Priestman says Gold Cup will be crucial for Canadian Olympic soccer team selection
With the Paris Olympics less than eight months away, Canada coach Bev Priestman has roster decisions to make.
And she expects more than a few players to put up their hand at the inaugural CONCACAF W Gold Cup, which opens in February in the United States.
On Monday night, Priestman and the 10th-ranked Canadians were drawn with No. 43 Costa Rica, No. 49 Paraguay and either No. 83 Guatemala or No. 115 El Salvador in Group C in Houston.
"The Gold Cup's going to be critical in assessing the roster and trying to move towards what feels like an impossible task (in selecting the Olympic squad) … You'd like to think that some players will get some really good minutes to really put their best foot forward," Priestman said from Zurich on Tuesday.
"Now we're really narrowing in on 'OK, well anybody who comes into (camp) in 2024 has a real shot at making an Olympic games." she added. "I'm not sure there's many more players, in terms of new faces, that you'll see coming in. Now it will be which of the new faces that we brought in put their best foot forward to move towards the Olympics."
Priestman says the hope is, "without underselling the (initial) opposition that we have," to manage the group stage with more competitive matches awaiting in the knockout rounds.
The Gold Cup also offers the test of tournament football, with tight turnarounds.
The Olympic roster is a "fluid" 22 players, Priestman said. It was 18 players with four alternates and then, during COVID, 22 players with four not dressing for games.
She said she is awaiting final word on whether all 22 will dress in Paris.
The roster for the Gold Cup is 23 with Priestman hoping to bring in a few on the trip as training players.
Players like 20-year-old midfielder Simi Awujo (nine caps) and defender Jade Rose (13 caps) and 19-year-old midfielder-forward Olivia Smith (four caps) have already impressed.
Awujo, who plays for the USC Trojans, started in the 5-0 win over Australia earlier this month in Langford, B.C., and did not look out of place. Rose (Harvard) started both the Langford and Vancouver games against the Matildas, lining up in a back three with Kadeisha Buchanan and Vanessa Gilles for a pair of shutouts.
Smith, who signed with Portugal's Sporting CPin July, did not see action against Australia after picking up a knock.
The Gold Cup will likely also give veteran players like Janine Beckie and Desiree Scott a chance to prove their fitness after long injury layoffs.
Priestman hopes to keep her team as busy as possible ahead of the Olympics, whose football competition runs July 24 to Aug. 10.
"We hope to be active in every (FIFA international) window," she said.
She says opposition for the April window has already been "firmed up" but not yet announced. Canada Soccer hopes to "ideally" stage home games in the May-June window with a preparation camp in France with some games on the eve of the Olympics.
Priestman says, in hindsight, the Olympic champion Canadians were "undercooked in terms of fixtures," going into this summer World Cup in part because of a SheBelieves Cup campaign earlier in the year that was disrupted by ongoing labour talks.
She hopes to hold a camp for NWSL and NCAA players immediately ahead of the Gold Cup given they will be in their pre-season.
The 15-team tournament starts Feb. 17 with a preliminary round in Carson, Calif., with No. 52 Haiti facing No. 103 Puerto Rico, No. 85 Guyana meeting the No. 106 Dominican Republic and Guatemala taking on El Salvador.
The three winners advance to the main field's group stage for round-robin play Feb. 20-28.
Canada will be based out of Houston with games Feb. 22, 25 and 28 against El Salvador or Guatemala, Paraguay and Costa Rica, respectively.
Group A features the third-ranked U.S., No. 31 Argentina, No. 36 Mexico and either Guyana and the Dominican Republic, while Group B consists of No. 9 Brazil, No. 22 Colombia, No. 55 Panama and either Haiti or Puerto Rico.
The Canadian women have won all 15 previous meetings with Costa Rica and all three games with Guatemala. They have never faced El Salvador or Paraguay, which finished fourth in the 2022 Women's Copa America.
The group winners, runners-up and two best third-place finishers advance to the tournament's quarterfinals.
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This report by The Canadian Press was first published Dec. 12, 2023.