Tokyo Tune-up: Canada’s Women’s National Team getting much-needed pre-Olympic test at Tournoi de France

Canada’s Women’s National Team is back in action this week, as they prepare to take on Brazil, France and the Netherlands at the inaugural “Tournoi de France”, a friendly tournament taking place in the north-east of France. For a Canada team still in search of their identity, it’s a perfect test for them, as they get set for another big year for their program. 

After a short break, they’re back and ready for more. 

Less than a month after punching their ticket to the 2020 Olympics, Canada’s Women’s National team is already getting set to play their next set of matches, with a trio of clashes awaiting them over the coming week. 

In the first step of their pre-Olympic preparations, they have travelled to France to participate in the “Tournoi de France”, a brand new friendly tournament that will pit Canada against Brazil, France and the Netherlands in a trio of matches. 

“We have three big games ahead of us, and everyone is excited to play those games, but we also want to get those results for Canada,” said Ashley Lawrence in a statement put out by Canada Soccer. “It’s that much more exciting when we have the opportunity to play against some of the best teams in the world, because we know that is where we belong. We want to be the best, so we definitely understand the importance of these games.”

After embarking on what was best described as a light post-2019 World Cup schedule, only playing 3 friendly matches over the course of 6 months, they’re diving right into the thick of things in 2020, as they get set to get back on the podium for the 3rd Olympics in a row. 

By taking on the Netherlands, France and Brazil, the 3rd, 4th and 9th best teams in the world, respectively, they’ll be getting some much-needed tests, ones that should help them ramp up their preparations for this summer’s tournament. 

Fresh off a CONCACAF Olympic qualifying tournament where they weren’t truly tested until the final, only troubling themselves at times with nervous play against the 37th ranked Costa Ricans in the semis, these are the exact kinds of matches their team needs, with their 3-0 loss to the top-ranked US in the finals last month being their only barometer of where they currently sit in the women’s game. 

So it should be a good tournament for the Canadians, who’ll have a lot to prove, with their recent 2019 World Cup disappointment still at the back of their minds, along with that most recent loss to the US. 

What to expect in France

Quality-wise, this is going to be a very strong tournament for the Canadians, who get to face two of the best European teams out there, along with a still-strong Brazil side. For a Canada team clearly in transition, as they look to replace an ageing generation with the next crop of young stars, it will be a good test of both the strong and weak points of their squad, as these teams won’t be afraid to step on the jugular and send a message.

In the Netherlands, Canada gets an opponent they’re quite familiar with, as they faced off with the current European Champions in the group stages of last year’s World Cup, with the Netherlands edging Les Rouges by a score of 2-1. For Canada, it was a tough result, as it felt like the beginning of the end for their tournament, but for the Netherlands, it pushed them onto a run that led to them narrowly losing the finals to the now 4-time World Champions, the Americans. 

Led by a golden generation of players, headlined by the likes of Vivianne Miedema, Lieke Martens, Danielle van de Donk, Sherida Spitze and Stefanie van der Gragt, the Netherlands has truly burst onto the scene in recent years, becoming a team that plays high-flowing and entertaining football. 

With the 23-year-old Miedema leading the line, as the Arsenal star already has an astonishing 69 international goals in 87 games, already making her the all-time Netherlands top goalscorer, they have a difference-maker to build around, with Martens, van de Donk and Spitse offering up a pretty quality supporting cast offensively. 

Defensively marshalled by the likes of van der Gragt and the veteran Anouk Dekker at the back, along with the reliable Sari Van Veenendaal in goal, they’ve got one of the more balanced outfits in the world, which should give Canada plenty to deal with over the course of 90 minutes.

Heading into the Olympics, they’re one of the big favourites to take it all, with arguably only the US sitting ahead of them as the team to beat. 

In any other tournament, they would likely be followed by the likes of France in the list of favourites, but due to the smaller size of the Olympic tournament, Les Bleus are not going to head to Tokyo this year, as they were unable to finish among the top 3 European teams at the World Cup last summer. 

That will be of benefit to many of the attending teams, as France has one of the deepest teams in the world, with their only question mark really coming in goal. They have offensive pieces, led by the clinical Eugene Le Sommer, with Kadidiatou Diani and Delphine Cascarino offering good support to the longtime number #9, who operates both centrally and in wide channels. 

Along with the midfield, led by one of the best players in the world, Amandine Henry, supported by the reliable Gaetane Thiney, the youngster Grace Geyoro and a mix of Kenza Dali, Amel majri and Charlotte Bilbaut, France can throw a variety of offensive looks to mix up their opponents. 

