Even with the world around us in flux, few years have been more memorable for Canadian soccer than 2021.
As the year comes to a close, Canada’s women’s national team (CanWNT) finishes it as Olympic gold medalists, while the men sit on the precipice of a trip to the World Cup for only the second time ever.
Let’s take a look back at Canada’s year that was in the beautiful game.
February 18 – Playing in their first competitive game in over a year and first under new manager Bev Priestman, the CanWNT returned to the pitch in the opening match of the 2021 SheBelieves Cup in Orlando as they took on the archrival United States. As they have for most of the rivalry between the two countries, the USWNT team got the better of Canada in Florida with a 79th-minute Rose Lavelle goal handing the hosts a 1-0 victory.
February 21 – The CanWNT grabbed its first victory since Feb. 7, 2020 in dramatic fashion in the second match of the tournament. Playing to a scoreless draw into injury time against Argentina, Toronto’s Sarah Stratigakis picked a fine time to score her first international goal, giving Canada a late 1-0 victory.
February 23 – Playing for the runners-up position in the round-robin tournament behind the USWNT, Canada would have to settle for third spot at the SheBelieves after a 2-0 loss to Brazil on goals from Debinha and Julia Bianchi. It would not be the final time these two sides met in 2021.
March 25 – The CanMNT made their return to action after over a year, also in Orlando, as they opened up the first round of CONCACAF World Cup qualifying against minnows Bermuda. An upset wasn’t in the cards for John Herdman’s side as a Cyle Larin hat-trick propelled Canada to a comfortable 5-1 victory.
March 29 – The Cayman Islands were the victim of an offensive explosion for CanMNT in their second match of the first round. Seven different players found the back of the net, including a Vancouver Whitecaps forward Lucas Cavallini scoring a hat-trick, as Canada romped to an 11-0 thrashing. The margin of victory was the largest ever recorded for Canada’s men.
April 9 – In the first of four friendlies ahead of the Tokyo Olympics, the CanWNT took on Wales in Cardiff. Goals from Deanne Rose, Evelyne Viens and Jessie Fleming gave Canada a 3-0 victory.
April 13 – The CanWNT would make it two for two in the United Kingdom. Taking on England at Stoke City’s Britannia Stadium, an early goal from Viens followed by a late marker from Nichelle Prince gave Canada a 2-0 win.
May 8 – Alphonso Davies and Bayern Munich captured their ninth straight Bundesliga title without even taking to the field. A 3-2 win by Borussia Dortmund over RB Leipzig made Bayern the German champions yet again. Just for good measure, Bayern would go on to hammer Borussia Monchengladbach 6-0 later that Saturday. The trophy was Davies’s 10th since arriving in Germany in 2019.
May 9 – With a 5-0 rout of Reading on the season’s final day, Jessie Fleming and the Chelsea Women captured their fourth Women’s Super League title in six seasons, edging Janine Beckie and Manchester City by just two points. The Blues also captured the 2021 Women’s FA Cup and League Cup, giving Emma Hayes’s team a domestic treble.
May 15 – It couldn’t have gotten any tighter in the Turkish Super Lig. Cyle Larin and captain Atiba Hutchinson’s Besiktas defeated midtable Goztepe 2-1 on the final matchday of the season. The victory put Besiktas on 84 points, level with archrivals Galatasaray, but their superior goal difference (+45 to +44) was enough to claim the championship. It was a first title for Larin and the third for Hutchinson. Besiktas were also Turkish Cup champions in 2021.
May 23 – Jonathan David’s first season in France would end with a Ligue 1 crown. Lille defeated Angers 2-1 on the final day of the season to beat Paris Saint-Germain by a single point and claim its first French top-flight championship in a decade. David finished his maiden Ligue 1 campaign with 13 league goals.
June 4 – While they might not have won the men’s title, Ashley Lawrence, Jordyn Huitema and the rest of Paris Saint-Germain Féminine won their first Division 1 Féminine championship with a 3-0 victory over Dijon. PSG’s win ended Lyon’s remarkable run of 14 straight titles.
June 5 – If Canada’s first two matches of CONCACAF qualifying weren’t enough to confirm that they were considerably better than the other four teams in their group, their remaining fixtures in June proved that point. In Bradenton, FL, Canada hammered Aruba 7-0 to stay perfect. Cavallini stayed hot, bagging a brace to make it five goals in his last two games.
