless, no matter what.”

Canadians maintain high standards at all times  

Canada is ranked No. 10 in the world, compared to No. 43 Costa Rica, and the enormous gap between the two nations was on full display in this match, as it was in their previous wins over No. 50 Paraguay and No. 104 El Salvador.

The Olympic champions entered this game having already clinched a knockout round berth, so it wasn’t a big surprise to see Priestman rotate her squad and make five changes from Sunday’s 4-0 win over Paraguay.

Even with that large turnover rate, Canada still comfortably controlled things as it enjoyed 67 per cent possession and forced Costa Rica to chase shadows for most of the contest.

The Canadians played at a leisurely pace against a Las Ticas side that defended in a deep block and only managed one shot on target 

Even when Costa Rica made things a bit more difficult for its higher-ranked opponent in the second half by switching to a pressing game, Canada never found itself in serious danger or trouble, and managed to weather the brief storm by maintaining their high standards at all times.

“We’ve had a real high standard of focus no matter what’s happening in the game. We’re chasing some things [like] ball speed and getting after the ball if we lose it, and things like that,” Priestman said.

It would have been so easy for Canada to slack off with their spot in the quarter-finals secured. Instead, the Canadians buckled down, never let the surging Costa Ricans get the better of them, and were professional in seeing things through to the final whistle.

“I challenged the group coming in today,” Priestman said. “I said, ‘How you do one thing is how you do everything.’ … We were already through, [but] the standards need to remain the same and that relentless mindset is what the best teams can do. That’s our challenge; we want to be a No. 1-mindset team.”

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.

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