But it’s at the back where they make the most noise, with Wendie Renard, one of the best defenders in the world, leading the way for the French. Thanks to her imposing height, tidy technical skills and leadership, she’s a presence defensively, one that can help the team on both ends of the pitch. Mostly paired with Griedge Mbock Bathy, who had a sneakily good 2019 World Cup, it gives them a good spine in the middle of the park, complementing the likes of Henry and Le Sommer further up the field. 

The big question mark will be in goal, however, with the 33-year-old Sarah Bouhaddi coming off a disappointing World Cup, one where she certainly wasn’t bad, but one where she was arguably the weak link of the French side, with her play in the quarter-finals worrying many French observers. On her day, she can be among the best, but as she reaches her mid to late 30s, there is some genuine concern that she might not be able to be relied upon for much longer, which is worrying for a French side that doesn’t have much depth beyond her, with their 3 other keeper options combining for 2 appearances in a French strip.

Overall, France will be an interesting team to monitor over the next few years, with many of their top players reaching their 30s, which will force them into transition mode. Given that most of them have come up and played with the juggernaut that is Lyon, current 4-time consecutive UEFA Champions League winners, it’ll be interesting to see both the future of France and Lyon, who both rely heavily on their influence. 

Given that they’ve not come close to sniffing any success internationally, a stark contrast to their triumphant domestic form, time is running out for this squad, but with them missing out on the Olympics, their focus will be on the 2021 Euros and 2023 World Cup, which is why we may see some more younger faces over the next 7 days. 

Rounding off the group is Brazil, probably the most interesting of the sides. They have star-power, with the 6-time World Player of the year Marta leading a strong offensive group consisting of the likes of Cristiane, Formiga and Debinha, all difference-makers on their day. 

The only problem? Marta is 34, Formiga 42, and Cristiane 34, all concerning numbers for a team that has faced lots of off-the-field trouble in recent years. Marta’s been really outspoken on the issue, criticizing the Brazilian federation for the lack of support for the Women’s game, while also encouraging the next generation to take control of their destiny, as their team faces an interesting period of turmoil.

It’s been an interesting time for women’s soccer in Brazil, with their Golden Generation slowly ageing out, which always leads to tough periods of transition. Can the young Brazilian talents step up and fill in the gap that will be left behind by the imminent departures of Marta, Formiga and Cristiane, while also ensuring the support of their federation in the process? 

We’ll start to see the answer to that question over the coming years, but at the same time, they’ve still got the pieces to compete at a high-level, which we’ll surely see at the Olympics. This team has been dominant on their own continent (they’ve won ⅞ Copa Americas since it’s inception), but they want to finally lift some silverware at the World Stage, where they’ve only had a couple of second-place finishes to look back on.

Along with Canada, who find themselves in a similarly complicated transition period, with the face of their program, all-time leading international goalscorer Christine Sinclair, not getting any younger, it makes for an interesting bunch. Can the Netherlands continue their ascension? Will Canada finally reach the final of a major tournament? Is this Brazil’s surprise year? Will France be able to get over the hump at next year’s Euros?

These are all questions these sides face, starting with the first kick of the ball in France, leading them towards their eventual goals, which for 3 of the 4 teams, will get underway in Tokyo later this year. 

Can the tactics be just right?

For Canada, it’ll be a particularly interesting set of 3 games, as they look to build up their tactical identity, one that still appears to remain in a constant state of flux. Over the last year, we’ve seen all sorts of experiments, from defensive 4-4-2’s, to stretched out 4-3-3’s and 3-5-2’s. 

It’s been concerning to see all of the changes, as they’ve yet to really grasp one concept and make it their own, with each of the different set-ups presenting their own positive and negative aspects. 

In the most recent CONCACAF tournament, however, we saw Canada go with a 3-5-2 against the US, producing a solid performance from that set-up, which presents an interesting set of questions. After looking so poor in the 3 at the back in 2019, can they develop enough in it ahead of the Olympics to make it a long-term thing?

From a personnel perspective, it makes sense, as it allows them to maximize some of their best pieces, which are at full back, centre back and up front, while minimizing the impact of their threadbare midfield. 

With Jayde Riviere looking more and more like a star full back with each outing she puts in on the right, along with the growing Gabrielle Carle and the reliable Allysha Chapman on the left, it allows Canada’s best full back, Ashley Lawrence, to move to a crucial midfield position. 

Given Canada’s weaknesses in the middle of the park, it’s been a move that has worked relatively well, and should likely be the path forward for Canada. 

From there, more questions open up, however, as Canada’s unique squad composition makes things interesting. With Canada having so many strong forwards, to they go to a front 3 to avoid letting too many of them sit at once? Because if they do, they may lose some juice elsewhere on the pitch, which could imbalance the squad. 

But considering what we saw in the CONCACAF tournament, we may see more back 3 formations, which can easily convert into 4 at the backs depending on how the game goes. Sophie Schmidt, nominally a midfielder, has played at centre back lately, which could help Canada’s flexibility. 