June 8 – It was the David show outside of Chicago in Canada’s final game of first-round action. The CanMNT eased to a 4-0 win over Suriname on a second-half hat-trick from the Lille man. Canada finished the first round with 26 goals and only one against. Job done for now, but the real work was set to begin only a few short days later.
June 11 and 14 – The CanWNT’s final tune-ups before Tokyo were inauspicious at best. Canada played to a pair of lacklustre 0-0 draws in Spain against the Czech Republic and Brazil. If Canada wanted to medal for a third straight Olympic Games, they were going to need to be considerably better.
June 12 – Now into the second round of CONCACAF qualifying, Canada would once again find itself on the doorstep of the final round of qualifying, colloquially known as “The Hex.” To get there, the CanMNT would have to overcome Haiti in a two-legged tie with the first match played away. In Port-au-Prince, a first-half goal from Larin gave the CanMNT a 1-0 victory over Haiti and a crucial away goal.
June 15 – Returning to Illinois, Canada would also win the home leg with ease. An own-goal and two late markers from Larin and Junior Hoilett gave Canada a 3-0 win and passage into the Hex, something that had eluded Canada in the past. Spirits were buoyed heading into the Gold Cup.
July 2 – Ahead of the Gold Cup, Canada landed an impressive commitment. Citing how welcome and wanted Herdman and his staff had made him feel, Toronto FC striker Ayo Akinola announced his international future was committed to the CanMNT. Born in Detroit, but raised in Brampton, Ont., Akinola had previously played for the United States at youth levels and even scored in his lone appearance for the senior USMNT. On top of choosing Canada over the U.S., Akinola also rejected interest from Nigeria, for whom he could have played for through his heritage.
July 7 – One of Canada’s greatest ever players hung up her cleats. Diana Matheson announced her retirement at the age of 37. Capped 206 times by the CanWNT, Matheson went to three World Cups and three Olympic Games. Of her 19 international goals, none was more famous than the one she scored against France in the bronze-medal game at London 2012.
July 11 – Canada’s Gold Cup campaign got underway in Kansas City with a game against lowly Martinique. Not expecting any problems, the CanMNT found themselves shockingly behind after only 10 minutes. The situation was rectified in short order with Larin evening matters in the 16th before two more first-half goals from Jonathan Osorio and Stephen Eustaquio helped Canada ease to a comfortable 4-1 victory.
July 15 – After having already met twice in CONCACAF qualifying, Canada again took on Haiti in their second match of the Gold Cup. This time, Canada got on the board in a hurry with a fifth-minute marker from Eustaquio. Larin made it 2-0 in the 51st before Haiti struck back just five minutes later through Stephane Lambese. Before Haiti could mount a comeback, penalties from Larin and Hoilett helped the CanMNT earn a 4-1 victory.
July 18 – As is the case at seemingly every Gold Cup, the road always goes through the USMNT at some point. For Canada this year, it was in the group stage. Still in Kansas City, the CanMNT took on the team they had beaten only once since 1985 and found a very familiar kind of frustration. While they were able to bounce back from an early goal down against Martinique, there would be no digging out from the hole that was Shaq Moore’s first-minute goal as the USMNT team held on for the 1-0 win. But two wins in the group stage was enough to advance to the quarterfinals.
July 21 – The Olympics couldn’t have gotten off to a better start for Canada’s women. Just six minutes into their opening match against hosts Japan, the icon Christine Sinclair opened her Tokyo account. For football’s all-time leading international scorer, it was her 188th career goal. But the hosts would fight back late through Mana Iwabuchi as Canada and Japan played to a 1-1 draw.
July 24 – City’s Beckie would play the starring role in Olympic Matchday 2 in Sapporo. The 27-year-old striker scored on both sides of the half to give Canada a 2-1 victory over Chile to help cement a spot in the knockout round.
July 25 – Canada’s opponents in the quarters of the Gold Cup would be another Hex rival in Costa Rica as the action relocated to Arlington, TX. In the 18th minute, Hoilett beat the offside trap to latch on to Eustaquio’s service and loop the ball over an onrushing Esteban Alvarado to give the CanMNT a 1-0 lead. Eustaquio put the game to bed in the 68th, pouncing on a defensive mistake to beat Alvarado and give Canada a 2-0 victory.
