‘We want to climb the biggest mountain on the planet’: Priestman and CanWNT set to begin World Cup preparation at SheBelieves Cup

On Wednesday, Canada Soccer announced a squad of 15 women’s national team players for a pre-tournament camp ahead of the upcoming SheBelieves Cup. The squad consists mostly of players from leagues that are out of season, including the NWSL, the Damallsvenskan (the Swedish top flight), the NCAA university system, and one from League1 Ontario.

The camp, which will run from Feb. 8-12, is before the FIFA international window officially opens on February 13, which explains why the full squad hasn’t yet been announced. Head coach Bev Priestman said in a press release that she “felt it was important to get a few team-based sessions in ahead of the FIFA window,” and that this will also “provide the opportunity to assess a few more players ahead of this important World Cup year.”

Canada’s first match at the annual invitational tournament is against the hosts, the United States, on Feb. 16, before they take on Brazil (Feb. 19) and Japan (Feb. 22) in the following days.

It’s the second time Canada has played in the tournament in the past three years, after taking part in the 2021 edition as well. They lost to the United States and Brazil in that tournament – 1-0 and 2-0, respectively – but beat Argentina 1-0 on a late goal from Sarah Stratigakis. That game against the United States was Bev Priestman’s first in charge of Canada, just a few months before she would lead them to Olympic gold in Tokyo.

“We’re almost coming full circle here,” Priestman said to reporters in a press conference after Wednesday’s announcement. “I think for me the team has massively grown in depth [since the 2021 tournament], if I look at the rosters and trying to pull that team together [compared] to what I’ve got now… I probably could have invited, budget allowing and everything, another 10 players to this pre-camp. I don’t even know how I’m going to pick the 23 for the SheBelieves.”

RELATED READING: 2023 Women’s World Cup Primer: Tournament favourites, players to watch, and everything you need to know

There are no new names on the roster, but there are players in the squad who have been involved less frequently than others. Amanda Allen is one of those players, as the 17-year-old only made her senior international debut in November, an appearance off the bench in a friendly against Brazil. Simi Awujo and Jade Rose are also highly promising teenagers hoping to solidify their spots in Priestman’s squad for years to come, while Clarissa Larisey is also a national team player on the rise after putting in good performances recently for club and country.

Missing out will be Desiree Scott, whom Priestman said picked up an injury at the end of the 2022 NWSL season. Deanne Rose and Nichelle Prince also miss out through injury, both with a ruptured Achilles. Priestman is hoping that both will be ready for the World Cup. Rose is currently further along in her recovery, having been injured earlier in the year than Prince.

Returning to the fold is the more experienced Jenna Hellstrom. After only making a ten-minute cameo in 2021, Hellstrom wasn’t called up at all in 2022, and only has five caps to her name since making her debut in 2018. She has been putting together some strong performances for Dijon FCO in France, and has earned herself another opportunity.

“With Jenna we kept the dialogue open along the way, sort of where we’re at and things, but there’s a reality there around some of the openings in the roster based on positional depth,” said Priestman during her press conference. “That opened the door for Jen, and Jen has got incredible pace and a bit of a ruthless mindset. Very, very competitive. 

“I wanted the opportunity to bring her back in based on those attributes and I’m excited to see how she comes in, she’s playing against some great teams and I felt she warranted the opportunity to come in this pre-camp and make a push.”

Hellstrom is one of several players hoping to use this camp to springboard her way back into more regular national team contention. In the 2021 edition of the tournament, the key player who did that was Vanessa Gilles, who rose from someone on the fringes of the squad to a regular starter. Priestman believes the opportunity is there for others to do the same.

“All windows, particularly after the qualification phase last year, we really shifted and opened up the roster,” she said. “You look at Clarissa (Larisey), you look at Simi (Awujo), there are some real standouts that came in and added to the group. 

“It’s a great platform. I’ve always said that any player that’s performing, they’ll get the chance, and I’ve not been afraid to make them changes and bring on subs. If they can have an impact on this group it’s going to be difficult to get to that 23 when we have to do it.”

As was the case in 2021, the SheBelieves Cup is a good way to begin preparations for a much more important tournament. In 2021 that was the Olympics, which Canada of course won for their first major international title. This year the competition goes up another level, with the aforementioned Women’s World Cup.

In 2021 it was about “changing the colour of the medal”. In 2022 it was about continuing to evolve as a footballing nation. This year, Priestman is comparing conquering the Olympics, and then trying to take another step forward and win the World Cup, to climbing a mountain.

“We want to climb the biggest mountain on the planet, the mountain that we’ve never climb,” she told reporters. “When you try to climb and conquer those things, to use an analogy, the air is thinner and the steps are steeper. It’s going to come with pressure because we’ve also been the Olympic champions, and so with that brings a whole host of new challenges.

“Do I think that this team can push towards a podium finish at this World Cup? One million per cent, and on our day we should. If you look at our World Cups in the past decades, we’ve not got past that quarter-final match, and I think for us we’ll be doing everything we can to make sure we make that push.”

Priestman knows that with even more success, especially World Cup success, come a lot of other benefits as well. 

“Instead of the country stopping once every four years for this team in the Olympics, we want it to stop every two when we have World Cup and Olympics success,” she said. “If you do that more often you’re going to grow the game, you’re going to bring a whole load of other things like sponsorship and TV and everything that goes with it.

“That’s going to grow the game in this country, so that’s our aim: to climb that new mountain, that bigger mountain, and give it our best shot.”

The full Canada pre-tournament squad:

GK- Lysianne Proulx | SCU Torreense
GK- Kailen Sheridan | San Diego Wave FC
CB- Vanessa Gilles | FCF Olympique Lyonnais
CB- Jade Rose | Harvard University
FB- Bianca St-Georges | Chicago Red Stars
FB- Gabrielle Carle | Washington Spirit
FB- Allysha Chapman | Houston Dash
M- Quinn  | OL Reign
M- Simi Awujo | University of Southern California
M- Victoria Pickett | NJ/NY Gotham FC
M- Sophie Schmidt | Houston Dash
M- Christine Sinclair |Portland Thorns FC
F- Amanda Allen |NDC-CDN Ontario
F- Janine Beckie | Portland Thorns FC
F- Jenna Hellstrom | Dijon Football Côte d’Or
F- Jordyn Huitema | OL Reign
F- Clarissa Larisey | BK Häcken FF
F- Evelyne Viens | Kristianstads DFF