Sinclair’s record-breaking efforts highlighted strange 2020 for CanWNT

2020 was supposed to be a big year for the Canadian women’s team.

It began with Christine Sinclair writing her name into the record books, and it was slated to continue with some high-profile home games for the Canadian side, and then hopefully culminate with a third consecutive podium finish at the Tokyo Olympics.

COVID-19 had other ideas, though, as it wreaked pure havoc on all walks of life, including the sports world. In the end, the global pandemic denied the Canadian women’s team the opportunity to build upon the momentum it gathered from Sinclair’s record-breaking efforts and assert it itself on the international stage when the Tokyo Games were postponed.

When Sinclair scored her 185th goal for Canada in an 11-0 win over Saint Kitts and Nevis last January at the Concacaf Olympic qualifying tournament, she moved past retired American star Abby Wambach as the all-time leading goalscorer in international soccer, for both men and women.

Canada cruised through the group stage and semifinal round to book its place at the Olympics before predictably losing to the United States in the finals of the Concacaf qualifying competition. The setback against the U.S. showed that there was still some work to do by the Canadians if they wanted to break through and be considered among the true elite of the women’s game.

Still, Sinclair’s history-making efforts was a major story and shined a positive light on the women’s program, and gave them a fair bit of confidence going into the Tournoi de France in March.

The first edition of the invitational tournament held in France brought Canada together with some of the best teams in the world, with the Reds facing the host nation, mighty Brazil (featuring Marta), and the Netherlands (2019 World Cup finalists). After suffering an opening loss to France, Canada battled the Dutch to a goalless stalemate and then came back from two goals down to earn a 2-2 draw with the Brazilians.

Results and performances were mixed from the Canadians in France, but the team was buoyed by the return of Diana Matheson, who scored against Brazil. Matheson was coming off a lengthy injury layoff that saw her miss the previous summer’s World Cup, so having her back in the fold and making an impact boded well for Canada as it prepared for the Tokyo Olympics.

Diana Matheson. (Canada Soccer)
Diana Matheson. (Canada Soccer)

But then the wheels fell off, as the pandemic hit and the world changed as we knew it.

A friendly match against Australia (who at the time sat one spot above Canada in the FIFA world rankings) scheduled to take place in Vancouver on April 14 was cancelled. The match was supposed to be a homecoming – Canada’s first on home soil since May of 2019 and a celebration of Sinclair’s record-breaking performance earlier in the year.

The Vancouver game was also invaluable for Canada’s Olympic preparations, giving the team a chance to face a top nation and allowing coach Kenneth Heiner-Møller to make some player evaluations before selecting his final roster for Tokyo. As it turned out, the Canadian team never boarded the plane to Japan, as the IOC called off that summer’s Olympics and postponed them until 2021.

As a result of COVID-19, Canada has been in a holding pattern on the pitch ever since last year’s Tournoi de France, and its dreams of capturing another Olympic medal have been put on hold.

However, the pandemic didn’t prevent the Canadian team from undergoing a major change at the highest level in 2020. Heiner-Møller stepped down from his role as coach of the Canadian women’s side last summer and returned to his native Denmark to serve as Head of Coach Education for the Danish FA.

Well-liked and respected by the Canadian players he oversaw, the soft-spoken and thoughtful Heiner-Møller cut a gentle figure while on the touchline for Canada.

“I sure am going to miss playing for Kenneth. His ability to push and get the most out of everyone while truly caring about each individual is something I’ve rarely experienced. Kenneth, thank you,” Sinclair posted on her Twitter account.

CONCACAF Women's Under-20 Championship 17 January 2017 - Couva, TRI Canada Soccer by Mexsport Bev Priestman
Bev Priestman (Canada Soccer photo)

Canada Soccer immediately began the search for Heiner-Møller’s replacement ahead of the postponed Tokyo Olympics, and named Bev Priestman as the Dane’s successor in October.

Priestman, a 34-year-old native of Consett, England, wasn’t a stranger to Canada Soccer – she served as an assistant coach under John Herdman during his time in charge of the women’s team. Since leaving the program in 2018, Priestman worked as an assistant coach under Phil Neville for England’s senior women’s side, helping them to a fourth-place finish at the 2019 FIFA World Cup.

A third consecutive podium finish at the rescheduled 2021 Olympics would be an unprecedented achievement for the Canadian women’s team. But winning another bronze medal clearly isn’t good enough for Priestman.

In the short term, she’s aiming for Canada to improve upon its bronze medal showings at the 2012 and 2016 Olympics under Herdman during this summer’s event in Tokyo. Priestman’s long-term goals include setting the program up for consistent success on the international stage.

“(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 nine months, it’s about preparing for the Olympic Games and we have a great blend of experience and youth to do that,” Priestman stated during her introductory Zoom call with reporters.

“And then, looking longer term, to say what does this team look like going into 2023 and 2024.”

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.”

With 2020 firmly in the rear-view mirror and Heiner-Møller back in Denmark, this Canadian women’s side is now Priestman’s to shape. But can she build them into an elite team and overcome the hurdles put forth by the COVID-19 pandemic and lead Canada to glory in Tokyo in 2021? Time will tell.