"Remember, hope is a good thing, maybe the best of things, and no good thing ever dies." — The Shawshank Redemption, by Stephen King Hope and optimism surrounds the Canadian women’s team at the moment, following the recent hiring of Bev Priestman as the new head coach. Prior to Priestman’s appointment, the women’s program had been in a state of limbo for the better part of seven months. In March, the IOC announced the postponement of the Tokyo Olympics until 2021 due to COVID-19. Then in the early part of the summer, former Canadian coach Kenneth Heiner-Møller revealed his plans to step down in August. The pandemic wreaked havoc on the team’s schedule, leading to the cancellation of a friendly against Australia in April in Vancouver, and wiping out the possibility of scheduling other games. As a result, Canada hasn’t played a competitive match since March 20, when it earned a 2-2 draw against Brazil at the Tournoi de France. So, the announcement about Priestman was welcome news for a Canadian team that has remained stagnant mostly due to forces beyond its control. For her part, Priestman, a 34-year-old native of England who was an assistant under John Herdman during his time in charge of the women’s team, is keen to get started and prepare for Tokyo during these uncertain times. She’s also set some lofty goals.

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"A team like Canada should be on that podium. I do think we need to change the colour of the medal. Two bronzes are unbelievable and it’s a fantastic achievement, and credit to John (Herdman) and the staff and the players that achieved that. (But) to keep moving forward, we have to aim higher than that," Priestman told reporters across the country during her introductory Zoom call. It’s encouraging to hear Priestman set high standards and think about the long-term future of the program. Indeed, hope is a good thing, maybe the best of things. But hope shouldn’t disguise the reality of the daunting task facing Priestman ahead of the 2021 Olympics and beyond next summer. Aside from the challenges that the pandemic presents in preparing for Tokyo, Priestman has her work cut out as she begins her stewardship of the women’s team. No doubt she has already triaged the situation, but surely one of her top priorities will be to find a way to breathe new life into Canada’s limp attack. Don’t be fooled by Canada’s tournament-high 23 goals at this year’s Concacaf Olympic qualifiers – nine of them came against Jamaica (ranked 51st in the world), while the Reds put another 11 past minnows Saint Kitts and Nevis (No. 134). It’s notable that Canada was shut out in its one game against a high-ranked nation – a 3-0 loss (its only setback of the tournament) to the United States in the final. Going back even further, Canada has just one win in 10 outings (with six losses) in matches against countries ranked in the world top 10 dating back to the beginning of 2019. Even more worrying is that the Reds scored just four times in those 10 contests. Under Heiner-Møller, Canada sported a winning record of 20-5-10 and sat eighth in the FIFA world rankings at the time of his announcement that he was leaving. However, a closer examination of the Dane’s tenure in charge shows that little, if any, progress was made. A disappointing round-of-16 exit at last year’s World Cup in France was followed by yet another Canadian loss to the United States in the finals of the 2019 Concacaf Olympic qualifying tournament. Canada was the exact sum of its parts under Heiner-Møller, never able to reach the next level of being able to beat the elite teams in the women’s game. Now, it’s Priestman’s turn to try. If more goals and finding a way to be competitive on a regular basis against the best teams top the list of priorities for Priestman, then moving away from an aging core of players and injecting some much-needed youth into the side ranks a very close second. Nine years ago, Christine Sinclair was in her prime, and coming into her own as Canada’s captain and the main source of the team’s goals. Midfielders Diana Matheson and Sophie Schmidt had their best years ahead of them. Today, Sinclair still remains the reference point in attack, but she’ll be 38 when the Tokyo Olympics roll around. Matheson will be 37 next summer and Schmidt will be 33 and, like Sinclair, they remain automatic starters for Canada when healthy, blocking the pathway of younger players into the starting 11. It’s been said so many times since Heiner-Møller succeeded Herdman in 2018, but the time has come to move on from Canada’s aging core of veterans and to start building the team around its promising group of young prospects. Heiner-Møller was hesitant to do that, and he appeared satisfied with maintaining the status quo – not a major surprise, considering he served as Herdman’s assistant before taking over from him, and that he already had a working relationship with many of the players. This is still very much Sinclair’s team, but eventually the torch has to be passed to the younger generation. At some point, the team’s promising youngsters have to take over. Now more than ever, complete objectivity and ruthlessness are required when it comes to evaluating players. Can this happen under Priestman? Will she remain bound by her past relationships with the players? Or can she look at the team with a fresh pair of eyes? Only time will tell. It’s also worth noting how Priestman views pro clubs as vital to player development, and that Canada can no longer simply rely on extended training and residency camps. During the Zoom call with reporters, she explained that “the role of the domestic (clubs) and how you maximize and gain knowledge on players in that environment is really important.” She’s absolutely correct. Look at the elite national teams in the world, and you’ll see the majority of their star players are plying their trade in top European leagues and the U.S.-based NWSL. If Canada is going to make the jump to the next level, its players have to develop by excelling at club level. Ashley Lawrence and Kadeisha Buchanan are excelling at their clubs, PSG and Lyon, and are among Canada’s best players. Fellow veteran Adriana Leon is a regular starter for West Ham United, while experienced defender Shelina Zadorsky has settled in nicely at Tottenham since beginning her loan spell at the London-based club in August. But two youngsters who are viewed as vital to the long-term future of the program – Huitema (PSG) and Jessie Fleming (Chelsea) – are fighting for regular playing time at their clubs, while forward Janine Beckie faces stiff competition for minutes at Manchester City. Fleming, an NCAA star during her time at UCLA, has long been hyped as essential to Canada’s future, but the knock against her was that she needed to test herself at the pro level to further her development. Since turning pro and signing with Chelsea back in July, the 22-year-old has made just two brief appearances as a substitute. It’s still early days for Fleming at Chelsea, but if this continues, it’s difficult to see how she will develop into the player that Canada needs her to be. The same can be said for 19-year-old Huitema, who hasn’t been a regular starter since joining PSG in 2019. How Priestman deals with this host of issues in the coming months could tell us a great deal about the future of the Canadian women’s team beyond the Tokyo Olympics.

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