Final Frontier: June friendlies important test for Bev Priestman and CanWNT ahead of tough Olympic decisions

Canada Soccer’s Women’s National Team will play a pair of friendlies in June, giving them valuable last-minute preparation time ahead of the Olympics this summer. Here’s some of what head coach Bev Priestman had to say ahead of these games, as she and her staff undergo their last preparations ahead of a big Olympic tournament for this Canadian team.  

The last push towards the Olympics awaits. 

With just under 2 months until Canada Soccer’s Women’s National Team will take the field against hosts Japan on July 21st to kick off the 2021 Tokyo Olympics, they’re really starting to ramp up their preparations now, as they’re heading to Spain for the latest leg of their long journey towards Tokyo. 

After a strong April camp, one where they beat 32nd-ranked Wales and 6th-ranked England by score lines of 3-0 and 2-0, respectively, they’re looking to build on the identity they’ve started to show under new head coach Bev Priestman, who has this Canadian team playing some pretty exciting soccer at the moment. 

Canada may have had a bit of a tough start to life under Priestman results-wise, losing 2 games out of 3 at She Believes Cup in February, but they had already started to show some positive flashes on the field then, which all came together quite nicely in April. 

So heading into these June friendlies, they’ll be hoping that they can take yet another step forward from what they showed in April, allowing them to hit the ground running at the Olympics in July. 

And that’s exciting for Canadian fans, as it shows the quick progress the team has been able to make under Priestman. 

When she was hired back in 2020, the goal was to be competitive at the Olympics, but at this rate, it’s realistic to imagine Canada being a medal threat if they keep up their current pace of growth. 

Despite that, however, it’s important not to put the cart before the horse, making these two friendlies against 27th-ranked Czech Republic and 7th-ranked Brazil huge in terms of helping them build off of what they showed last camp. 

The goal will be to win both games, of course, but the key will be to do so while showing what they did against Wales and England, where they appeared to have the credentials of a team that no one will want to face going forward. 

Plus, with so much still to be decided for Canada in terms of their final roster, that will hopefully only raise the level of which they’ll want to play at this camp, making it even more valuable in the grand scheme of things. 

2 tough tests await: 

So considering all of that, these pair of games appear to be perfect for Canada’s plans, as it’ll give them two stiff tests, helping them get to the sort of level that they’ll want to be at for July. 

First, they’ve got a plucky Czech Republic side, one who poses an interesting threat to Canada. 

The Czech Republic comes into this camp reeling a bit, having just missed out on qualifications to the 2022 Euros via a penalty shootout loss to Switzerland back in April. 

After battling to a 2-2 tie on aggregate across both legs, they were just unable to get the job done on spot-kicks, narrowly missing out on their first Euro qualification in their history. 

But considering the growth across the Women’s game in Europe over the past 5 years, that’s not a slight on the Czech’s, as that’s more reflective of how tough it is to make the 16-team pool for the Euros. 

Just to get an idea of the sort of talent they have at their disposal, it’s worth noting that of the squad the Czech’s called up in April, 8 of them play for Sparta Prague, who put up a heck of a fight this year in the Champions League, falling to French powerhouse’s PSG 5-3 in the Round of 16. 

So for Priestman, when asked about what to expect from this Czech Republic team in this camp, she said to watch out, as they appear to be a team that is better than what their FIFA ranking might suggest about them. 

“Yeah, to speak on the opponents, first, Czech Republic, they’re a very good side,” Priestman said during a video conference on Thursday. “I had the experience of playing them with England, it was a 3-2 game, it was an awful game to be quite honest, but they’re a good team, and not to be underestimated, they’re definitely a different style from the Brazilians, so that’ll give us another problem, we can’t take them lightly.”

After Canada gets through that game, though, as mentioned by Priestman there, a big test awaits them in the form of Brazil. 

And don’t be fooled by their 7th-place spot in the FIFA rankings, because even though Canada are fresh off beating 6th-ranked England, beating Brazil would arguably be a bigger coup at this stage of their journey. 

In their last 3 matches with Brazil, Canada have lost two of them and drawn one, and have been outscored 8-2 by their South American counterparts in those games. 

While they’ve struggled against most tier-one opposition, going on a winless run of over 2 years against top 10 teams until that win over England, Brazil has been a team that has particularly dominated them recently, and Canada will look to change that here. 

With a 2-0 loss to Brazil fresh in their memories from She Believes Cup, Canada will hope that with a stronger squad, they can finally change their fortunes this camp. 

“And then Brazil, I’m excited to play Brazil,” Priestman said. “Fingers crossed, with more of a stronger squad (than February), I think that’d be a great test for us. Brazil has done well, and I think it’d be a really good test to turn around from the Czech Republic, and then into Brazil, two different opponents turn around very quickly, similar to what we’ll face in the Olympics.”

But as Priestman made sure to caution there, it’ll be interesting to see where Canada will be at heading into that Brazil game, considering that they’ll have played the Czech Republic on a Friday, leaving them with only 2 days of rest before their clash with Brazil on Monday. 

That’s by design, as Canada wanted to emulate the short turnaround that they’ll face in the Olympics, where teams only get 2 days rest between games, but it certainly won’t be easy to take on a top 10 team in those circumstances. 

