UK Double: Breaking down 3 CanWNT storylines to keep an eye on in upcoming UK friendlies

Ahead of their pair of friendlies against Wales and England next week, Canada Soccer’s Women’s National Team are getting set to take another big step forward under new head coach Bev Priestman. In this, we look at what they should focus on in those two games, as their tune-up for the Olympics continues. 

They’re back together and ready to get to work again. 

After putting up a solid performance back in February at She Believes Cup, Canada Soccer’s Women’s National Team are back together in the United Kingdom ahead of a pair of friendlies against Wales and England next week, giving them two stiff tests ahead of the Olympics later this year. 

As they look to build off of what they started back in February, where they played 3 games down in Orlando at She Believes Cup, these games will offer them two good tests ahead of the bigger competitive matches that lie ahead later this year. 

With those games being the first few games under new head coach Bev Priestman, we saw a glimpse of how she wants this Canadian team to line up going forward, and for the most part, there was plenty of good to dissect from those 3 games. 

A few familiar problems popped up, but that was to be expected in Canada’s first games back together in over a year under a new coach, so it’ll be interesting to see how they look this camp, knowing that they now have that experience under their belt. 

There are some new faces who weren’t with the team down in Orlando, as a few familiar players have returned to the National Team fold after various absences, along with a few debutants, so there will certainly be another integration period at this camp, but it won’t be as drastic as the one they went through at She Believes Cup. 

Heading into a big summer for them, as they look to build off of back-to-back bronze medals at the 2016 and 2012 Olympics, they’ll want to prove that they can get over that hump and win gold this summer, silencing plenty of doubters in the process. 

To do that, they have to first make the final, something they’ve struggled to do historically in these major tournaments, but with the talent that they have at their disposal, that theoretically shouldn’t be a problem on paper, with their main worry being about getting this group to gel together ahead of the summer. 

Priestman has so far seemed to have provided a breath of fresh air in that regard, as Canada showed plenty of promise in her first 3 games in charge, so it at least seems like things are on the right track going forward. 

So continuing into these games, it’s important that Canada keeps up that progress, allowing them to hit the ground running at Tokyo this summer. 

That makes these sorts of games very valuable, as it offers a chance for this team to get familiar with Priestman’s style of play while testing themselves against top opposition, preparing them for what lies ahead later. 

A top 10 Test:

And when considering that, it’s important to highlight how big Canada’s second game of this camp, a clash versus England, will be for this team. 

As noted by Harjeet Johal of the Equalizer below, Canada’s last win against ‘tier one’ opposition came in April of 2019, and they’ve got a record of 0W-8L-2D since then. 

That’s not very good. 

Considering they’re among one of 8 total teams ranked in FIFA’s top 10 heading into the Olympics, there’s no doubt that they’ll have to solve those woes if they want to go deep in that tournament, and the work to do that starts now. 

To be fair, that was certainly a struggle that stemmed from Priestman’s predecessor, Kenneth Heiner-Moller, whose defensive style of play just never seemed to get the upper edge needed to find wins against top opposition, but a lot of those same players that he coached then still remain in the fold. 

It’s too early to say if it’s the coaching that has been the root cause of those struggles, or if it is down to the players, but there’s no doubt that it’s a problem, one that needs fixing soon. 

So far under Priestman, she got thrown into the deep end at She Believes Cup by having to play two top 10 teams right away, the US and Brazil, and results were mixed. 

First, they lost 1-0 to the US in their first game under their new head coach, but looked really good doing so, playing one of their best games in a while. Then, they played Brazil in their 3rd game and started out horribly, shipping two early goals during a nightmarish first half, before cruising to a pretty low-event 2-0 loss. 

Again, with it being so early into the Priestman era, it’s far too early to even consider sounding the alarm bells, but with Canada’s goal this summer being to win gold, it’s something that needs to be addressed. 

All of a sudden, it makes that England game quite the important one, even if it’s just a friendly, as it’ll really show Canada how far they’ve got to go if they’re going to indeed make their Olympic aspirations a reality. 

