After a lengthy layoff due to the COVID-19 pandemic, the Canadian women’s team finally returned to action this month by making its debut at the sixth annual SheBelieves Cup. The four-nation invitational tournament in Orlando not only served as a valuable tune-up for the 2021 Tokyo Olympics, but it also marked Canada's first games under new coach Bev Priestman, who was hired last October. Before the competition even kicked off, Canada Soccer announced that captain Christine Sinclair wouldn’t be able to compete due to an injury. Also ruled out because of injury were midfielder Diana Matheson and goalkeeper Erin McLeod (two of the team’s leading veterans), and uncapped defender Bianca St-Georges. In addition, defender Kadeisha Buchanan (Canada’s reigning player of the year), forward Jordyn Huitema and midfielder Ashley Lawrence weren't released by their pro clubs. With so many key players missing, and coming off such a long sabbatical, it was hardly a surprise to see Canada post a single win in Florida, while suffering two losses and scoring just one goal. With the Priestman era officially underway, let’s examine the positives and negatives from Canada’s showing at the 2021 SheBelieves Cup.
MATCH REPORTS: Brazil 2, Canada 0 || Canada 1, Argentina 0 || United States 1, Canada 0
Player pool expandedAs a result of all the absences, five players were called up the national team for the first time, and four players earned their first cap at the SheBelieves Cup: Forward Evelyne Viens, midfielders Jordyn Listro and Samantha Chang, and defender Jade Rose. Despite a few hiccups on the pitch, they all showed well in Florida during their respective cameos. While it’ll be difficult for the newcomers to crack the roster for Tokyo (Olympic squads are limited to 18 players, compared to 23 for the World Cup), Canada has to look towards the future beyond this summer’s Olympics. Eventually, the veteran core of Sinclair, Matheson, Sophie Schmidt and Desiree Scott will retire -- that’s why it’s so important that the player pool be widened and that Canada starts to build up its depth. "What you saw was new players and new partnerships out on the pitch. Of those new players that were in there, there was some massive performances across this tournament. Of course, we wanted to win for the fans and the country, but ultimately I got to see some players I wouldn’t have (otherwise)," Priestman said.
Fringe players get valuable playing timeAside from the newcomers, a number of fringe players also distinguished themselves at the SheBelieves Cup, earning valuable international experience at a competitive tournament. In just her third appearance, centre-back Vanessa Gilles expertly anchored Canada’s defence alongside Shelina Zadorsky, and was effective in building out from the back and also thwarting the U.S. attack when called upon. Sarah Stratigakis netted the winner against Argentina (her first goal in just her third national team appearance), while Quinn (who has over 60 caps but hasn’t been a regular starter since their 2013 debut) put in a player-of-the-match performance against the U.S. Also, 22-year-old defender Gabrielle Carle saw action in Florida. In total, Priestman used all but two players on her roster at the SheBelieves Cup: goalkeeper Rylee Foster and midfielder Julia Grosso were the exceptions. Aside from the newcomers earning their first caps, giving more playing time to its fringe players was vital for Canada in its attempt to increase its depth, something that will benefit the team in the long run.
Playing out from the backPriestman talked a lot about her players needing to show bravery in the buildup to this tournament. Canada showed a fair bit of bravery when in possession, building out from the back, playing through the pressure and putting together fluid attacking sequences. This example against the top-ranked U.S. was especially inspiring: Yes, it wasn’t perfect from Canada in Florida – defender Jade Rose’s giveaway that led to Brazil’s opening goal comes to mind. But overall, the Canadians showed great confidence in playing the ball out from the back, and displayed a dimension of their game that we didn’t see often enough under Kenneth Heiner-Møller.