Alas, they’ll have to figure out how to do so for the Olympics, as they have 2 top 10 teams in their group in Japan and Great Britain, but it’s something to keep an eye on during this camp.  

Still figuring out the squad:

An advantage Canada might have for these two games, however? 

A big squad, as they’ve elected to bring 26 players to this camp, which is bigger than the usual 23 teams usually call-up for games like this, and is significantly larger than the 18-player group that Priestman will have to select for the Olympics. 

Obviously, with it being two friendlies, there will be the ability for mass substitutions and plenty of rotation, allowing Priestman to get one last good look at her squad depth before making her final decision ahead of the Olympics. 

But even then, might the decision to bring 26 players seem a bit much considering the roster trimming exercise that awaits her staff? 

According to Priestman, it’s something that she recognizes, but she’s doing so with a few factors on her mind. 

“I think it’s twofold,” Priestman explained. “The first one is a COVID reality, and with all of the testing that has to happen before a camp and all of the protocols if someone gets injured in camp, then it’s really difficult to get a quick replacement, and that’s definitely one consideration, just making sure we best equip the team.”

“Secondly, genuinely I didn’t bring anyone that it’s a dead certainty that they can’t go to the Olympic games, so I think for me, it’s really another opportunity to see this group, I have not had long at all in this role to be able to assess this group normally and have a 4-year cycle, so I’m giving myself and the country the best chance of picking the best 18 players who are in front of me by the end of this June camp.”

So with that in mind, what sort of rotation will we see from Canada in this camp?

Might they fully lean into the 26 players they have available, giving them all a balanced dose of minutes across the 2 games? Or will they try to fully emulate the reality of the Olympics, asking certain players to play heavy minutes while testing others in spot roles? 

From what it sounds like, it’ll be a bit of a balancing act, one that Priestman and her staff are looking to be on the right side of.

“Yeah, I think that’s part of the reality,” Priestman admitted. “I think that we did a good job I felt in April, so the unique part of these Olympics is that you get 5 subs, and I think that’s an x-factor, and I felt like in the April window we did a really good job of being really decisive and brave in those subs and in that case it paid off for us. So (we’re) approaching it a bit like the Olympics, where you might choose to use all 5 subs in a game, I think that’s the luxury of seeing players, seeing them long enough to be able to get a result and assess players, and that’s going to be the art and balance.”

“And at times you can see who can start a game, or who can start in this position, so those are all the lovely questions I’m asking myself, and this window will be about answering a few questions, but it can’t deter the overall squad morale and where we’re at on our journey, I just have to get that balance right.”

Final squad decision coming soon?

Canada’s Vanessa Gilles is one among many players fighting for a spot in the Canadian Olympic squad (Geraint Wyn Nicholas/Canada Soccer)

But despite that, Priestman is well aware of the looming squad decisions that she’ll have to make, as the Olympics is slowly creeping up on her team here. 

As mentioned earlier, she has to trim her squad down to 18 players, including 2 goalkeepers, leaving her with the perilous task of having to pick 16 of her best outfield players among a group of 22 from this camp, along with 2 goalkeepers among a group of 4 called up as well. 

She is allowed to have a few extra players as injury replacements at the Olympics if needed, so it’s not as if she’s completely trimming down the squad and then calling it a day, as she also has to decide who will travel to Tokyo with the possibility of not even seeing the field, but elsewhere, she has to pick a squad who will be able to handle heavy minutes in a short period of time. 

The possibility of 5 subs in games will help, as she alluded to, but otherwise, it’s going to be a fine margin of picking players who can handle lots of minutes and picking her best squad, something she’ll hope will have as much overlap as possible. 

And speaking of which, when might one expect Canada’s final squad to be released? 

From what Priestman had to say about it, it’s not far around the corner, giving Canadian fans something to look forward to after the camp. 

“Yes it will probably be within 10 days after this camp finishes,” Priestman admitted. “Definitely before the Olympics, I would like to go into preparation camp really clear and allowing the players that time to prepare and get their lives in order, that is a quick turnaround, so yeah I’d say probably in a 10-day window after this camp.”

Looking Forward: 

Until then, though, Canada will still have these two important games to play over in Spain, giving them valuable preparatory time ahead of this tough last sprint to the Olympics. 

In the best of years, it’s always a grind to get to the Olympics, but especially so in a COVID year, so the players and staff will be happy to take another big step towards the games with this camp. 

Hopefully, we can see a lot of what we saw in April, where Canada won both of their friendlies, looking quite convincing in the process, but at the very least, overall growth is going to be the main goal. 

Heading into a grind of an Olympic group where they’ll take on Japan, Chile and Great Britain, they’ll be looking to absorb as much of this valuable preparation time that they can, knowing the value that this camp can bring. 

So with that in mind, we’ll be keeping a close eye on this camp, seeing how this team reacts to this pressure, as their quest to climb the summit that is the Olympics continues.  

Up Next: Canada vs Czech Republic, Friday, June 11th, 8:00 PDT, 11:00 EDT (Estadio Cartagonova, Cartagena)

Cover Photo via: Geraint Wyn Nicholas/Canada Soccer

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