July 27 – For much of the final match of Group E action, it appeared that Canada would be heading into the knockout round as group winners. A 55th-minute goal from West Ham’s Adriana Leon gave Canada a 1-0 lead over Great Britain and things were going smoothly until a Prince own-goal in the 85th earned a draw for the Brits. Splitting the points meant that Great Britain would pip Canada for top spot in the group and put the CanWNT in the more difficult side of the bracket. If Canada wanted to medal for a third straight Summer Olympics, they were going to have to earn it.
July 29 – Just as a date with the USMNT is a fixture at the Gold Cup, so is one with El Tri. Canada met Mexico in front of a partisan crowd in Houston with a trip to the final on the line and heartbreak was in store. Mexico opened the scoring in first-half stoppage. Doneil Henry’s tackle on Jesus Corona was late and El Tri was awarded a penalty. Orbelin Pineda stepped up to the spot and fooled Maxime Crepeau to give El Tri a 1-0 lead heading into half-time. But Canada would fight back and were rewarded for it early in second-half action. Tajon Buchanan, dangerous for much of the second half, latched on to a Mark-Anthony Kaye ball down the wing, cut inside the area and beat Jesus Gallardo with a low drive to even matters at 1-1. They stayed that way well into second-half stoppage. Only minutes after Crepeau robbed Rodolfo Pizarro from close range, the Inter Miami man would have his revenge in the 99th. Pizarro’s pass to the top of the box was met by Hector Herrera, whose low shot got between two Canada defenders and past Crepeau to give El Tri the 2-1 victory and end the CanMNT’s Gold Cup campaign.
July 30 – For the third time in 2021, Canada would face off with Brazil, but this time the stakes were considerably higher as a spot in the Tokyo semi-finals were on the line. Just like in their friendly the previous month in Cartagena, no quarter was given between the two sides. After 120 minutes solved nothing, the match went to spot kicks with a pair of legends starting things off for each time. While Sinclair was unable to score her penalty, Marta buried hers to give Brazil an early lead. But like she would later on in the tournament, goalkeeper Stephanie Labbe had something to say. With penalties tied 3-3, Labbe dived to her left to deny Andressa and give Canada the chance to go ahead for the first time. The CanWNT would do just that as Vanessa Gilles converted her effort to make it 4-3. Rafaelle would have the chance to send the game into sudden-death kicks, but she didn’t learn anything from Andressa’s attempt. She also sent Labbe to her left and once again the Edmonton native was up to the task, parrying away the ball with a diving stop that sent Canada into the final four for a third straight time.
August 2 – If there’s an inevitability in women’s football over the past 25 years, it’s the USWNT. To reach the Olympic gold-medal match, Canada would have to get past their juggernaut archrival and exorcize the demons of the crushing 2012 loss at this same stage in London. Canada was the better of the two teams in the first half with a Prince header from a corner going just wide in the 33rd. The introduction of Carli Lloyd in the second half opened things up for the USWNT and she forced a fine save from Labbe on a looping effort in the 65th. Minutes later, Labbe made another smart stop, this time on a Julie Ertz header that appeared primed to sneak under the bar. In the 75th, Canada would find a breakthrough. As Rose chased down a ball into the USWNT area, she was bodied off of it by defender Tierna Davidson with the referee pointing to the spot. Fleming stepped up and hammered past a diving Adrianna Franch to give Canada a 1-0 lead. The Americans then tried everything they could for an equalizer. A powerful header by Lloyd in the 86th was palmed over the bar by Labbe, but that was as close as the USWNT would come as Canada held on for the win and the chance to play for a gold medal.
