Women’s national team must quickly move on from World Cup disappointment
The 2023 FIFA Women’s World Cup is now in its final week, and the tournament has enjoyed unprecedented success.
A new record was set for ticket sales. The expanded format saw lower-ranked teams make history, while powerhouses like the United States, Germany and Brazil faced early eliminations.
Unfortunately, Canada was also among those casualties.
It’s been just over two weeks since the Canadian women’s national team suffered a lopsided 4-0 loss to co-hosts Australia that sealed the squad’s group-stage exit from the tournament.
The defeat proved noteworthy in all the wrong ways. It was the first time Canada failed to advance to the knockout round since 2011, which was also the last time the Canadians suffered a 4-0 loss at a World Cup.
The team struggled to find its form for most of the tournament, finishing with a 1-1-1 record for third place in Group B, behind Australia and Nigeria.
Canada, ranked seventh in the world, must quickly move on, as another large test looms next month with Olympic qualification on the line.
The Canadians will take on Jamaica in a two-leg playoff for the final spot from CONCACAF for the 2024 Olympics. The teams will face off in Jamaica on Sept. 22 before playing the second leg at BMO Field in Toronto on Sept. 26. The winner on aggregate will qualify for the Paris Games next year.
Jamaica, ranked 43rd in the world, is coming off an impressive run at the World Cup. The Reggae Girlz advanced to the knockout round for the first time before being eliminated by Colombia in the Round of 16. They conceded a goal just once in four games at the tournament, including shutting out France and Brazil.
Historically, Canada has dominated the matchup with Jamaica, posting a perfect 9-0-0 record and outscoring the Reggae Girlz 60-1. However, given the recent performances of both sides, nothing is a given with Olympic qualification up for grabs.
Here are some issues that Canada needs to address, both long-term and ahead of their series against Jamaica.
First, let’s look at the on-field concerns, with the most glaring one centred on the team’s lack of scoring.
Canada recorded just two goals in three games at the World Cup, both coming against the Republic of Ireland, with one of those an own goal. Against Nigeria and Australia, the Canadians combined for five shots on target (Australia had seven shots on target against Canada alone).
This is not a new issue. Canada has struggled in recent years to put the ball in the back of the net, relying on set pieces and penalty kicks for much of their offensive output, including during the Tokyo Olympics, where they did not score from open play in their three games in the knockout round.
Dating back to last year, the Canadians have two goals from open play in their past 10 games. They’ve been shut out in five of their eight games this year, including a closed-door friendly against England.
Part of the reason for the team’s scoring struggles this year are injuries to key forwards Deanne Rose and Nichelle Prince. Both made the World Cup roster after rehabbing from Achilles injuries, but neither were at 100 per cent. Rose played 45 minutes against both Nigeria and Australia, while Prince only saw eight minutes on the pitch the entire tournament.
The team also clearly missed Janine Beckie, who tore her ACL in March. Beckie has 36 internationals goals, second only to Christine Sinclair among active Canadian players. But more than that, Beckie has proven to be a key playmaker and extremely versatile.
In particular, Canada needs to find a solution to their struggles in the No. 9 role. Jordyn Huitema led the line against Nigeria, but was largely held at bay, with four attempts on goal (none on target) and completing just 52 per cent of her passes. (Huitema was more effective when she moved to the wing, registering a team-best six attempts on goal against Ireland.)
Head coach Bev Priestman tried starting Evelyne Viens up top against Ireland, but ultimately the 26-year-old was ineffective, completing just three total passes before being replaced by Sinclair to start the second half.
Sinclair was arguably Canada’s best option at striker during the tournament. After subbing into the game against Ireland, she registered two attempts on goal (both on target) and set up Huitema for a chance under five minutes into the second half. Her performance earned her the start against Australia, but the offensive struggles in that game were more team-related than individual performances.
Sinclair also featured in the No. 10 role against Nigeria due to a calf injury to Jessie Fleming. In that match, she had a chance to score in a record sixth World Cup, but had her penalty attempt saved.
At 40 years old, Sinclair can’t be the go-to solution for Canada at striker. Viens has shown her scoring prowess with her club, Kristianstad, in Sweden’s top league, with 12 goals and four assists in 17 matches this season. But she has yet to fully translate that to the international game, with two goals in 11 appearances for Canada since the start of 2022.