Plus, one advantage that they’ve got this camp is that they’ll have Christine Sinclair, Ashley Lawrence and Jordyn Huitema back in the fold, as they all missed She Believes Cup due to injury or travel restrictions. Considering Canada’s biggest challenge down in Orlando was to score goals, they should get a pretty big boost from having two of their best finishers back in the fold, along with one of their best chance creators, as well.

They’re still missing someone like centre back Kadeisha Buchanan, who will be sitting out from these games due to medical reasons, but aside from that, they’ll be a lot closer to full-strength for these friendlies than they were two months ago. 

That’ll give more options for Priestman to work with, allowing her to truly start to shape this team to her wishes, something she slowly started to do down in Orlando. 

If it’s anything to go off of what we saw then, there’s plenty to be excited about, but at the same time, Canada needs to start winning these big games, and they’ve got a great opportunity to try and do that here. 

Where are the goals? 

To start winning, though, Canada needs to start finding some goals, and find them very soon. 

They defended relatively well at She Believes Cup, conceding 3 goals across the 3 games, but only scored once over that time span, which came via a set-piece versus 31-ranked Argentina.

It’s a tired cliche to say that goals win games, but there’s a reason why it exists, and that’s because it’s nearly impossible to win with that sort of low offensive output. 

To be fair, as mentioned earlier, the returns of Sinclair, Lawrence and Huitema should help, so there is some optimism to be had there. With Sinclair, the all-time international top goalscorer, Canada immediately becomes more dangerous up top, and the 19-year-old Huitema is no slouch, either, having scored 13 goals in 33 games for Canada already at her young age. 

You throw Lawrence and her attacking prowess both at full back and in midfield, and that gives Canada plenty of offensive firepower, on top of other names like Janine Beckie, Jessie Fleming and Nichelle Prince, who were all with Canada at She Believes Cup.

On top of that, you add in a few wildcards such as Evelyne Viens, who is fresh off of a loan stint where she scored for fun with Paris FC, as well as debutant Cloe Lacasse, who has been scoring goals by the bushels with Benfica, and it shows that Canada has options up front. 

For whatever reason, though, a lot of Canada’s best offensive players just forget how to finish when they put on their countries colours, opening up these sorts of questions. 

Use Janine Beckie, as an example. She’s been one of Manchester City’s most consistent performers this past year, helping them win the FA Cup last year, but she just couldn’t score at She Believes Cup, even despite picking up a handful of big chances in front of goal. 

The talent is there, as it is with many of Canada’s attackers, but they just need to recapture that form at the international level right now. 

Could it be the Sinclair effect, meaning that there has been an overreliance on their top scorer to carry the load for too long? Or is it just a bad patch of luck?

Based on what we’ve seen, it seems more like the latter, but there is no doubt that with or without Sinclair, this Canadian team has a lot more to give offensively. 

“We can’t assume that because Christine is back, all of a sudden Canada is going to solve the problem of putting the ball into the back of the net,” Priestman told reporters last week. “I am a big believer that it’s going to come, and that actually we saw the rustiness of the reality that we had, but it absolutely needs to be (everyone in) the wider group, and that can be set plays and centre backs scoring, right the way to Christine and the #9 position.”

To give credit to Priestman, she had this team creating a lot more chances in her first few games in charge than they had for a while, so the platform for success is being established, but now it’s just time for the players to find a way to take that opportunity and shine. 

With options such as Sinclair, Viens, Lacasse, Huitema, Nichelle Prince and even Beckie all capable of playing as strikers, it’s now up to this talented group of players to transfer over their strong club form, allowing them to rack up the goals for Canada. 

Canada’s Nichelle Prince in action at She Believes Cup versus the US (Jeremy Reper/Canada Soccer)

Olympic Auditions continue:

Lastly, it’s important that Canada uses these games to continue their auditions for spots in their Olympics squad this summer, as it’s worth noting that Priestman is only allowed to bring 20 players to that tournament, meaning that competition for those places will be fierce. 