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Lack of goalsOne of the long-standing criticisms of this Canadian team has been the lack of impetus up front. Canada managed just one goal in three games at the SheBelieves Cup – it’s now been outscored 9-3 in its last seven contests overall -- so concerns about its scoring woes have not been quelled. If anything, they've grown louder. Against the U.S. and Brazil, Canada showed plenty of attacking intent and created scoring chances, only for those opportunities to go begging. The Reds had a much harder time breaking down ultra-defensive Argentina before eventually finding the back of the net deep into injury time. Would Canada have scored more goals had Sinclair and Jordyn Huitema been available for duty? Probably. But that’s not the point. For too long, Sinclair has had to carry the bulk of the goal-scoring burden and serve as the reference point in attack for Canada. Janine Beckie, Jessie Fleming and Adriana Leon (who have plenty of international experience between them) all had good looks on goal during the tournament, but none of them finished off their chances. This can’t continue. Simply put, Canada badly needs others to start stepping up and become a regular source of goals.
Still can’t beat a top-tier opponentCanada entered this tournament tied with Brazil for eighth in the current FIFA world rankings, behind the U.S. (No. 1) and well ahead of Argentina (No. 31). A loss in the tournament opener extended Canada's winless run against the Americans to 37 consecutive games (31 losses), a streak that goes back to March 11, 2001. The setback against Brazil means that Canada is now winless in its last 10 games (with eight losses) against nations ranked in the top 10, and that includes an 0-2-1 record vs. Brazil. Even more worrying is that Canada has been outscored 20-3 over that 10-game winless run. The Canadians haven’t defeated a top 10 team since earning a 1-0 win over England in April 2019. When she was hired, Priestman said one of her goals was to help Canada become a top tier nation. It’s difficult to envision Canada becoming a top tier nation if it can’t regularly beat teams ranked in the top 10.
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Where will the goals come from?It’s the same question that has been asked for a while, and it’ll continue to be asked after sufficient answers weren’t provided at the SheBelieves Cup. Again, this team can’t keep relying on Sinclair as the main offensive producer. Others have to chip in on a regular basis. Chance creation is one thing; burying those chances is quite another, a fact not lost on Beckie. “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 the Brazil game. “I think the positive is that we’re creating those chances, but if I’m honest we’ve been saying that for a while, and we’ve not shifted to putting those chances in the goal. So, I don’t know what the answer is right now.” She later added: “There’s absolutely no doubt that we need to be putting the ball in the back of the net, and that was very evident at this tournament.”
What about Matheson?Matheson missed this tournament because of injury, and she’s struggled to stay healthy in recent years – she missed the 2019 World Cup after having foot surgery. Matheson, a 36-year-old from Mississauga, Ont., sat out the entire 2019 NWSL campaign while out injured, and only played four games for the Utah Royals in 2020. Her previous appearance for Canada came in March, 2020. Assuming she’s fully fit, does Matheson (who has 206 caps and two bronze medals) walk straight back into the starting 11 and earn a valuable roster spot? Or does her lack of playing time at both club and international level the past few years work against her? Did Quinn’s brief but excellent showing at the SheBelieves Cup do enough to elevate them ahead of Matheson in the pecking order? Would Priestman actually consider dropping one of Canada’s most loyal servants?
Is Labbé still the No. 1 goalkeeper?Backup goalkeeper Kailen Sheridan earned the nod against the U.S., but she only lasted 10 minutes due to injury and was replaced by starter Stephanie Labbé. Sheridan missed the rest of the tournament and returned to Sky Blue FC, her NWSL club, to be further assessed and receive treatment. Labbé has been Canada’s starter for several years, but Sheridan (who entered this tournament with nine caps), was coming off a solid 2020 NWSL season, and the belief was that she was finally going to challenge Labbé for the starter’s role. The extent and nature of Sheridan’s injury hasn’t been confirmed, so it’ll be interesting to see if she’s available for Canada’s friendly against England in April. Veteran Erin McLeod missed the SheBelieves Cup because of injury, while Sabrina D’Angelo (who plays in the Swedish league) wasn’t called up, but does have eight caps to her credit. Will any of them challenge for the No. 1 role? Can Sheridan come back and mount a challenge for it? Or is Labbé, who played well at the SheBelieves Cup, considered the de facto starter headed into Tokyo?