Stoke Surprise: CanWNT continue growth under Bev Priestman with big 2-0 win over England in friendly

In their second game this international window, Canada Soccer’s Women’s National Team picked up a big 2-0 win over England, giving them their first win over tier-one opposition in 2 years. Here’s what stood out from that game, as Canada relied on some timely goalscoring, along with a defensive masterclass, in order to pick up the win over the 6th-ranked Lionesses. 

All it took was a well-executed game plan. 

Canada Soccer’s Women’s National team made it two-for-two in their April friendlies on Tuesday, as they picked up a big 2-0 away win over England in Stoke, doing well to build off of their commanding 3-0 win over Wales a few days prior. 

Heading into the Olympics this summer, they’ll hope that this win over a 6th-ranked England side gives them the belief that they can do some damage at that tournament, in which they’re looking to finish on the podium for the 3rd consecutive edition. 

As for the game itself, it wasn’t the prettiest of results, but Canada picked up two timely goals, defended well and battled hard, doing what they needed to do in order to win. 

More importantly, they continued to show flashes of good soccer under new head coach Bev Priestman, who’s quickly gotten this team to play some pretty good football under her watch. 

“Yeah, I think the team did exactly what we set out to do in the game plan,” Priestman told reporters after the game. “I think there’s times in the game where they were rattled, and it was never perfect, but as I’ve said all along with this group, it won’t be perfect, we’re taking on board some new ideas, you’ve got people on a pitch who haven’t been together for a year, (in the case of) some players, so I was really pleased with more the execution of what we’d asked them to do.”

Through her 5 games in charge, Priestman’s side has now picked up 3 wins and 2 losses, with the two defeats coming against the 1st-ranked US and 8th-ranked Brazil, respectively. 

Even more importantly, this win over England was big for Canada because it was their first over tier-one opposition in 2 years, which heading into an Olympic tournament that features over a half-dozen tier-one teams, making this an important result for this Canadian side. 

With a new coach heading into an Olympic year, there was always going to be a lot of uncertainty surrounding this Canadian team, but from what we’ve seen so far, they look to be on a good path heading into July. 

Now, Canada will have the opportunity to play some friendlies in June, before heading to Tokyo in July. They’re yet to schedule any opponents in that June window, but considering that it’s their last opportunity for a tune-up ahead of the Olympics, expect them to announce some games soon. 

But before looking too far ahead, however, it’ll be important for Canada to look back on what they’ve worked on during this camp, as they showed plenty of good things in the 180 minutes they played in the UK. 

Here’s some of what stood out from their win over England, in particular.

Evelyne Viens paces fast start: 

After starting out slowly against Wales, before Deanne Rose scored a 25th-minute goal that opened up the game, Canada wasted no time in getting the party started versus England, all thanks to Evelyne Viens and Janine Beckie. 

In the third minute, Beckie pounced after an England turnover in the midfield, doing a good job to run at the English defenders with speed. She then played a nice ball through to Viens, but was just a half-second late in doing so, and England’s Demi Stokes intercepted the pass smartly. 

Viens, alert to the situation, however, applied immediate pressure on Stokes, winning back the ball and slotting home her second goal for her country in one fluid motion to give Canada a lead. 

It was a huge goal for Canada, as it allowed them to play with a lead right from the get-go, allowing them to focus on the other principles of their game, such as building play up from the back. 

For Viens, in particular, it was a very special moment, as this came in her first start for Canada, so for her to make an impression like that was huge, especially with the Olympics coming up later this year. 

Every chance to audition for a spot is huge right now, considering that Priestman only has 16 spots for outfield players in that squad, so Viens will be happy she scored the early goal, building off of the goal she scored versus Wales on Friday. 

“Yeah, two goals, two games, one of those was against a tier-one team, I think you can’t take anything away from that,” Priestman said of Viens’ play after the game. “And also I think you’ve got to reward players who are performing now and I felt that Evelyne deserved the start, and then she lived up to that in getting the goal.”

With Canada having plenty of depth up front, there won’t be any easy decisions for Priestman at that position going forward, and the strong play of Viens as of late is one of the many reasons why. 

Double Trouble: 

And in almost eerily similar fashion, Canada also found their second goal off of another tough England mistake, as goalkeeper Karen Bardsley fell asleep in possession, allowing second-half substitute Nichelle Prince to slide in and tap home her team’s second goal. 

Much like Viens on the first goal, Prince did an excellent job at pressing even though the situation may have seemed under control from an English perspective, and she was rewarded for her effort. 

After dealing with wave-after-wave of English pressure to start the second half, this goal really allowed Canada to snatch back control of the match, something they didn’t relinquish their hold on again throughout the rest of the game after going up 2-0. 

With their defence standing tall, they just needed that insurance marker from Prince to push them over the line, so it was good to see the goal come when it did, especially off of the back of some strong defensive play from their forwards. 

From a personal standpoint, Prince will be very pleased with the goal, her first for Canada since the 2019 World Cup, as she’s quietly been one of this team’s best players under Priestman so far, but she just couldn’t find the back of the net in any of the 4 other games she’s played for her country recently.

Again, with the battle for spots being so fierce at the forward position for the Olympics, Prince will be happy that she found the back of the net against top opposition, showing Priestman that she can absolutely do a job up front if called upon. 

