Priestman, CanWNT face difficult decisions with Olympics on 2021 horizon

Bev Priestman had one goal in mind when she was hired as the new coach of the Canadian women’s team last October.

She made it quite clear that winning a third consecutive Olympic bronze medal isn’t good enough when she replaced former coach Kenneth Heiner-Møller, who stepped down from his post last summer.

Upon her hiring, Priestman let it be known that she is aiming for Canada to improve upon its bronze medal showings at the 2012 and 2016 Olympics under former coach John Herdman during this summer’s rescheduled event in Tokyo.

“(I want) to put Canada back on that podium and change the colour of the medal – that’s the goal. If I look at the next (few) months, it’s about preparing for the Olympic Games and we have a great blend of experience and youth to do that,” Priestman told reporters during her introductory conference call.

She later added: “A team like Canada should be on that podium. I do think we need to change the colour of the medal. Two bronzes is 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.”

A third consecutive medal (regardless of its colour) would be a historic feat and remarkable accomplishment for Canada. But reaching the medal podium in Tokyo won’t be easy for this Canadian team as it begins life under Priestman.

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First and foremost, the COVID-19 pandemic continues to wreak havoc on the sporting world, making it challenging for Canada Soccer to schedule important friendlies ahead of the Tokyo Games that are so crucial for Canada’s Olympic preparation. The women’s team is slated to hold a player camp ahead of the 2021 SheBelievesCup, which will be Priestman’s first chance to evaluate her players in person. This training camp is a good first step (as is Canada’s participation in next month’s SheBelievesCup), but unless more tune-up matches can be arranged closer to the start of the Olympics – and against top international opponents – Canada will limp into the Olympics under-prepared.

One of the biggest questions facing Priestman is whether she’ll be able to inspire a team that stagnated under Heiner-Møller. While it’s true that the Reds sported a solid 20-5-10 record with Heiner-Møller in charge, a closer examination of the Dane’s tenure showed that little, if any, progress was made by the Canadian team. A disappointing round-of-16 exit at the 2019 World Cup in France was followed by yet another Canadian loss to the United States in the finals of last year’s 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.

Canada will learn who its group stage opponents are for Tokyo when the official draw is held on April 8. Even though it’s a smaller field at the Olympics (12 nations) compared to the World Cup (24 nations), and top teams such as Germany and France won’t be in Japan, Canada’s path toward reaching the medal podium isn’t exactly clear.

There are no less than five nations – the United States (the reigning World Cup champions), the Netherlands (World Cup finalists in 2019), Sweden (who eliminated Canada in 2019), Australia and Brazil – who are ahead of Canada in the current World Cup rankings. If you count England, who compete as Great Britain at the Olympics, there are six. Also, Japan (World Cup champions in 2011 and finalists in 2015) are ranked just one spot below Canada.

That means you shouldn’t expect Canada to cruise through the Olympic tournament like it did at last year’s Concacaf qualifying competition – the calibre of opposition in Japan will be much higher. Under Heiner-Møller, the overwhelming majority of Canada’s 20 wins came against weaker nations, and the team showed that it was unable to get results against the top teams. That will have to change at Tokyo, but is that realistic for a side that Priestman has only just inherited and will have to prepare under less-than-ideal conditions because of the COVID-19 pandemic?

CONCACAF Women's Under-20 Championship 17 January 2017 - Couva, TRI Canada Soccer by Mexsport Bev Priestman
Current women’s national team coach Bev Priestman. (Photo: Canada Soccer by Mexsport)

Another issue that plagued Canada during Heiner-Møller’s tenure was its lack of creativity and attacking intent in the final third of the pitch. More goals and more scoring chance creation is desperately required for this Canadian side, that also needs to find a way to rely less on iconic captain Christine Sinclair to lead the attack. But is reasonable to expect all of that to happen in the short period of time (that will likely only include a few warm-up friendlies) that Priestman has to prepare the team for Tokyo?

Looking beyond the Olympics, Priestman is also tasked with mapping out the long-term future of the Canadian program. Many pundits (this one included) have noted that it’s time 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 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, this has to become a team led by Jordyn Huitema and the team’s other promising youngsters.

Huitema, Jessie Fleming and Canada’s crop of prospects have only shown flashes of brilliance at times. If they’re going to reach the next level and became regular and key contributors for Canada on the international stage, then they need to be given more opportunities.

Like Heiner-Møller, Priestman has a longstanding relationship with many of Canada’s veterans stemming from her time as an assistant under Herdman. But the slate, to a certain extent, has to be wiped clean.

Now more than ever, the Canadian head coaching role requires complete objectivity; someone who can be ruthless in their assessments of players, and make the tough but necessary changes. Priestman can’t be bound by past relationships or have any connections to the current crop of national team members or to Herdman, even with all the success the team enjoyed under the Englishman.

Can Priestman incorporate more youngsters and start to be build the team around them, while also preparing the side to win a third consecutive Olympic medal? Will she wait until the Tokyo Games have come and gone to start her youth movement? Or will she stay the course charted by Heiner-Møller and remain loyal to the team’s veterans for the foreseeable future?

Buckle up Canadian women’s team fans, because 2021 is going to be an interesting ride.