August 6 – As strange as it might sound, there was a real chance for a letdown for the CanWNT in the gold-medal match against Sweden after coming off of the emotional high of a rare victory against the USWNT. A sluggish start in the first half against the Swedes did little to assuage those fears. After a fine save by Labbe in the 29th, Sweden would get a deserved lead in the 34th. A cross from Kosovare Asllani was met in the middle of the area by Stina Blackstenius and her shot made it through the legs of Gilles and past Labbe for the 1-0 lead. But Canada would be undeterred. In the 64th, Fleming sent a ball into the area for Sinclair. As she attempted to meet the pass, a knee from Amanda Ilestedt took Sinclair to the ground. While no penalty was initially given on the play, VAR called down to the referee to have a look at the replay. Upon further review, Anastasia Pustovoitova pointed to the spot. Like she did against the U.S., it was Chelsea’s Fleming who stepped up to take the penalty, going dead centre to beat Hedvig Lindahl and even things at 1-1 in the 68th. The remaining 52 minutes of play solved nothing and like they were against Brazil, Canada was once again forced into penalties, this time with a gold medal on the line. Asllani opened up the spot kicks by clanging off the post, handing Canada an early advantage. After Fleming had scored and Nathalie Bjorn tied things at 1-1, Lawrence was denied by Lindahl. Sweden would take their first lead at 2-1 through Olivia Schough before Gilles rang her effort off of the crossbar. With Canada’s backs up against the wall, the legend of Labbe grew. Diving to her right, Labbe stopped Anna Anvegard’s penalty to give her teammates the chance to equalize. But Lindahl was no slouch, either, diving to her right to stop Leon and maintain Sweden’s advantage. With the chance to plunge the dagger into Canada’s golden dreams, captain Sara Seger skied her shot well over the bar to give the CanWNT a lifeline and it was gladly accepted by Rose, who tied things at 2-2 with a perfectly taken penalty. Now into sudden death, Jonna Andersson looked to put Sweden back on top. Going low to the right, Andersson’s effort was met by a diving Labbe to keep it out and give Canada the chance to strike gold. The chance fell on the shoulders of Vancouver’s Julia Grosso. After a quick stutter step, the 20-year-old midfielder’s low, driving effort handcuffed Lindahl and popped into the back of the net to send Canada into delirium. The gold medal was the first ever for Canada’s women and the first for Canada since 1904. With the victory, veteran midfielder Quinn also made history by becoming the first out, non-binary and transgender athlete to win an Olympic medal.
Sept. 2 – Canada would open up Hex action at home at Toronto’s BMO Field with a foe who evoked bad memories of nearly a decade ago in Honduras. In October of 2012, the CanMNT headed to San Pedro Sula knowing that a draw would be enough to reach the Hex ahead of the 2014 World Cup in Brazil. Instead of a draw in Honduras, Canada found embarrassment. The CanMNT was shellacked 8-1 with their World Cup dream snuffed out in humiliating fashion. On that late summer night in Toronto, Canada would finally get their draw with Honduras. After Alex Lopez opened the scoring on a penalty late in the first half, Larin equalized on a penalty of his own in the second 45 to earn Canada a 1-1 draw and start the Hex with a point.
Sept. 5 – The second match of the Hex was one circled on the CanMNT calendar as one of its most difficult trips – away to the USMNT. Gregg Berhalter’s side chose Nashville as the venue and Canada was ready to answer their host’s challenge. Larin should probably have opened the scoring in the 17th. Davies ran down the left side and in on goal, cutting back for the Besiktas man, but his tame effort was palmed away by Matt Turner. Like they did at the Gold Cup, the US would get on the board first. Brendan Aaronson finished a fine team move, poking home from Antonee Robinson’s cross to give the USMNT a 1-0 lead in the 55th. Minutes later, Davies would hook up with Larin again, but there would be a different result this time. A marauding Davies got in behind DeAndre Yedlin and into the area, sliding the ball across the face of goal to an unmarked Larin for the easy tap-in to pull even at 1-1 in the 62nd. The match would finish on that scoreline to make it two points from two matches for Canada.
Sept. 8 – Back at the friendly confines of BMO Field, Canada knew that not losing wasn’t enough – it needed to pick up some wins. Their match with El Salvador in Toronto couldn’t have started any better. After quick passes from Hoilett and Jonathan Osorio, Richie Laryea spun around his marker and fired a pass across the face of goal that was met by Hutchinson to open the scoring in the sixth minute. Canada would double their advantage only minutes later. David met service from Buchanan with a deft header to make it 2-0 in the 11th. Buchanan rounded out the scoring in the 59th, finishing a give-and-go with David, who had forced a giveaway by a tentative defender, to give Canada its first victory of the Hex at 3-0.
