Canada women’s soccer headed in right direction despite frustrating SheBelieves Cup

In their first action in nearly a year, it was a mixed bag for the Canadian women’s soccer team at the SheBelieves Cup.

With a new coach and a plethora of injuries and roster challenges, what should we make of their one-win, two-loss performance?

Did the tournament help answer any roster questions ahead of the Tokyo Olympics five months from now? What are the main areas that need to be worked on? We address those questions and more.

Was the tournament a success for Canada?

Yes and no.

It was a bit of a mystery what to expect from Canada going into the SheBelieves Cup given it had been 11 months since they last were together.

They have a new coach in Bev Priestman along with major roster challenges prior to the tournament, like injuries and club commitments.

WATCH | CBC Sports assesses Canada’s performance at the SheBelieves Cup:

Signa Butler is joined by John Molinaro and Harjeet Johal, to assess Team Canada’s performance in their debut at the SheBelieves Cup and which players made the most of their opportunity, for the notably short-handed Canadian side. 7:20

Given those hurdles, the team played fairly well. With half the players on in-season form and the rest just getting started, they put up a stout performance against the world champion United States, keeping a clean sheet until Rose Lavelle’s goal in the 79th minute.

Priestman also had the opportunity to build the program’s depth, giving four players (Evelyne Viens, Jordyn Listro, Jade Rose and Samantha Chang) their first cap.

Can we already give Bev Priestman a fair assessment?

No, but the team seems to be heading in the right direction.

No coach, especially one thrust into the position just four months before, should be judged based on a team missing six to seven starters, including three of its top players — Christine Sinclair, Kadeisha Buchanan and Ashley Lawrence.

The team defended very well outside of the miscues versus Brazil where it conceded two goals. Centre back Shelina Zadorsky’s leadership and quality was on display as the only defender consistently in the starting 11.

Canada also played quite well out of the back and stayed patient, which was something Priestman had hoped the team would accomplish. There was rarely a panicked clearance or ill-advised pass up the pitch.

From all player accounts, they’ve been impressed with Priestman’s preparation and communication. According to Desiree Scott, who wore the captain’s armband in Sinclair’s absence, there was a “good vibe” at camp.

Priestman’s next appearance on the sidelines with Canada will be in an April 13 friendly against her native England, with whom she served as an assistant for over two years.

What areas must Canada address ahead of Tokyo?

Canada’s goal for Tokyo is well-stated. After back-to-back bronze, it’s about changing the colour of the medal.

However, to do that Canada will need to beat top tier opposition and score goals. Two things the Canadians have been lacking the last couple years.

In its last 10 matches against top 10 nations, Canada has zero wins, eight losses and two draws. Not exactly confidence-boosting results. The last win against a top nation came against England in April 2019.

Goal scoring has been even more of a concern.

WATCH | CBC Sports’ Signa Butler explains the SheBelieves Cup:

Signa Butler breaks down the basics of the SheBelieves Cup, and what participating in the tournament means for Team Canada 2:41

Canada scored just one goal in three games at the SheBelieves Cup and if you look at those last 10 games against top 10 nations, Canada was outscored 20-3. Remember, these are the majority of teams you have to beat en route to the medal round in Tokyo.

But Priestman looks to the opening game against the No. 1 Americans as a reference point in this tournament of what Canada is capable of, even without key players.

“I think the group is more determined than ever. They’ve told me they want to change the colour of the medal and to do that we need to get fitter, we need to keep pushing forward, we need to be more clinical,” she said post-tournament.

Other than Sinclair, Janine Beckie is Canada’s top goal scorer among active players with 31 and she was among those irked by missed chances at the SheBelieves.

“It’s frustrating to look at this tournament and see that we only put one chance away. As a forward, I take that on my back, along with the others who play in the front line,” Beckie said after Canada’s final game.

Biggest battles going into Tokyo squad selection?

Goalkeeping appears set in stone with Kailen Sheridan and Stephanie Labbe. Sheridan suffered an injury early in the opening match against the U.S., so that will need to be monitored. It’s a position of depth with McLeod, Sabrina D’Angelo and uncapped Rylee Foster, a former youth international who made the roster for SheBelieves.

To make the 18-player roster, having the versatility to play multiple positions is definitely an asset.

The fullback situation is intact from Rio with returnees Allysha Chapman, Buchanan, Zadorsky and Lawrence. Two leading candidates to join them are Gabrielle Carle and Jayde Riviere, who suffered an injury in the Brazil game. Both can play wingback and move forward in attack.

WATCH | CBC Sports’ Signa Butler chats with Canadian soccer player Deanne Rose:

Deanne Rose speaks with Signa Butler about going in the first round of the NWSL draft, dealing with the pandemic, and the SheBelieves cup. 3:07

Playing her way onto the radar in a big way was Bordeaux centre back Vanessa Gilles. What she may lack in pace, she makes up for in positioning and hard-nosed defending.

The biggest battle will be in the midfield and it’s a position Canada needs to solidify especially if they expect to compete against those top nations.

The five returning midfielders are Scott, Sophie Schmidt, Diana Matheson, Quinn, and Jessie Fleming. Julia Grosso, who did not play at the SheBelieves, Canada’s lone goalscorer Sarah Stratigakis and Listro wait in the wings.

To inject some youth into the midfield lineup, Priestman may have to make tough choices or make room through carrying less forwards or defenders. The 2023 World Cup isn’t far off, so having some younger players at the Olympics will be crucial for carrying on the team’s legacy once the veteran core retires.

As for the strikers, four of the five from Rio are still playing and appear to be locks — Sinclair, Beckie, Nichelle Prince and Deanne Rose. Again, if Priestman carries five strikers there is just one position up for grabs and several candidates to take it — Huitema, Adriana Leon and Évelyne Viens.

The 19-year-old Huitema (13 goals in 33 appearances) and 28-year-old Leon (19 goals in 69 caps) have the upperhand on Viens, who made her first appearance for Canada at any level in the SheBelieves, coming in as a substitute in all three matches.

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