Since winning gold at last summer’s Tokyo Olympics, the Canadian women’s team has been walking around with a rather large bull’s-eye on its back.
Every opponent now brings their “A game” whenever they face Canada, desperate to make a name for itself by knocking the Olympic champions down a peg or two. As a result, Bev Priestman’s side has faced several top teams since Tokyo, all of them presenting unique tactical challenges.
Watch Thursday’s semifinal against Jamaica live on One Soccer at 10 p.m. ET, or rebroadcast by CBC TV, CBC Gem at 12:30 a.m. ET
Bringing home the gold in Tokyo has also raised the expectations of this Canadian side. It’s no longer good enough for them to simply win, they must also do so in style every time they step onto the pitch.
Case in point is Canada’s run at the CONCACAF W Championship taking place in Mexico. The Canadians completed their first round at this tournament — which serves as the qualifier for next year’s FIFA World Cup — with three shutout wins, including Monday’s 2-0 victory over Costa Rica at Estadio BBVA in Monterrey.
WATCH | Fleming’s early marker vs. Costa Rica helps Canada top Group B:
“I think [my] players walking off the pitch would have wanted some moments back where it could have been more than two [goals],” Priestman said in the post-match press conference. “But at the same time, I thought we created a lot and we dominated. So that’s the main thing.”
It was an important win for Canada, as it allowed them to finish first in Group B ahead of Costa Rica, thus avoiding a semifinal clash with the top-ranked United States. While Las Ticas will face the Americans, the Canadians will face a much weaker opponent in Jamaica on Thursday, giving them a clearer path to the final on July 18. The tournament winner will not only be crowned the queens of CONCACAF, but also automatically qualify for the 2024 Paris Olympics.
Even more encouraging for Canada was that the scoring was relatively spread out in the group stage. Six different players accounted for the Canadians’ nine goals, including veteran midfielder Sophie Schmidt, who found the back of the net against Costa Rica. It was her first goal for Canada in more than three years. Teammate Julia Grosso is the tournament’s co-leader with three goals in two games, having never scored in her 37 previous appearances for Canada. (Her gold-medal winning score in Tokyo came in the penalty shootout.)
“[It’s] three wins, nine goals, nine points,” Priestman said. “Overall, as a coach you can’t complain [about] that. Clean sheets are what wins you tournaments, but there’s nine goals there and they’ve all come from different places.”
Yet, the Canadians looked somewhat underwhelming in advancing to the semifinals, struggling as they did to break down their defensive-minded opponents. Trinidad and Tobago were hammered 6-0 in the Group B opener, but Canada laboured against the Soca Warriors for over an hour before putting five goals past a tired defence in the last 23 minutes of regulation.
WATCH | Schmidt seals Canadian victory with curling finish:
The score line in a 1-0 win over Panama didn’t reflect how much Canada truly dominated, but at the end of the day, it only managed to score once. The same went for the match vs. Costa Rica — a victory, sure, but where were the goals? It should have been far more comfortable for Canada.
Priestman lauded her team for its “professional performance” against the Costa Ricans. But she also admitted that Canada has yet to hit its top form at this CONCACAF competition, and that it needs to step up in the knockout round if it’s going to stamp its passport for Paris.
“This is the start, it’s not the end. Definitely the team has another gear and that is exciting as a coach,” Priestman said. “You could argue there’s a disappointment that they haven’t kept that gear for 90 minutes across three game. [But] you look at all the obstacles we’ve faced and I think we’ve come out of this third game in a much closer space to where we need to be for the two games that are ahead of us.”
Canada was very much in the same situation last summer in Tokyo. The Reds did what they had to do to get out of a difficult group to advance to the knockout round. But a pair of draws against Great Britain and Japan, and a win over Chile, didn’t exactly instill a great deal of confidence with fans back home.
Of course, Canada famously came into its own and played some positively brilliant soccer after that, going from strength to strength with each game. A gutsy penalty shootout win over Brazil was followed by a huge upset of the heavily favoured U.S., before they toppled Sweden in the final.
When it counted the most, Canada held its nerve and came through to win gold and reach the medal podium for a third consecutive time.
Qualification for next year’s World Cup has already been secured, and even if it doesn’t win this tournament, Canada still has a very good chance of qualifying for the 2024 Paris Olympics. So there’s not nearly the same amount of pressure on Priestman’s side compared to when it entered the knockout round in Tokyo last summer.
Still, whenever there are big stakes involved, that manages to draw the very best out of this Canadian team.
“[With what] is on the line coming up, this team is not going to let that go very easily,” Priestman said. “Tournament football is about winning and doing whatever it takes to win, but it’s also about bringing that level of consistency, and there are some players who have put their best foot forward to bring that level of consistency.
“I’d like to think that all the players going in now with the level of opposition [in the knockout stage], they’re focused, they’re ready to go and they can enjoy being out there.”