Oct. 7 – Canada’s Hex campaign continued with a trip to one of world football’s great cathedrals – Mexico City’s Azteca – and a place that has historically not been kind to the CanMNT. The CanMNT headed into that early October match 0-6-1 all-time at the Azteca, having been outscored 16-0 in their previous four matches in Mexico City. While history wasn’t trending in Canada’s favour, the team was nevertheless buoyed by recent results. In the 15th, Canada nearly struck first with Laryea forcing a fine save out of Guillermo Ochoa. It was the hosts who would draw first blood only minutes later. Hirving “Chucky” Lozano spotted the run of Jorge Sanchez, who got behind the Canada backline, and fed him a pass that was deftly knocked down by the Club America man before he beat Crepeau for a 1-0 lead. But Canada would answer back before halftime through a player who loves playing in Mexico. Davies threaded a fine pass between two defenders for Osorio, who dragged his low drive past a diving Ochoa for the equalizer in the 42nd. It was the second time Osorio had scored at the Azteca, having previously scored against America for TFC in the 2018 CONCACAF Champions League semi-finals. The match would finish at 1-1 with the CanMNT maintaining its undefeated record.
Oct. 10 – Getting a point in away games with both the USMNT and El Tri were good results for Canada’s Hex campaign, but a scoreless draw away in Jamaica felt like a letdown. Canada wasn’t without its chances, though. In the 15th, Davies pulled his shot just wide of the far post. Minutes later, Henry should have done better with a cross from Alistair Johnston and mistimed his hit over the bar. In the 60th, Liam Millar thought he had a sure goal, but Andre Blake got over to make a fine save on what appeared to be a tap-in. Canada remained undefeated with the draw, but would rue the missed chances.
Oct. 13 – In a return to BMO Field, the CanMNT once again fell into the bad habit that was a sore spot earlier in the year when it fell behind in the game’s opening minutes against Panama. In the fifth, Panama broke forward in a quick move with Michael Amir Murillo’s cross smartly poked home by Rolando Blackburn for a 1-0 lead. Canada would unleash a torrent of pressure over the next 20 minutes and were finally rewarded for it in the 28th. After playing hero on the opening goal, Murillo turned goat when he put the ball in his own net from a Davis corner to tie the game at 1-1. Even after finding the equalizer, Canada continued to be frustrated by Panama’s resolve. It took a piece of individual brilliance by talisman Davies to give Canada a lead. Sprinting downfield to latch onto a speculative long ball by David that he had no business of reaching and barely kept in play, the Bayern man used the run of Buchanan as a decoy, stepped around Fidel Escobar and beat Luis Mejia for one of the finest goals of the year in the 66th. With the pressure seemingly broken after taking the lead, Canada came back from more. A looping service from David was met by a Buchanan header to make it 3-1 in the 71st. Minutes later, Davies' deep cross into the box fell in between two Panama defenders who collided and allowed David to sneak in from behind and make it 4-1 in the 78th. The victory meant that Canada jumped Panama in the Hex standings.
Nov. 1 – Longtime CanWNT goalkeeper Karina LeBlanc stepped down from her role at CONCACAF to take over the reins as general manager of the Portland Thorns. LeBlanc, 41, spent a single season with the Thorns as a player in 2013. LeBlanc joined the National Women’s Soccer League side after former GM Gavin Wilkinson was placed on leave in the wake of sexual harassment and coercion allegations against former Thorns manager Paul Riley.
Nov. 4 – Herdman lands another impressive commitment for the CanMNT in the form of Genk striker and former England youth international Ike Ugbo. Born in London and a product of the Chelsea academy, Ugbo qualified to play for Canada through time spent in the Greater Toronto Area during his childhood. The commitment was a surprising one because only months earlier it appeared that Ugbo had decided to play for Nigeria, for whom he qualified through his parents.
Nov. 12 – If other countries use altitude to their advantage when it comes to scheduling international games, it only stands to reason that Canada should see its colder climate as an asset and that’s just what the CanMNT did. Canada’s qualifying campaign moved to Davies’ hometown of Edmonton and Commonwealth Stadium or, as it’s now known, the “Iceteca,” for a pair of games beginning with a visit from Costa Rica. The CanMNT almost opened the scoring in the 16th when a Eustaquio corner was headed off the bar by a Costa Rica defender. In the 54th, Buchanan almost scored with the spectacular. After forcing a turnover near midfield, Buchanan’s bicycle kick from a deflected Kaye cross went off the crossbar. Only minutes later, Canada would break the deadlock thanks to a Costa Rica misplay. Eustaquio’s cross into the area should have been easily handled by goalkeeper Leonel Moreira, but he fumbled it, allowing for David to score after a scramble to give Canada what would turn out to be the winning goal in a 1-0 victory in the 57th. Ugbo would come on as a late substitute to earn his first Canada cap.
