Belief in Bev: Making a CanWNT wishlist ahead of the 2021 She Believes Cup

The Canadian Women’s National Soccer Team will get their 2021 underway later this month, as they get set to participate in the She Believes Cup,  jumpstarting a busy year for them. In this, we make a wishlist for them at this tournament, in which they’ll be busy laying the groundwork ahead of what’s supposed to be an important year for this program. 

With the lengthy layoff now behind them, this return promises to be a good one. 

In just under 2 weeks time, the Canadian Women’s National Team will be back in action for the first time in nearly a year, as they’ll take on the US to kick off the She Believes Cup.

11 months removed from their last competitive matches, when they took on Brazil, Netherlands and France at the ‘Tournoi de France’ in March of 2020, they’re finally going to get their squad together and preparing for matches, allowing them to put the pieces back together after a wild last year. 

After having qualified for the 2020 Olympics thanks to some strong performances in Texas at the 2020 CONCACAF Women’s Olympics qualifiers back in February of last year, it was hoped that Canada could make some noise at last summer’s Tokyo Olympics, making 2020 a memorable year. 

But due to the circumstances brought about by the pandemic, it proved to be memorable for all of the wrong reasons, as the Olympics would be postponed until 2021, with a further postponement still potentially in the cards. 

Now, however, Canada and their fellow Olympic hopefuls are once again getting set to prepare for that tournament with the impression that it will indeed take place, with each side surely dreaming of the prospect of Olympic gold. 

And there may be no team hungrier than Canada, who are looking to build off of back-to-back bronze medals at the 2012 and 2016 Olympics. Led by the greatest goalscorer in international footballing history, Christine Sinclair, it’s hoped that Canada can make a big step forward and finally win an international tournament, something that has proved elusive thus far in their history. 

As Sinclair continues to get up there in age, time is dwindling for her to get a chance at either Olympic or World Cup glory, with these Olympics and the 2023 World Cup surely being the last big opportunities for her to climb what is seen as the summit of the international women’s game. 

Canada seems to recognize that, which is why they mutually parted ways with head coach Kenneth Heiner-Moller in the summer of 2020, as he was supposed to helm the side in the 2020 Olympics, but his pragmatic style of play often left more questions than answers. In his place has seen the energetic Bev Priestman step up to the plate, giving Canada a younger and fresher voice, one that formerly worked with this Canadian side as an assistant, before taking her talents to work with England for a few years before taking this job late in 2020. 

With a new head coach, a generational talent nearing the end of her reign and a pretty solid core behind her, Canada has work to do ahead of this summer if they want to achieve their goal, which is to finish the summer with a gold medal around their necks. 

Heading into this She Believes Cup, where Canada will take on the US, Argentina and Brazil, this will be their first chance to tune-up ahead of the summer, so it’s hoped that they come out of this tournament strongly, allowing them to head into their next preparation games with confidence. 

So with that in mind, here’s what we’re expecting out of Canada at this tournament, as they look to get the most out of this unique opportunity to get together for the first time in a long time. 

Lineup experiments start now: 

While the road to Olympic glory isn’t always about what happens on the pitch, with the talent that they have at their disposal, Canada needs to find a way to get the most out of their side, which does find itself at an interesting crossroads. 

Led by a veteran core headlined by the likes of Sinclair, Sophie Schmidt, Diana Matheson and Desiree Scott, Canada has a few players who are nearing the end of some wonderful playing careers. On the other side, they’ve got a good crop of young players ready to break out, such as Jordyn Huitema, Jessie Fleming and Jayde Riviere, among others. 

With a couple of talented players in their prime sitting in the middle of that sandwich, such as Ashley Lawrence, Kadeisha Buchanan and Janine Beckie, Canada has a pretty darn nucleus of talent to lean on. 

At the same time, despite what they have to work with, Canada struggled to hit another gear under Kenneth Heiner-Moller, often finding themselves scraping through games they should’ve been doing better in, which was often a frustrating experience to witness. 

As one would expect, Heiner-Moller leaned heavily on his veterans, which considering what they’d accomplished together before, was a smart tactic, but for whatever reason, they’d seemed to lose their magic in recent years. 

So now, Canada finds itself in a precarious position. Are we able to chalk up Canada’s stagnation as a team in the past few years down to coaching? Or was Heiner-Moller too loyal to his veterans, giving them a bit too much rope despite having some quality talent waiting in the wings? 

It’s hard to tell what was the case, so now it’s up to Priestman to go about figuring that out herself. 

Seeing how the likes of Sinclair, Schmidt, Matheson and Scott performed in the NWSL last year, you’d be hard-pressed to leave one or more of them out of the Canadian starting 11 at the moment, but at the same time, when they played together at the start of 2020, they often looked off the pace. 

For Priestman, that means her goal at a tournament like this one, which despite the presence of silverware, mostly exists as a chance for teams to gel ahead of bigger competitions, should absolutely be to figure out who her key starters are. 

