June int’l window answered some questions, but raised others for CanWNT: RHODES

Bev Priestman says that some of her questions ahead of her final Olympic Games roster selection were answered during the past week or so, but a pair of frustrating 0-0 draws suggest there are further concerns that need to be addressed.

The Canadian women’s national team wrapped up their pre-Olympic camp in Spain on Monday, with a 0-0 draw against Brazil, their second 0-0 draw in a row after the same result on Friday against the Czech Republic.

Canada looked like the better team for large portions of both matches but failed to put the ball in the back of the net on either occasion. While they did face two strong teams with good defenders, it won’t get any easier on the biggest stage in Tokyo.

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They scored five goals across two matches in April — three against Wales and a pair against England, who combined will make up most of the Team GB side Canada will face in Tokyo. This Canadian team can certainly score goals against top teams, but after struggling to do so in this camp, none of the forwards on the bubble of the Olympic roster — believed to be Jordyn Huitema, Évelyne Viens, and Adriana Leon likely battling for two spots — impressed enough to really lock down a spot.

Some players are surely going to make the squad —  the Christine Sinclairs and Kadeisha Buchanans of the world — but Priestman was surely looking for a big camp out of someone in that trio in particular to make her decision on who to bring a little easier.

She doesn’t have much time to make those decisions either — she reiterated after the match on Monday that she plans to announce her squad for the Olympics within 10 days of the Brazil game.

To be clear, and fair to Canada, none of the attackers were ineffective — they were creating chances and getting some shots on target — the issue was simply beating the goalkeepers. It seemed strange then, especially with the clinical Cloé Lacasse sitting on the bench and waiting for an international debut, that Priestman started Sinclair in both matches as a lone striker.

For a camp that was likely meant to see what certain players can bring to the table, and try to win themselves a spot on the team, it was mostly the regulars getting the minutes.

Given the lack of goals, the matches seemed like a great chance to hand a debut to Lacasse, who has scored more goals than she’s played games for Benfica. Viens is another interesting one. She did make a pair of appearances, both times off the bench for Sinclair, but probably should’ve started the second match to see what she can do over 90 minutes, rather than the six minutes she ended up getting in the second match.

In five matches for Canada, Viens has scored twice, and scored for fun this past year in the Division 1 Féminine in France — 11 goals in 14 matches for Paris FC. She also has a goal in six matches for NJ/NY Gotham FC in all competitions this season.

Speaking to the media after the match on Monday, Priestman said that the team looked dangerous, and she believes the attack will click once she’s working with a smaller group of players.

“I think moving forward, once I select the squad, [we’ll] get the partnerships right and the chemistry so people know where they are, the type of runs, the type of cross,” she said. “All of that work is to come.”

Priestman acknowledged that a lack of clinical finishing was the main thing missing for them.

“I think it’s going to come,” she added. “I’ve had 29 players in camp, that’s a lot of players on the training pitch and that can sometimes affect partnerships, where you don’t put players together in the same team all the time. I’ll be able to do that leading into an Olympic Games.

“Playing players together more often is what you need going into a major tournament, so that’ll be the plan now, once I’ve made the hard decision of picking the roster.”

They also didn’t have a lot of lucky bounces during this international break.

“The post saved Shelina again,” Priestman said with a laugh. “That happened the last time we played Brazil, so hopefully we get them again in the Olympics. That might be third time lucky.”

Despite the lack of goals, Canada’s defenders had a very impressive camp. With Kadeisha Buchanan returning the fold, and as rock-solid as ever, Priestman rotated the defenders around her. Vanessa Gilles started the Czech Republic match beside her at centre-back, with Gabrielle Carle on the left and Jayde Riviere on the right, but for the Brazil game Buchanan was beside Shelina Zadorsky, with Allysha Chapman on the left and Ashley Lawrence on the right. There’s a chance every single one of them goes to Tokyo, and having the ability to rotate that much and still put up a big performance is exactly what you need in a tournament with a tight schedule.

Priestman had high praise for the players for the defenders after blanking a Brazil team that includes Marta and Debinha, two of the best attackers in the world.

“Overall I thought it was a really great effort from the players on the pitch, they put in a massive shift,” she said to reporters after the match. “Brazil is very hard to defend against, and to keep a clean sheet? I can’t stop saying it — we need to celebrate that.”

If there was a question about which two goalkeepers Priestman will be taking to Tokyo, it’s been answered. The Canada boss gave starts to Stephanie Labbé and Kailen Sheridan against the Czech Republic and Brazil, respectively, the two goalkeepers expected to be on the plane. Sabrina D’Angelo and Erin McLeod were also in this camp in Spain, but neither saw the pitch.

The only decision that remains there is who starts in goal at the Games. Both Labbé and Sheridan have been good for the national team, with Labbé playing most of the games in 2021 as Sheridan recovered from an injury suffered at the SheBelieves Cup. She’s fully healthy now, so performances over the coming weeks will likely be the difference between the two.

The midfield was also impressive, with Quinn in particular proving that they are an indispensable member of the squad. Their vision on the pitch is a much-needed asset in this Canadian team, to link the defenders with the attackers. There were a few occasions where Quinn would spray a long diagonal ball across the pitch for Nichelle Prince, or another winger, and open space up for an attack, so they should absolutely start at the Olympics as a part of Priestman’s midfield triangle.

Quinn during a Canada training session (Photo: Canada Soccer)
Quinn during a Canada training session (Photo: Canada Soccer)

There could be another camp between now and when the team head to Tokyo, with Priestman saying after Monday’s match that plans are being finalized for a behind-closed-doors game as one final tune-up. That will likely just include the 18 going to Tokyo, as well as possibly a few reserves to make up the numbers in training.

That camp, and the potential friendly match to be played within it, are the real test for Priestman’s team. The next few weeks before the Olympics are when they need to ramp it up and really prove that they can be considered among the best teams in the world, and challenge for a third consecutive podium finish.

It’s clear that Canada have the talent to be a force at major tournaments — they’ve won back-to-back bronze medals in this very event, and boast some of the top players in the world — they just need to prove it.