It’s one thing to be an Olympic champion. It's another thing to have a target on your back as you try to defend that title and reach even greater heights. That’s the situation the Canadian women’s national team finds itself in, as the Paris 2024 Olympics rapidly approach. As a new era begins for the national team, head coach Bev Priestman, who was appointed in October 2020, continues to evolve as a coach as well. Priestman coached her milestone 50th game for Canada in a 3-0 win over Costa Rica on Wednesday at the Concacaf W Gold Cup, and as she prepares the team for the knockout rounds of the competition, she is gearing up for some of her toughest challenges yet. With a 30-9-11 record through 50 matches, and two nominations for The Best FIFA Women's Coach award in 2021 and 2022, there have been more good times than bad ones for the Canada boss, but as they put a tough 2023 Women’s World Cup in the rearview mirror, there is a growing foundation on which Canada could bounce back in 2024.

Changing the colour of the medal

Canada’s run to the top of the Olympic podium in Tokyo three summers ago was magical. With just a few months to prepare, Priestman delivered on a promise that was drilled into the heads of players, coaches, and followers of the team since she took over – they were going to change the colour of the medal from the bronzes they won at London 2012 and Rio 2016. Canada had the talent to challenge the world’s best teams, so now it was their job to go out and prove that they could stand alone at the top of the mountain. That’s exactly what they did, advancing from the group stage before a dramatic victory over Brazil on penalties. In the semifinal, they beat their bitter rival to the south in the United States, before beating Sweden in the gold medal match, again on penalties. Goals from open play were lacking in that tournament for the Canadians, but under Priestman, they had continued their evolution into one of the top defensive sides in the world, and were rock solid at the back and in goal. They rode it all the way to the top of the podium. With gleaming gold medals around their necks, the team got a hero’s welcome across Canada as the country celebrated its first Olympic gold medal in 117 years, and attention then turned to the 2023 Women’s World Cup. Surely, as the reigning Olympic champion, Canada would be among the favourites to make a deep run in the tournament? Instead, in frustrating fashion they were bounced in the group stage after finishing third in Group B, going 1-1-1 in the tournament with a 0-0 draw against Nigeria, a 2-1 win over Republic of Ireland, and a heavy 4-0 defeat to the co-hosts Australia. Canada were again plagued by a lack of goalscoring, and sent home early as a result. After the World Cup, many questioned Priestman’s tactics, and some even called for her job, but the team stuck by the manager who got them to the top of the Olympic summit. Priestman didn’t have a lot of time to dwell on the World Cup. If Canada wanted to try and defend their Olympic crown, they had to beat Jamaica in a two-legged Concacaf qualifier in September. The Canada boss had question marks to answer and a team to restructure before a huge set of matches against the Reggae Girlz.

Bouncing back strong from World Cup heartbreak, and the start of a new era

Priestman was saying the right things going into the matches against Jamaica, that she was partially at fault and that Canada needed to right some wrongs and evolve so performances like that in the World Cup don’t happen again, and thus far she seems to have lived up to that promise. Gone was the 4-2-3-1 formation that let Canada down in Australia, and in came a brand new 3-4-3 formation, which has proven to be both defensively sturdy and unlocked some key players in attack. The new-look Canada side beat a strong Jamaica team 4-1 on aggregate, booking their ticket to the 2024 Olympics in Paris and giving them a chance to defend their gold medal. Canada finished 2023 with four friendlies, two against Brazil and two against Australia, playing in Montreal, Halifax, Langford, and Vancouver. Canada won three of the four games, playing a more exciting brand of football that included a five-goal outburst against the Matildas. Those matches against the Aussies were also a chance to send off the greatest Canadian footballer of all time, Christine Sinclair, as she retired from international duty. A golden era ended for the national team, and a new era is now underway. In January, Priestman’s contract was renewed through the 2027 World Cup. Last week, Jessie Fleming was appointed the new Canada captain ahead of the Concacaf W Gold Cup, taking over from Sinclair. Canada has since played to a perfect record through the group stage in Houston, Texas. They beat up on El Salvador, Paraguay and Costa Rica, winning 6-0, 4-0, and 3-0 respectively to take the top spot in the seeding for the knockout rounds. The drawing of lots determined that Costa Rica would advance instead of Puerto Rico as the eighth seed, and therefore will play Canada again in the quarter-final, which takes place on Saturday night in Los Angeles. Canada is expected to win again and advance to the semifinal, where they could potentially meet the host Americans again, who themselves are going through a bit of a transition period. Win that match too, and they have a chance to play for a trophy. Lose, and adding another bronze medal to the Canadian collection will be the goal. But Priestman doesn’t want a bronze medal, she is determined to make sure that the Olympic success wasn’t the last time Canada can celebrate winning a major tournament. Nothing but winning will be satisfactory. “I’ve challenged the group coming into today particularly, I said ‘How you do one thing is how you do everything’, and whether this game gets us through or not because we’re already through, the standards need to remain the same,” Priestman said after the 3-0 win over Costa Rica on Wednesday, a reminder of her team’s intent. “I think that relentless mindset is what the best teams can do, and that’s our challenge, we want to be the number one mindset team.” Since being knocked out of the World Cup, Canada has played nine matches, winning eight and losing one (on a goal in second-half stoppage time against Brazil). They have scored 25 goals and conceded just two, getting back to a dual-threat team that has been showing up in both attack and defence. The team has kept six clean sheets in a row going back to October 31, and will be looking to keep that going as the teams get stronger from this point in the knockout rounds. Canada will be tested further, and given an opportunity to prove that they deserve the high expectations everyone places on the team. Concacaf W Gold Cup success is a target, but the main goal for Canada this year is the Olympic Games in Paris. The SheBelieves Cup will come in between, in April, as the team ramps up its preparation against more top teams before heading to the French capital. Keeping this momentum going and peaking at the right time is now the challenge for Priestman and her coaching staff. Fifty games in, she has delivered one gold medal. If she can keep her side firing on all cylinders, there is the potential for a few more.

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