There’s no doubt that Canada has the talent to make up a formidable 23 player roster no matter what, but Priestman needs to see if her core veterans still have what it takes to take on the likes of the US, or if some younger blood is what needs to be injected into this starting lineup for this Canada side to take a step forward this year. 

Unfortunately for Priestman, she doesn’t have much time to make these sorts of decisions, with the Olympics *supposed* to kick off in just under 6 months, so it’s imperative that she hits the ground running at She Believes Cup. 

It’s not going to be an easy challenge for her to undertake, but if she is able to navigate it successfully, it could prove to be game-changing for this program. 

Continue to trust the kids: 

Canada huddles during a clash with France in March of 2020 (Canada Soccer/Philippe Le Brech)

And while this is in a similar vein to the last point, it’s worth highlighting, as Canada’s youth movement is becoming harder to ignore.  

Canada has brought in 19 (!) players 25 or under as part of their 29-player preliminary roster for She Believes Cup, giving you an idea of the sort of youth that is coming up the pipeline in this Canadian team. 

While some of those younger players will be sent home after a bit, as Canada will tighten up its roster ahead of their actual games, it shows that Canada is looking at continuing to make their roster younger, even if they’re maybe not so sure how to make their starting lineup younger quite yet. 

That could prove to be hugely beneficial, as it’s clear to see that these kids can play. Take last year’s Olympic qualifiers as an example. 

Even though Christine Sinclair’s record-setting goal against St. Kitts and Nevis may have filled a lot of the headlines (and very rightfully so!), who scored the winning goal in a 1-0 semi-finals win over Costa Rica to send Canada to the Olympics? None other than 19-year-old Jordyn Huitema, who was still only 18 at the time, and she is one of many talented youngsters that Canada can turn ot. 

Along with breakout performances from the likes of Jayde Riviere and Gabrielle Carle, youth helped push Canada to where they wanted to be at the end of that qualifying tournament, so it’s important that this program continues to trust in their younger players. 

Canada’s veterans still have a lot to give, as they’ve shown time and time again in recent years, but as we saw earlier, A) Canada may need some more youth in their roster to compete with the likes of the US, and B), with Ashley Lawrence, Kadeisha Buchanan, Jessie Fleming and Janine Beckie all in their mid-20s and in their primes, integrating young players in now could set Canada up nicely to do some damage at the 2023 World Cup in 2 years. 

Get the goals back: 

But although the whole talk of youth versus veterans will take up a lot of the discussion surrounding this camp, and rightfully so, it’s imperative that from a tactical standpoint, Canada takes a big step forward, especially in the final third. 

To give credit to Heiner-Moller, he got a lot out of this team defensively, but it often came at a cost – Canada would struggle at times to break down teams in the final third. 

That’s a balancing act they need to manage, as the best teams in the world know how to do damage at both ends of the pitch, something that Canada has struggled to consistently do. 

With difference-makers up front, such as Beckie, Sinclair, Huitema, Adriana Leon and many more, as well as a centre back pairing of Kadeisha Buchanan and Shelina Zadorsky that has to be seen as one of the best in the world, Canada has the pieces to be a lethal team at both ends. 

So for them, their goal has to be to figure out their best way of controlling the midfield, something that has proved elusive in recent years, or else it could continue to leave them grasping at solutions, especially at the offensive end. 

Is it via a formation change, maybe one that sees a dual-threat of Riviere and Lawrence at full back with the likes of Matheson, Schmidt, Fleming, Scott, Beckie or someone else offering a mix of transitional threat at both ends? Or do they move someone like Lawrence into midfield full-time, something they experimented with last year? 

Either way, Canada has to figure out how to keep the defensive solidity that saw them only concede 3 goals in 4 games at the 2019 World Cup, while also finding a way to impose themselves on teams offensively, making them a frustrating team to play against. 

They seem to have the pieces to play that way, it’s just now up to Priestman to figure out how that puzzle best fits together, allowing Canada to take a tactical step forward ahead of the Olympics. 

Looking Forward:

So all-in-all, it should be a very intriguing She Believes Cup for this Canadian team, one that should prove to be rather useful ahead of what looks to be like a busy year for this program. 

And while there will be silverware on the line down in the US, something that Canada should strive to take home, this tournament will be all about taking steps forward, with the long-term goal being a strong showing at the Olympics, should they happen this summer. 

It might be an ambitious goal, but it’s one this program has every right to aim for, especially when considering what they’ve accomplished in the past. 

But with everyone around them continuing to make big strides in the women’s game, it won’t be easy for them to push forward, so it’ll have to take big efforts from the players and the coaching staff to put the stagnation of recent years behind them, allowing them to push forward in a big way in 2021. 

Starting with this tournament, they have a chance to do just that, so we’ll keep a close eye on them as they seek to accomplish their lofty but still realistic goals. 

Up next: Canada vs US, Thursday, February 18th, 2021, 16:00 PST, 19:00 EST (Exploria Stadium, Orlando)

Cover photo via: Canada Soccer/Philippe Le Brech

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