Tokyo-Bound: The CanWNT leans on blend of experience, youth in final Olympic squad reveal

Canada Soccer’s Women’s National Team revealed their 18-player squad for the 2021 Olympic Soccer tournament on Wednesday. Here is a look at the squad, along with some reaction from Canadian head coach Bev Priestman, as Canada gets set to head to Tokyo next month.

It’s snuck up on us quickly here, but it’s almost ‘go-time’. 

In exactly 4 weeks (28 days, to be exact), Canada Soccer’s Women’s National Team will take on Olympic hosts Japan in Sapporo, kicking off their 2021 five-ring journey.

5 years after the last Olympics, the last stretch of the marathon is finally here, as teams are getting set to undertake their final preparations for this tournament, which is one of the biggest on the sporting calendar for a reason. 

Having undergone a long process to get to this point, including a 365-day postponement due to the pandemic, it’s taken a little bit longer than usual to get here, but the moment is rapidly approaching. 

That became all the more real on Wednesday morning, as Canada released their 18-player squad for the Olympics, officially revealing their list of names that they’ll take into battle next month. 

As they look to medal for the 3rd consecutive Olympic tournament, having won back-to-back Bronze medals in London in 2012 and in Rio De Janeiro in 2016, they’ll be hoping that this group can replicate a similar feat this year in Tokyo. 

So heading into their last month of preparation ahead of their first game of the tournament, which comes on July 21st, here’s some reaction from the squad announcement, including some comments from Canadian head coach Bev Priestman. 

The squad:

First, it’s important to point out the 18-player group that is headed to the Olympics, as Canada is leaning on a unique mix of veteran names, some younger faces and a good chunk of players in their prime for this tournament. 

With the Olympic squad requirements being unnecessarily tight, with teams only allowed to bring 16 outfield players and 2 goalkeepers, there are also a lot of versatile players, which is important in a short tournament like this, where there are a lot of games in a short time span. 

Diving into some of the names, there are 4 players over the age of 30, which consists of the all-time top international goalscorer, Christine Sinclair, along with outfielders Allysha Chapman, Desiree Scott and goalkeeper Stephanie Labbe, as well as 2 players between the ages of 27 and 29, Adriana Leon and Shelina Zadorsky.

Otherwise, it’s a young group, as mentioned, with 12 players 26 or other, which are headlined by the other goalkeeper, Kailen Sheridan, and outfielders Janine Beckie, Nichelle Prince, Ashley Lawrence, Quinn, Kadeisha Buchanan, Vanessa Gilles and Evelyne Viens, along with 4 U23 players in Jessie Fleming, Jayde Riviere, Julia Grosso and Deanne Rose. 

It’s a strong group, one filled with good balance across the field, and most importantly, everyone’s coming into this one in good form for both club and country. 

“Yeah, I think probably the main thing for me is not to get caught up in the past or the future,” Priestman said in a press conference on Wednesday. “And what players can or could be. I think I needed to use my time in the role in the way that I want to play, and assess who’s performing now, because ultimately, we’re going to an Olympics, that’s happening in less than a month from now, and I wanted to pick players on form.”

She added: “But to do that, I had to trawl through footage, statistics, and try to get the right blend of experience and legs to get through a tournament, some youth as well, so just trying to get that blend right. Ultimately, what it came down to for me is changing the colour of the medal, and that’s the team I got to.”

But while a lot of attention was given to the 18 players named to the squad, and rightfully so, it’s important to note that they won’t be the only Canadian players included in this journey, as teams are able to bring along 4 alternates in their travelling party. 

They’ll only be able to feature if there’s an injury, but they’ll travel and train with the team, making them as important as any player in this group With the short rest between games, having fresh legs in training is huge, and it’s not unprecedented for teams being forced to turn to 1 or 2 alternates in the Olympics, making the alternates key to this process. 

For Canada, those 4 players will be goalkeeper, Erin McLeod, along with outfielders Jordyn Huitema, Sophie Schmidt and Gabrielle Carle, giving Canada a good mix of versatility, experience and players familiar with the program. 

With over 300 caps between McLeod and Schmidt alone, plus 50 caps between Huitema and Carle, who are only 20 and 22, respectively, there’s a blend of experience and hunger in this 4-player group, which should lend itself well to training. 

It wasn’t easy to leave any of these players out, as they’ve all put up good accounts of themselves for club and country this year, but with the Olympic squad requirements being as strict as they are, there were always going to be tough decisions, unfortunately.

By having this sort of depth, though, it’ll only help Canada’s preparation and readiness for the tournament, and most importantly, they have 4 players that they can trust if something were to go wrong. 

“I’ve picked a team that I think their average age by the end of the tournament will be 27, which is a great average age to go into a major tournament (with), but to have those alternates bring a massive amount of experience, they’ll lift and support a group of players, where it’s the first Olympics (for many), so that was critical,” Priestman said of her alternates. 

