With a new identity, Canada clinch Paris 2024 Olympic berth in women’s soccer

TORONTO, ON – Canada’s women’s national team is entering a new era, but it’s one that began by getting them back to a previous destination.

On Tuesday, Canada, the defending Olympic gold medalists from Tokyo 2020,  punched their ticket to the Paris 2024 Games, securing a spot on the stage to defend their title with a 2-1 (4-1 on aggregate) victory over Jamaica.

They didn’t just qualify, however, but welcomed a new tactical era of the national team, developing an identity in a previously unused and untrained system.

“I knew when we left the World Cup that I needed to be braver like I was for the Olympics, bold, make some big calls,” head coach Bev Priestman said about making the shift in formation to a 3-4-2-1.

“If that moment wasn’t going to make me better, I don’t know what was. The minute I got out of the World Cup, I knew we needed to change something, and we’ve got to build and learn. This isn’t the only thing we’ll do, but we looked pretty good in it.”

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It’s not the first time Canada has clinched an Olympic berth in Canada — they did it in Vancouver in 2012 ahead of their first Olympic medal appearance at London 2012. Yet, doing it in front of a sell-out crowd of 29,212 was a first-time experience.

Coming off a dismal World Cup appearance in Australia, Canada appeared re-invigorated in the Olympic play-in through the first leg in Jamaica, a 2-0 victory, and throughout the second match en route to a 4-1 aggregate win.

“This team is better when they’re going after something, and I think ultimately we’re going after righting the wrong of that World Cup,”  Priestman said. “We’re going to go into that Olympics off the back of a bad World Cup, and we’ll come out swinging.”

While Canada started strong in the second leg, Nichelle Prince once again showed her qualities as Canada’s new number nine in the new 3-4-2-1 formation, as she linked up well with wingbacks Sydney Collins and Ashley Lawrence while also providing a holdup outlet for Adriana Leon to contribute.

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In the second half, Jordyn Huitema continued the momentum in the same position and thrived in the new system, grabbing Canada’s second goal within minutes of entering the match, finishing a cross from Lawrence.

Despite early Canadian chances from Prince and Cloe Lacasse, Jamaica found the first breakthrough off a direct free kick from Drew Spence as she curled her shot over the Canadian wall and to the right of goalkeeper Kailen Sheridan.

Still, Canada didn’t shy away as they have in the past.

“When you look at the World Cup, in those moments, the pressure [of conceding first] got to us for some reason.” Priestman said. “I could look at one hundred reasons why, but regardless, we put attention on the bounce back from tough moments and how we bounce back and regroup.”

Moments later, however, Canada got their two-goal aggregate advantage back, as Adriana Leon’s corner kick met the head of Cloé Laccase, who directed the ball into the goal.

Despite unnerving moments, the opening half continued to show the qualities Canada can showcase in the new setup. While Julia Grosso replaced Quinn (muscle tightness) in the starting XI, the midfield duo of her and Jessie Fleming allowed Canada’s forwards to play with their backs to goal and use the midfield as part of a delayed buildup.

At the same time, Fleming and Grosso could win second balls back when the forwards lost possession, as they did several times through the first 45 minutes.

Playing as an outside wingback, a more attacking role than her usual spot, Ashley Lawrence allowed Canada to be a threat from wide areas, as they were in the 50th minute when she sent in a cross to Huitma, who finished to put Canada in the lead.

New identity, lessons, more critical than qualification

Since Canada stood atop the podium at Tokyo 2020, the team had struggled to find an identity, let alone develop an attack that would stoke fear into an opponent of any quality. Canada not only clinched a Paris 2024 berth this window but did so with a new identity in their 3-4-2-1 formation on the ball and pseudo 4-4-2 off it.

Despite only having a few days to get up to speed before testing it in a match, it worked swiftly for Canada in the first leg, and that momentum carried over into the second match.

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Jade Rose, in particular, allowed Canada to take on the adjustment. At the same time, Vanessa Gilles and Kadeisha Buchanan tended to hold back but shift into more traditional centre-backs while in possession.

At the same time, wingbacks Lawrence and Collins settled into their roles, with Lawrence forgoing her tentativeness of attacking play that she’s had throughout her career. Meanwhile, Collins played her first meaningful minutes for the national team.

“She’s got legs; I’ve never seen anybody run as quick or as long as Sydney can run. she’s fearless, and I like that,” Priestman said. “I thought all the young players we had today were fearless… we haven’t got that long [until the Olympics], and I think the fearlessness of that and some really good experienced players I think is a great recipe to keep this team hungry and keep pushing.”

Priestman sent out a nearly unchanged starting lineup for the second leg,  and many of the characteristics continued, particularly in the second half when Lawrence made an overlapping run before sending in the cross for Huitema to finish.

The game also showcased how the new formation can help get the best out of whoever is playing in the outright attacking role. While Prince was the most dynamic on the evening, Huitema thrived in the outright striker role in her fifteen minutes. The aging Christine Sinclair even looked more threatening than she had in years, getting into high expected goals areas after entering in 61st minute.

“We’re really working towards [developing more identity] in the following year,” Leon said. “We’ve got new players, younger players coming in, and we’ve had some older players retire, and it’s something we’re going to have to work towards next year, re-identifying ourselves to show our best self.”

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While two games don’t define a team, settling into a new formation and taking on a frightening gamble might have saved Bev Priestman’s job, as missing the Olympics would likely have been it for her tenure. Meanwhile, the result brings fresh air to the program and positivity heading into Paris 2024.

Defending a gold medal is a challenging task, and Canada will be in tough to do so. Still, the learnings and developments through the Olympic play-in will prove even more beneficial than the result, allowing Canada to enter a new tactical era.

“Momentum is built day by day and how hard we train in our [club] environments as well,” centreback Shelina Zadorsky said. “What’s special about this team is we all want to be here, and we’re fighting to be here, pushing each other. We can’t get too high in the highs and too low in the lows, but I’m not going to lie; I’m going to celebrate this one tonight.”

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