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Canada aims to bounce back from World Cup disappointment by booking Olympic spot

Canada soccer Ashley Lawrence - The Canadian Press

Almost two months after suffering an early exit at the World Cup, the Canadian women’s soccer team must quickly regroup to earn a shot at defending Olympic gold.

Canada is preparing for a two-game CONCACAF W Olympic Play-In series against Jamaica. The first leg takes place Friday in Kingston, Jamaica, before the Canadians host the Reggae Girlz at BMO Field in Toronto on Tuesday.

The winner on aggregate will secure a berth in next year’s Paris Games. This is the final chance for Olympic qualification for both nations.

“We have to earn the right to be in Paris ‘24. That's the No. 1 objective,” head coach Bev Priestman told the media last week.

The winner of the playoff will also qualify for next year’s CONCACAF W Gold Cup, while the loser will enter the Road to CONCACAF W Gold Cup tournament next month to earn qualification.

How did Canada get here?

Canada qualified for this playoff series by finishing second at the 2022 CONCACAF W Championship. The tournament, which also served as qualifiers for the 2023 World Cup, gave an automatic Olympic berth to the winner. The United States beat Canada 1-0 in the final to win the championship and secure a spot in next year’s Paris Games, as well as the 2024 Gold Cup.

Jamaica finished third in the tournament, defeating Costa Rica 1-0 in extra time of the third-place match on a goal in the 102nd minute by Kiki Van Zanten.

Canada’s quest for redemption

Canada, the reigning Olympic gold medallists, is coming off a disappointing World Cup performance this past summer, as the team failed to advance to the knockout round for the first time since 2011.

After a 0-0 draw in their opening match against Nigeria, the Canadians battled from behind to earn a 2-1 win over the Republic of Ireland. Canada just needed a point in their final group stage game against the hosts, Australia, to move on to the round of 16.

But the Matildas dominated the match, bolstered by the fans in Melbourne, and came away with a 4-0 victory and top spot in Group B.

“I think it was maybe a lack of focus,” forward Nichelle Prince told TSN last week. “There was a level that we brought to the Olympics that was just, ‘We're not going to lose. Doesn't matter if it's ugly, doesn't matter if it's in PKs. Whatever it is, we're going to find a way.’ And I think that maybe, in this tournament, we didn't have that.”

The early exit dropped the Canadians to tenth in the FIFA rankings after entering the World Cup as the seventh-best team in the world.

Canada held a reset meeting following the tournament, where players and staff had an open dialogue about changes the group needed to make. Priestman said she also spoke individually with every player.

“I don't want to shy away from performances, tactics, selections – all of those things that go into either doing well or not,” Priestman said. “But I do think a huge component, particularly of that last game, was the mental-performance space and having the team ready, focused, and able to go.”

Following the World Cup, Priestman took some time to travel to Fiji, but her five-day getaway didn’t lessen the sting.

“It doesn't matter where you are in the world – I could have been in my office – it still sucked,” she said. “Like the players, I’ve poured every ounce of me into this team and preparing this team for the World Cup. And we came up short. Some of that's because of me. Some of that's because of the players. Some of that's just football.”

Priestman also wonders if the Olympic crown weighed on the team, even though many players were vocal about not getting respect on the world stage before the World Cup.

“I think when you're labelled an Olympic champion, that brings pressure, and I think that can affect belief, because this team haven't had to deal with that level of pressure before,” Priestman told TSN. “And so, when those moments didn't go as smoothly as maybe what we would have liked to have seen in critical moments. We crumbled at times, and that's something we need to unpack and really deal with.”

Lessons learned

Priestman told reporters she immediately got back to work once she returned home to Vancouver and focused on how to improve the team for the upcoming Olympic qualifiers. One of her key takeaways from the World Cup was the need to focus on defensive breakdowns.

The Canadians kept one clean sheet in three games at this summer’s tournament, and their 4-0 loss to Australia was their worst at a World Cup since 2011, when France defeated them by the same score. This year, Canada has allowed 12 goals in eight games. In 2022, they surrendered nine goals in 17 matches.

“Canada doesn't concede, and 2023 has been the year of conceding. I think that's the first thing that we absolutely have to reset,” Priestman said.

At the other end of the pitch, another challenge looms with Jamaica’s defensive block. Canada’s scoring struggles have been well-documented over the past few years, including at this past World Cup, where the team managed two goals in three games – both coming in the win against Ireland.

“As a frontline, we just have to be gritty in the box,” Prince said. “It's just taking our chances more… We all know that we can score goals, and we can create. So, it's just being ruthless.”

Priestman points out that while Canada is creating a high number of chances, the quality and the amount on target is lacking.