“I think I have to be able to trust whoever is in that alternate group to go on the pitch and perform and help us change the colour of the medal, so I couldn’t just pick them for other reasons. So experience, being able to trust them on a pitch, and to lift standards in training, and all of them will do that.”

Canada’s starting 11 from their last game ahead of the Olympic squad announcement, against Brazil (Canada Soccer/Gerard Franco)

Where are the goals?

But otherwise, the main storyline from looking at this squad? 

The attackers. 

Heading into this camp, Canada has been one of the stingiest teams in the world, keeping clean sheets in 4 consecutive games, only giving up 3 goals in 7 games this year, but they’ve struggled offensively, only scoring 6 goals in that time span, and are fresh off of being shut out in 2 games in June. 

So because of that, it’s no surprise to see that Canada has only called up 6 defenders but have brought 6 forwards, as they’ll look to rely on a multitude of options to try and solve their offensive woes. 

Led by Sinclair, Canada has some capable names up front, but for whatever reason, goals have been hard to come by, much to the frustration of many. 

The good thing is that they create chances, so it’s not as if they’re not threatening their opponents’ goal, but they just need to find a way to turn those attempts into goals. 

By bringing 6 forwards, though, Canada should be able to rotate their forward options quite often, allowing them to be aggressive in their pursuit of goals. And with 5 subs, they can also theoretically even sub on an entire forward line, if needed, something that they did to much success in their most successful pair of games under Priestman, 3-0 and 2-0 wins against Wales and England, respectively, back in April. 

Because of all of that, Priestman believes that this group of attackers has what it takes to reverse their fortunes in that area of their game, as she made sure to highlight their importance to the team in her availability. 

“The forward line, it will be our X-factor, and I felt that in the England series,” Priestman explained. “We get 5 subs, which is new to the Olympic games, and I think I had that in my mind when I have to make changes and you look down the bench in a big moment, you want to be able to say that what I’m putting on is dangerous, and it’s going to change the game, and I think that the way I want to play and the way we need to play based on our strengths, I think the forward line is critical to that.”

Otherwise, a big part of Canada’s game plan will be to rely upon the steady trio of Quinn, Fleming and Scott in midfield, which along with attacking full backs such as Riviere and Lawrence, should give Canada plenty of ball progression from deep areas. 

Along with the likes of Beckie, Prince, Rose, Leon and Viens all joining Sinclair up front, it should give Canada more than enough firepower to create chances, so from there, it will be all about being clinical with those opportunities in key moments. 

In tournaments, defence wins games, but goals are still vital to that process, and Canada will be hoping that this group strikes the right balance for them in order to find that winning formula.

Last preparations:

Plus, it’s not as if Canada will head into the Olympics cold, as they still have to go through their final preparatory camp, which will get underway next week, as confirmed by Priestman.

Starting with a 10-day training stint in Los Angeles, before heading to Japan to play a friendly game against a tier one team, Canada is hoping to have 3 good weeks of training with this 18 player squad plus alternates, helping them work through various kinks, such as their finishing woes. 

Along with the 7 games that they played so far in 2021, including the 4 that they’ve played against tier-one opposition, that should hopefully give them the preparation time that they need to head into these games in top form. 

Obviously, they’d like as much preparation time as possible, especially considering that Priestman has only been on the job for less than a year, but with the pandemic, most teams are in a similar boat, so that’s not something unique to Canada. 

So while this Canadian team isn’t necessarily at the level they want to be at quite yet, they’re quite close, and this preparatory camp will play a big role in making sure that they do what it takes in order to put their best foot forward in their quest to change the colour of their medal from the last two Olympics. 

“Yeah I think Canada Soccer have done a great job of supporting myself and the team, and getting us every preparation that we need,” Priestman said. ‘If you’re asking me if I do feel the most prepared that I could, I would’ve liked 4 years going into this event, as I think it’s been a bit of a sprint as a head coach, even when it comes to making roster decisions I’ve had players who haven’t been available, injuries, all sorts of factors, but a lot of other coaches have had that too.”

“So I’m really excited to touch down in LA in the preparation camp, where you’ve got a small squad, you can really start to hone in on partnerships and some of the little details that make some of the best players better.”

Looking Forward:

So now, Canada’s players will have one last week of time with their clubs (or on vacation) before relocating to Los Angeles, where their Olympic journey will get underway. 

With only 4 weeks to go before the tournament, that will then be the beginning of a sprint that will lead right into Sapporo on July 21st, with a hoped end destination of Tokyo for the Gold Medal match on the 6th of August. 

And as seen with this squad announcement, there’s no reason why Canada shouldn’t believe that they’ll be able to make it that far, so they’ll look to start taking the steps towards making that possible beginning with this preparatory camp. 

As they look to win their first-ever major international tournament, it’s going to be one heck of a quest, but they feel that they’ve got what it takes, and based on what we’ve seen from them, there’s no reason for them to feel otherwise. 

There’s still work to be done if they want to make it happen, especially after their last camp, but with their Olympic squad now in place, the hard work for that starts now. 

Cover Photo via: Canada Soccer/Gerard Franco

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