Considering that she can jump up into the midfield without a problem, or even shift out to right back if Riviere pushes too far forward, putting Schmidt in a back 3 with Shelina Zadorsky and Kadeisha Buchanan can give Canada defensive flexibility and solidity, giving the full backs the freedom to be aggressive. 

Along with the insertion of Lawrence into the middle, which gives Canada more of a presence on both ends, and the likes of Janine Beckie and Jessie Fleming, who are both quite flexible and able to operate in between the lines, it can give them a presence on both ends of the pitch. 

With this being a friendly tournament, I would like to see something similar to this trotted out, just to see how it fares against quality opposition. 

With the young full backs Carle and Riviere both capable of attacking, having the back 3 allows them the freedom to do so, giving the midfield pair of Lawrence and Fleming the support they need. 

It might lack the presence of a midfield general such as Desiree Scott, whos destroyer ability does make up for her being a bit one-dimensional at times, but it does have the ability to adapt to the game, which could be more crucial in the long run. 

Canada’s biggest two biggest weaknesses right now are that A) they’re often too static when in possession and that B) they struggle to juggle both defensive and offensive responsibilities, which is why having more multi-dimensional, young and athletic players, especially in the middle of the park and in the attack, could be huge. 

As vital as having the experience and intelligence that the likes of Chapman, Scott and Schmidt bring to the table, their lack of speed and versatility can make having too many of them on at once a liability, which is why it would be good to see Kenneth Heiner-Moller go for a younger and more adaptable lineup as we progress.

Transition period continues

That’s all part of the big question that the program currently faces, as it looks to transition from the latest generation to a new one. It’s evident in the squad composition, which mostly either consists of players 26 and under or 30 and over, and it’s going to be a big storyline to monitor going forward. 

How do you move on from the likes of Sinclair, Scott, Schmidt, Chapman and the recently reintroduced Diana Matheson, knowing what they’ve done for the program? Sinclair’s not the best example, as she’s still plugging away at a high-level, but for the others, who are starting to show the wears and tears of long and successful careers, when will they be replaced by some of the youngsters?

With many of those young players looking ready to snatch their opportunities, and with the older players proving to limit Canada’s potential at times, it’s going to make for an interesting transition period, one that starts now. 

Don’t get me wrong, having all of those aforementioned veteran names will be huge for the program going forward, as their veteran poise, leadership and skills can help a team both as starters and off the bench. 

But between now and after the Olympics, when the 2023 World Cup cycle starts (many believe it’s ‘started’ now, whereas others believe it’s the latter), Canada will have to start preparing to be at their best in 2023, where a youth movement is going to have to lead the way. 

While it would be understandable for Canada to stick with their veterans for now, with many of them putting up memorable performances in Olympics past, they absolutely have to start thinking long-term, and that starts with friendlies like this one. 

That’s why what they do this tournament will be so interesting to watch. If they put out a lot of veterans, but get humbled by any of the 3 teams, it’ll be hard to justify not pushing for more youth, whereas if the kids get hit hard, they can likely grow from it, both for the Olympics and future World Cup competition. 

So keep an eye on the approach of Heiner-Moller in these 3 games. Will he give the kids more leash in bigger moments, allowing them to grow into this squad and lead the way? Or will he try to get some last magic out of the veterans, letting them lead the way on what could be a banner moment for the program?

There’s no easy answer to either question, but for me, I’m hoping for more of the former. If Heiner-Moller goes with the latter, it won’t be that bad, either, but considering the bigger picture, the former definitely has the chance to pay bigger dividends down the road. 

But at the very least, the future needs to start coming to the forefront, be it now or after the Olympics, which I’m sure is something that most people are in agreement with, no matter which camp they find themselves at the moment. 

Looking Forward

All-in-all, for a friendly tournament, there’s a lot of questions to ask of Canada, but as the team gears up for a big year, that is normal. At the very least, they’re preparing themselves by testing their play against some of the best, which should produce plenty of learning lessons. 

Even though the results in France won’t mean much over the long-term, it can help the team’s quest to continue and establish an identity, something that has escaped them over the recent years. They’re in a crucial transition period, but still have some juice to squeeze out of the veterans, with the biggest question being in what role do you put them in to get those results out of them.

But while all of that starts to get answered, enjoy a quality tournament, with Canada finally getting a chance to get 3 high-quality tests on the bounce. Those don’t come often in the international game, so when they do, it’s important to take advantage, even if these games will be more about the process than the results. 

Heading into a couple of big months and years for the Women’s program, it should be interesting to see how they fare, as we start gearing up for another potential Olympics run this summer.  

Cover photo by: Canada Soccer/MexSport

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