Helping her in that quest is the fact that she can play both on the wing and as a striker, giving Canada depth at multiple positions, as well, so don’t be surprised to see her in the Olympic squad if she keeps up this run of form heading into the start of her club season with the Houston Dash later this month. 

Defensive solidity shines through: 

Given Canada’s struggle to score goals recently, only scoring once in 3 games at She Believes Cup, their defence has had to be nearly perfect in recent games, and to be fair, they’ve so far been up to the task. 

This was Canada’s 3rd clean sheet in 5 games under Priestman, with the other 2 games being a 1-0 loss against the top-ranked US, and then a 2-0 defeat to Brazil that has so far been Canada’s lone defensive slip-up under their new coach, showing off their improved defensive solidity as of late.

And it’s not just that they’re not conceding goals, but they’re not really giving up many chances, either, making it tough for other teams to play through them. 

If Canada are going to do well at the Olympics, they’re going to be a team that wins games 1-0 and 2-1, which puts a lot of pressure on their defenders to do well in these sorts of games. 

They’ve so far been able to meet that challenge as of late, however, much to the pleasure of their head coach, who issued a challenge to them when she was hired, and they’ve so far not shrunk in front of it under her watch. 

“I think the mindset, I spoke about it when I came in, no matter what shape we play, Canada has to be a hard team to beat, and it’s what’s got us success,” Priestman said when asked about what her team has done well defensively as of late. “I think if we lose that part of our identity, then it will cost us, and it has cost us against tier-one teams, so I think just the passion for clean sheets and behaviours around getting up to the ball and winning the ball back quickly.”

“We’ve gone after certain behaviours every day on the training pitch and celebrated when we’ve seen the moments. So I think it’s a collective mindset and getting everybody on the same page around us, and like I say, absolutely celebrating a clean sheet, (because) I think in international football they’re absolutely not a given, and they earned it (today), and earned the win because of it.”

And what’s been great to see is that defending has become a team effort for Canada, starting with the forwards all the way down the pitch to the midfielders and the defenders, showing their commitment to that side of their game.

That manifested itself on the second goal, where Canada’s press even rewarded their team with a goal, as well as in other moments in the game, where the midfielders were getting stuck in, and the defenders were making crucial blocks. 

Plus, the fact that they were doing that against a top team in England has to be a bonus, as well, giving them belief that they can play like this against top sides on a consistent basis. 

As Canada continues to figure out their offensive game, they’re going to need to keep on seeing this sort of defensive play game-in-game out, but based on the first 5 games of the Priestman era, they so far seem able to keep this up. 

“I mean that’s my job right, so it makes me really happy to know we’re not conceding goals against a great opposition today,” Canadian defender Shelina Zadorsky said after the game. “So credit to everyone on the field, because it’s not just the backline, it’s how our press works, it’s how our forwards do it as well, so I think it’s a whole team effort.”

“But yeah, particularly for me, it makes me really happy and proud that we’re able to keep clean sheets, and like I said we want to keep that a consistent theme, and keep Canada that strong defensive team, but now with the attacking flair as well.”

Canada’s two centre backs, Vanessa Gilles and Shelina Zadorsky, exchange a high five versus England (Will Palmer/Canada Soccer)

More stiff tests ahead? 

Now, it’ll be interesting to see what Canada elect to do in the June window, as they have the option to either play a pair of friendlies against any opposition, or participate in a 3-match tournament against teams outside of Europe. 

Given their need to continue and test themselves against tier-one opposition, the former should actually be the priority, unless they’re able to secure a tournament with the likes of the US, Australia, Brazil or Japan, which might be difficult. 

Either way, be it if they play 2 or 3 matches, the goal has to be to at least play one tier-one opponent as a bare minimum, and if they can play more, that’s even better. 

This England game was a good chance for Canada to prove that they can compete at this summer’s Olympics, and they passed that first test, but they’ve got to make sure this isn’t their last tough opponent before getting thrown into the deep end in July. 

With other teams likely to be in a similar boat as them, at least in terms of their need to find top opposition to play against to prepare for the Olympics (or World Cup qualifiers in the fall, in the case of some), hopefully that quest doesn’t prove to be too difficult. 

Looking Forward:

But for now, Canada will look to savour this result before looking ahead to June, as their players will all head back to their club teams to either wrap up their seasons, or jumpstart them, depending on where they are in the world. 

It’s going to be a huge next few months for Canada, so it’ll be good to see these players continue to test themselves against the best at their clubs, which is the case for most of these players. 

With the days quickly dwindling before this team will have to take the pitch in Tokyo for their opening game, any opportunity to differentiate themselves at the club level could prove to be massive for some of these players heading into those last Canadian camps ahead of the big dance. 

As we’ve seen from this camp, and more specifically, this England game, roster competition remains fierce, so it’ll be interesting to see who steps up in the face of this pressure. 

From a team standpoint, however, Canada has to be happy with their play these 2 games, as they showed that they’ve got what it takes to be a threat this summer. 

There remains plenty of work to still be done, especially as Priestman continues to settle in as head coach, but from what we’ve seen so far, she’s passed the first few tests with flying colours, with this win over England being the latest example of that.

Cover Photo via: Will Palmer/Canada Soccer 

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