Canada huffed and puffed, and finally blew the house down.
Substitute Sarah Stratigakis saved Canada’s blushes by scoring deep into injury time, as the Reds eked out a 1-0 win over Argentina at the 2021 SheBelieves Cup on Sunday at Exploria Stadium in Orlando.
In only her third senior team appearance, Stratigakis came to the rescue in the 92nd minute and handed Canada its first win under Priestman, stabbing home from in-close after Argentina couldn’t clear away a dangerous free kick played into its box.
Coach Bev Priestman felt Stratigakis helped to change the face of the game upon her introduction in the 73rd minute, while veteran midfielder Sophie Schmidt heaped praise on her teammate.
“She was in the right place at the right time doing her job… I’m so proud of her. She’s worked so hard, she’s come into camp and she’s been absolutely phenomenal both on and off the field,” Schmidt said of Stratigakis when talking to reporters after the match.
Canada is eighth in the current FIFA world rankings, 23 spots ahead of Argentina, so this was a contest the Canadians should have won, and were expected to win. Despite carrying the bulk of play, the Reds struggled to find a way through the ultra-defensive South Americans, let down by a lack of finishing in front of goal and poor set-piece execution.
Even though Canada laboured against the over-matched South Americans, coach Priestman heralded her team for sticking with it and pulling out the victory.
“It wasn’t the perfect match, and it definitely wasn’t the best match I’ve been involved with. But overall, the group found a way to win. That’s what good teams do, and the second thing is it’s a clean sheet, which we have to celebrate as well,” Priestman said.
She later added: “I would have like to have put more balls into the back of the net, but overall, happy to get the win.”
Priestman downplayed Canada’s lack of finishing (the Reds have only one goal through their first two games at this competition), maintaining that the goals will come in due time after such a long layoff. Before this tournament, Canada had not played a game since last March due to the COVID-19 pandemic.
“You’ve got lots of new faces and a lack of rhythm on the pitch, if you look at it that way, where the partnerships aren’t formed. We’ve been apart for a year, but we’ve got new faces together, so that’ll come with time. I don’t give out hope,” Priestman stated.
Schmidt offered a more blunt assessment.
“I think we do a good job of getting to that final (stage); it’s just that final ball that’s lacking, or that tenacity to get on the end of a ball, that selfishness to take someone on and shoot. I think we need a little bit more of that,” Schmidt opined.
Canada was coming off a tough 1-0 loss to the United States in its first game of the SheBelieves Cup, while Argentina dropped a 4-1 decision to Brazil in its opener.
In just her second game in charge, Priestman made six changes to her starting 11 on Sunday, including handing midfielder Jordyn Listro and defender Jade Rose their first caps. Midfielder Samantha Chang also earned her first cap when she entered the game as a second-half substitute. Midfielder Quinn and goalkeeper Kailen Sheridan (injuries) and defender Vanessa Gilles (back with her pro club) were unavailable after starting against the United States
Priestman was impressed with what she saw from the three debutantes.
“What you see in Jordyn is she has legs to get around the pitch, and I thought she did that well and played forward. Chang came in at a time when I thought I needed more passes on the field to just break (Argentina) down, and Sam did that at times… (Rose) stepped in and did a great job, and we kept a clean sheet with here there,” Priestman stated.
Stephanie Labbé started in goal in place of Sheridan, but was never seriously tested. Schmidt (201st cap) wore the captain’s armband for just the second time in her career, while fellow midfielder Desiree Scott was on the bench.
The Canadians stormed out of the gate, using a frenetic pressing game to dominate the South Americans and force them to chase shadows. Argentina sat back deep, tough, making it difficult for Priestman’s side to penetrate into the penalty area. When the Canadians did break through, a lack of finishing let them down.
The Reds should have scored midway through the half when a botched clearance by Argentina fortuitously fell to the feet of Canadian midfielder Jessie Fleming inside the box. But goalkeeper Laurina Oliveros did well to rush back and swat away Fleming’s goal-bound header. Fleming squandered another scoring opportunity later on, pushing her attempt wide of the near post that Oliveros had covered, instead of angling her shot towards the open far post.
“We should have put some (chances) away in the first half, but we didn’t. That’s the story of our lives right now. We need to find a way,” Schmidt conceded.
A fevered pace dictated Canada’s start to the second half, as the South Americans were forced onto the back foot. Argentina had trouble clearing Janine Beckie’s dangerous ball played into the heart of the box before Oliveros pounced on it to deny Nichelle Prince. Oliveros later saved Beckie’s volley attempt from 20 yards out, while Adriana Leon ballooned her shot from in-close over the crossbar.
As Argentina dropped even deeper in defence, Canada advanced forward in desperate search of a goal as the second half wore on. But the South Americans’ bend-but-don’t-break defence held firm, and thwarted the Canadians at every turn.
The game appeared to be headed towards a draw when Stratigakis scored her first goal for Canada in dramatic fashion, poking her shot home amidst a goal-mouth scramble.
Canada has won all five of its matches against Argentina, dating back to their first meeting at the 2003 FIFA Women’s World Cup staged in the United States.
Canadian defender Vanessa Gilles, who put in a player-of-the-match performance against the U.S., has left the SheBelieves Cup and returned to FC Girondins de Bordeaux as part of a pre-tournament agreement between Canada Soccer and the French club.
Canadian goalkeeper Kailen Sheridan is back with her pro club Sky Blue FC, where she will be further examined. Sheridan suffered a non-contact injury in Canada’s game vs. the U.S. and had to be replaced by Stephanie Labbé after 10 minutes.
Canada plays Brazil (tied with Canada at No. 8 in the world rankings) on Feb. 24 to conclude the group stage. The team with the most points at the end of the round-robin wins the tournament. The first tiebreaker is overall goal difference, followed by total goals scored, and then head-to-head results. The U.S. sits in first place with six points after two games, ahead of Brazil and Canada (three points each) and Argentina (no points).
The U.S. beat Brazil 2-0 in Sunday’s other game at the SheBelieves Cup. Like Canada, Brazil and the U.S. have qualified for the 2021 Olympics, and are using this competition to prepare for Tokyo.