“We've typically been better against more open teams because of our pace, our transition, and just the way that we play,” she said. “We have to change something, and that's what we'll be looking to do in this particular window.”

What’s not lacking is the team’s determination. Canada last failed to qualify for the Olympics 20 years ago, and the team’s recent World Cup failure has galvanized the group.

“I think anybody who's had a setback – they're at their most dangerous then because your hunger level, to put something right, is at another level,” Priestman said.

“Ultimately, when Canada works harder than the opposition, wants it more than the opposition, are grittier than the opposition – it springboards us to great things.”

Canada’s roster

Nineteen of the 23 players that represented Canada at the World Cup are returning for the two matches against Jamaica. Fullback Jayde Riviere and forward Deanne Rose were initially named to the roster, but were ruled out this week due to injury.

Veteran defender Allysha Chapman was unavailable for selection due to personal reasons, and Sophie Schmidt, who has the second-most caps all-time for Canada with 224, retired from international duty following the World Cup.

Two other key players, midfielder Desiree Scott and forward Janine Beckie, remain out due to injury.

There are some returning faces to the squad who were not in Australia. Defender Jade Rose, one of Canada’s brightest up-and-coming players, is back with the team after suffering an injury just before the World Cup.

Also returning is Marie-Yasmine Alidou, who was part of the pre-World Cup camp but not selected for the final roster. She has had a strong start to the season with her new club in Portugal, Benfica, scoring three goals in all competitions.

Wingback Bianca St-Georges is part of Canada’s roster for the first time since April. She has become a regular starter for the Chicago Red Stars in the NWSL, recording two goals and one assist and leading the team in expected goals with 3.71.

“Across two games with such a tight turnaround, I think you are going to see some players given a chance, whether that be as a finisher, or as a starter across both games,” Priestman sad.

Canada vs. Jamaica

Canada has historically dominated Jamaica, posting a perfect 9-0-0 record all-time and outscoring the Reggae Girlz by 60-1 over those games. In their most recent meeting, the Canadians beat Jamaica 3-0 in the semifinals of the 2022 CONCACAF W Championship, with goals from Jessie Fleming, Adriana Leon and Chapman.

But a lot has changed in just over a year. As Canada has struggled to find its footing, Jamaica is coming off its best-ever finish at the World Cup after advancing to the round of 16, where the team narrowly lost 1-0 to Colombia.

The Reggae Girlz did not concede once during the group stage, shutting out top-10 teams France and Brazil.

Their impressive World Cup performance now has Jamaica 37th in the FIFA rankings, a new record for the team.

“I think it's a totally different Jamaica side than what Canada may have faced, even last year,” Priestman said. “We've got to respect what they did in this World Cup, and there'll be riding a high off that. Ultimately, we absolutely have to beat the opponent in front of us.”

Jamaica’s biggest offensive threat remains their captain, Khadija “Bunny” Shaw. The forward is coming off an impressive season with Manchester City, finishing second in the Women’s Super League with 20 goals, and she was recently nominated for the women’s Ballon d’Or.

“I think she's an all-around number nine that has a great presence,” Priestman said. “You look at how many goals she scored in the WSL. I think that speaks volumes because that's a world class league, and for her to be up there with the best of them – it just tells you her quality.”

Federation battles

Jamaica’s World Cup run is even more impressive after having to overcome underfunding and battles with their federation. After relying on crowdfunding prior to the World Cup, the Jamaica Olympic Association recently allocated $25 million for the Reggae Girlz, as the team vies to become the first Caribbean nation to qualify for the women’s soccer tournament at the Olympics.

The Canadian players have been embroiled in their own long-standing battle with Canada Soccer. Just three days before their match against Australia, the players announced they had an interim deal with the federation for compensation for 2023, but that they were “deeply disappointed” with the lack of a more complete agreement.

The Canadian Soccer Players Association (CSPA), which represents the women’s team, have not commented since the statement in July.

“There's been a lot of little distractions and big distractions that ultimately do play a part,” Priestman said. “We don't want to hide behind any excuses. But I've lived it. I've felt it. And I've seen it.”

Canada homecoming

The second leg of the series at BMO Field will be Canada’s first home match in more than a year. The women’s team last played on Canadian soil on June 26, 2022 – a 0-0 draw against Korea Republic, also at BMO Field.

After playing in front of raucous Australian fans in Melbourne against the Matildas, and also facing an Irish-friendly crowd in Perth, Priestman is hopefully that the sellout crowd in Toronto will give a needed boost to her team.

“I think the whole country getting behind and being positive for this group is going to get them over the line,” she said. “We're all disappointed. We all… feel like we let this country down… But I think to have the full support of the country behind you, in such an incredible moment – it’s going to spur the group on.”