Similarly, Huitema has four goals in 11 starts for OL Reign in the NWSL this season, but just one goal in her past 16 games for Canada.
Canada entered the tournament with high expectations and even higher confidence. The reigning Olympic gold medallists rallied around a narrative of “no respect,” feeling like they were constantly overlooked as contenders.
“I think this program and Canada sports in general has always proved people wrong,” goalkeeper Kailen Sheridan told TSN in April. “If they want to continue to be surprised, by all means, we'll shock them.”
Instead, it was the Canadians who were left shocked, as their mantra turned into a self-fulfilling prophecy.
Before the tournament, Priestman had said that her team thrives on adversity.
“They're a resilient group, and when their back is against the wall, you see the best out of them,” she told TSN.
While we did see some of that resiliency in the 2-1 comeback win against Ireland, the same cannot be said for the loss against Australia.
Canada went down early in that match, conceding in the 9th minute, and the team never found its footing.
When asked by TSN’s Claire Hanna after the match what may cause her to lose some sleep when she reflects on the tournament, Priestman’s answer was simple.
“Belief,” she said. “There’s only so many times you can say, ‘Take risks. Believe.’ The team has to believe.”
It’s easy to see why Priestman responded with a line worthy of Ted Lasso. The team often seemed lost as a unit on the pitch, instead playing as individuals. The cohesive backline that was paramount to the team’s gold medal at the Tokyo Games was prone to falling apart, especially in that match against Australia. Players were caught ball watching and were a step behind for almost the entire match.
The lack of cohesion for the backline can at least partly be attributed to a shortage of playing time together in the lead-up to the tournament. Before the World Cup, Sheridan and the starting defenders (Ashley Lawrence, Vanessa Gilles, Kadeisha Buchanan, and Jayde Riviere) had not played together as a unit since the CONCACAF W Championship last summer, mainly due to injuries.
Canada needs a return to its defensive roots. The team was able to win gold in Tokyo by shutting down top tier opponents like Brazil, the United States, and Sweden. Their belief needs to come from its identity as a defensive juggernaut.
“I think they’re committed. They’re the most hardworking group. They’re the most together group. We just at times need more belief. Once we realize that, this moment can make this team,” Priestman said after the Australia match.
Of course, the elephant in the room remains the ongoing dispute between both the women’s and men’s national teams and Canada Soccer.
Just three days before their crucial match against Australia, , the Canadian players announced they had reached an interim deal with Canada Soccer 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, said that the players would not offer any further comment during the World Cup, but it’s likely this caused a further distraction for the team, as it did earlier in the year.
At the SheBelieves Cup in February, the players threatened to boycott the tournament over pay equity issues and budget cuts, but ultimately had to back down after Canada Soccer threatened legal action.
The emotional toll spilled onto the field, as Canada lost two of its three matches in the tournament. Sinclair said after an opening loss to the United States that the team was “mentally exhausted.”
It’s unlikely the players would be looking to excuse their on-field performance at the World Cup due to the off-field issues, as other teams like Nigeria and Jamaica have also been dealing with disputes with their federations but were still able to able to advance out of their respective groups.
Nonetheless, these problems must be addressed for Canada to remain a contender on the international stage. The issues go beyond pay equity, which the CSPA said was included “at minimum” in the interim agreement. As Canada Soccer’s dire financial status comes to light, the CSPA said they “have been forced to choose between compensation and the funding required to hold necessary training camps.”
Earlier in the year, when CSPA player reps (Sinclair, Sophie Schmidt, Janine Beckie and Quinn) testified before the Standing Committee on Canadian Heritage, they spoke about the cuts to training camps, including not being able to bring enough players to camp to train properly.
“I’d like to applaud our staff members for how well they play soccer, but I don’t think it’s at the level of a national team player,” midfielder Quinn testified.
Schmidt also spoke about cuts to Canada’s youth programs. The Canadian under-17 and under-20 teams were both eliminated in the group stages of their respective World Cups last year. In comparison, Spain’s program has invested in its youth, with their teams winning the most recent U17 and U20 World Cups, and the senior team has gone the furthest it ever has at a World Cup (although the players are also dealing with their own federation issues).
There are no easy answers for the national team or the women’s program as a whole, especially with the constraints of Canada Soccer’s financial situation. However, if solutions aren’t found, then Canada’s early World Cup exit may not be as shocking as it was this year.