Canada just needs to bring at least two goalkeepers, but otherwise has no restrictions on those 20 players, with the expectation being that they’ll bring 18 outfield players along with 2 goalies. 

Just looking at Canada’s roster, there are going to be tough roster decisions all over the board, as a result, given the solid options they have at all positions. 

“Yeah, I’ve sort of kept the net wider,” Priestman said of her player pool. “A couple of things, there’s absolutely no spot guaranteed, and I want to keep it like that right up until the Olympic games, I think She Believes gave an opportunity for players to step up.”

“And players who potentially haven’t been in the (core team) bubble, that tighter group, I think it’s wide-open, there were a couple of players for me, when I got the job, yeah they might’ve been in or around it, but they definitely put their best foot forward, so for me, it’s a blank canvas in terms of seeing this group, and there’s spaces for the taking.”

If you had to project a roster, despite what Priestman said, the only locks on it at this moment would probably be Sinclair, Lawrence, Buchanan, Beckie, Fleming, Shelina Zadorsky and Stephanie Labbe. Otherwise, there are a lot of players on the cusp of being on the squad, but with the roster being so small, it’ll be interesting to see what Priestman does to round out her 20-player group. 

Does she prioritize her 20 best players, or does she bring a few players that can play multiple positions, giving her cover in certain areas of the pitch if needed?

It’s certainly a tough question to answer, as you’d ideally want to find the best balance between having your best 20 players available, while also being prepared to rotate for rest and injuries, if needed. 

But with there still being plenty of time until Canada takes the pitch in just over 3 months, that gives extra importance to these sort of matches, as it’s a prime opportunity for some players on the fringes to work their way into that Olympic squad. 

Look at someone like Vanessa Gilles, as an example. She only played her 3rd game for Canada at She Believes Cup, but she was excellent in that match, which came against the US, showing that she could be a long-term piece for this team to rely on defensively. 

If she continues her excellent form with Bordeaux, who she’s helped to 3rd in the French League due to her strong defensive play and timely goals at centre back, it’s going to be hard to keep her out of that roster, and she can cement that this camp. 

She’s not the only player on the cusp of this squad, but she’s a great example of what a few strong performances at the international can do for a player in the midst of a strong club season, which is something that could also apply to the likes of Lacasse and Viens, in particular. 

With Priestman being new in charge, she’ll have yet to settle on her core group of players, leaving the door wide open for new faces to impress her and work their way into her good books. 

So in a pair of games like these ones, where Canada will have a chance to test itself against two solid teams, this could serve as a great opportunity for a few players to step up and make conversations interesting ahead of the start of the Olympics. 

This won’t be their last chance to impress, as Canada will have a chance to play 2 to 3 games in June, but time is quickly ticking, so the sooner players step forward, the better their chances of making the squad will be. 

Looking Forward:

But either way, audition or not, it’s always a great opportunity for these players to represent their countries, so look for them to bring their A-game in these friendlies. 

With plenty of important soccer still to be played in the next couple of years, they’ll want to continue this strong start to the Priestman era, building off of the positive momentum they seemed to have found down in Orlando. 

It’s a big year for this team with the Olympics fast around the corner, and with little preparation time to get up to speed ahead of then, that makes games like these immensely valuable for them to continue to grow as a team. 

So starting with their clash with Wales on Friday, before moving onto their big game with England on Tuesday, they’ll look to use these 180 minutes of soccer as a chance to continue to try and take another step forward heading into the bigger games that await them. 

As Canada looks to build off of their recent Olympic history, these games could prove to be immensely valuable in that quest, so it’s important that they get the most out of them, preparing them for what lies ahead.

Up Next: Canada vs Wales, Friday, April 9th, 10:00 AM PDT, 13:00 EDT (Cardiff City Stadium, Cardiff)

Cover Photo via: Jeremy Reper/Canada Soccer

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