Nov. 16 – Still in Edmonton for Canada’s final match of 2021, the CanMNT would give the program its biggest win since 1986 in an instant classic against El Tri. Like they were a month earlier at the Azteca, Canada wasn’t afraid to go toe to toe with the CONCACAF goliath on a frigid fall night in the City of Champions. After a back-and-forth opening 45, Canada struck in first-half stoppage. Disrupting a Mexico clearance, Johnston darted forward and let a shot go from distance. With the ball very cold and difficult to handle, Ochoa was only able to parry the ball away. Larin was fastest to the rebound and he beat Ochoa to send the crowd into jubilation. Only minutes into the second half, Canada was in dreamland. Eustaquio’s free kick into the area was expertly met by Larin who poked home past Ochoa for a 2-0 lead on the night. The goal celebration that followed is now infamous with Samuel Adekugbe throwing himself into a pile of snow near the touchline. For Larin, the brace gave him 14 international goals for 2021 and 22 goals in a Canada shirt, tying him with Dwayne De Rosario for most all-time. Larin hit the mark in just 44 appearances. The game, of course, was not over yet and Canada found itself on the back foot for much of the second half, sending Milan Borjan into action on a number of occasions. In the 90th, Mexico got on the board with a powerful header from Herrera. As Mexico frantically pressed for an equalizer, Borjan stood up to the task, robbing Sanchez with a goal-line save in stoppage. Canada would hold on for the victory and finish 2021 atop the Hex on 16 points.
Nov. 21 – For a fifth time, CF Montreal captured the Canadian Championship over archrivals and seven-time winners Toronto FC at Stade Saputo. Honduras forward Romell Quioto scored the match's lone goal in the 72nd minute to give Montreal the 1-0 victory. It was Montreal's second Voyageurs Cup in three years. The win puts 2015 finalists Montreal back in the CONCACAF Champions League.
Nov. 29 – LeBlanc would turn to an old teammate for the new head coach of the Thorns, naming Rhian Wilkinson to the post. Wilkinson, 39, was capped 181 times by Canada before her international retirement in 2017, the fourth most in team history. Like LeBlanc, she also spent one season with the Thorns as a player in 2015.
Nov. 30 – Three Canadian women finish in the top 10 of Ballon d’Or voting. Sinclair came in sixth place, followed by Lawrence in eighth and Fleming in ninth. Barcelona and Spain forward Alexia Putellas captured the honour.
Dec. 5 – Pacific FC captures its first-ever Canadian Premier League title, stunning Forge FC and their home fans at Tim Hortons Field in Hamilton with a 1-0 victory. Burnaby, BC's Alessandro Hojabrpour scored the only goal of the match in the 59th minute. With the victory, Pacific FC earns a spot in the 2022 CONCACAF League.
Dec. 6 – Olympic hero Grosso signs her first professional contract, joining Juventus. The Vancouver native spent the previous four seasons at Texas, following in the Big 12 footsteps of CanWNT teammates Beckie (Texas Tech), Lawrence and Buchanan (both West Virginia).
Dec. 10 – Six CanWNT players appear in The Guardian’s Top 100 footballers of 2021. PSG’s Lawrence topped the list at No. 13, followed by Sinclair (18), Buchanan (28), Fleming (38), Labbe (72) and Gilles (94). Putellas was named the top player of the year.
Dec. 22 – In The Guardian’s list of Top 100 male footballers of 2021, Davies lands at No. 42, slotting just behind Bayern teammate and Germany winger Serge Gnabry and ahead of Liverpool and Netherlands defender Virgil van Dijk. Davies was No. 23 on the 2020 list.
Dec. 23 – The CanMNT earn the FIFA honour of "Most Improved Side" of 2021, finishing the year at its highest-ever ranking of No. 40. Earning 130.32 over the year, Canada jumped 32 places over the course of 2021. Only once before - in 1996 - had Canada reached No. 40. Belgium finished the year as FIFA's No. 1 side.