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Canada on a roll entering CONCACAF W Gold Cup knockout round

Olivia Smith Deanne Rose Canada Olivia Smith Deanne Rose - The Canadian Press

So far, so good for Canada’s women soccer team in 2024.

The Canadians finished atop Group C at the CONCACAF W Gold Cup with a perfect three wins, the latest coming Wednesday in a 3-0 victory over Costa Rica. More importantly, that win also secured the Canadians top overall seed in the knockout round.

Canada, who played their group-stage matches in Houston, will now travel to Los Angeles to take on the eighth-seeded Costa Rica once again on Saturday.

“I think we've had a real high standard focus,” head coach Bev Priestman said following Wednesday’s win. “I think I've challenged the group. I said, “How you do one thing is how you do everything.’ … And I think that relentless mindset is what the best teams can do.”

With the knockout round on the horizon, here are the biggest takeaways from Canada’s group-stage performance.


New formation clicking

After Canada’s early exit at the 2023 FIFA Women’s World Cup, where the team failed to advance to the knockout round for the first time since 2011, changes needed to be made. The Canadians often looked lacklustre, especially on offence, where they were shut out in two of three matches.

Priestman has switched gears to a 3-4-3 formation since the World Cup, and so far the change has paid dividends, with Canada winning eight of its last nine matches.

To be fair, the three group-stage matches for Canada at the Gold Cup weren’t the biggest tests, with Costa Rica the highest-ranked opposition at 43rd (Canada is currently ranked 10th in the world).

But it’s also worth noting that the Canadians have had difficulties against lower-ranked opposition in the past, particularly those that utilize a low block.

Fans saw that last summer in the World Cup, most notably in the match against 40th-ranked Nigeria. Canada struggled to break down the Nigerian backline, with the match ending in a 0-0 draw.

The Canadians have kept the offence flowing in this tournament despite often encountering low blocks. A key example of Canada breaking down a block came in the team’s opening goal against Costa Rica in the 11th minute. Jessie Fleming sent a perfect ball over the top of the Costa Rican defenders, allowing Jordyn Huitema to run on and head it home.

Canada is tops in the tournament with 13 goals, and five of those are courtesy Adriana Leon, who currently leads the race for the golden boot.

Since the beginning of 2021, Leon leads all Canadian scorers with 17 goals, more than double her next closest teammate, Fleming, who has eight goals over the span.

The surge coincides with the beginning of Priestman’s tenure as head coach of the national team. Before Priestman, Leon had 19 international goals in 66 games. Her 17 goals have come in 42 appearances. She’s also tied with Janine Beckie for the most international goals among active players with 36, and sits just two goals back of tying Silvana Burtini for third-most all-time for Canada.


Roster competition

As Canada prepares to defend its gold medal at this summer’s Paris Olympics, player evaluation is at a premium.

Before the Gold Cup began, Priestman lamented on the difficulty of selecting 23 players for the final roster. For the Olympics, that number will be reduced to 18, with four alternates, and many players are making their case to be in that group.

Olivia Smith, 19, has impressed in her appearances so far this tournament. She came off the bench in Canada’s opener, scoring her first goal at the senior level while also recording an assist. The next game, she earned her first start with the national team and netted another goal.

Smith, who is also finding success in her season as a pro in Portugal, has been a breath of fresh air on set pieces. She has assisted on two goals off of corner kicks, and her powerful delivery is something Canada can definitely utilize going forward.

“I always love seeing kids come in and doing well… Her set piece delivery, you could argue, was unstoppable,” Priestman said following Canada’s opening match.

Following Wednesday’s game, where Canada netted two goals off set pieces (one assisted by Smith), Priestman stressed the importance of being able to score off a dead ball.

“When we came away from the Olympics in 2021, it was about expanding who can deliver, who can score,” she said. “I think we have to be creative. Obviously, we know in major tournaments, you might get two corners in a game against a very top team, and those two corners are going to matter.”

Another youngster, 20-year-old Simi Awujo, has also made an impact. She earned her third career start in the group stage finale after impressing off the bench in the match against Paraguay, where she looked strong in possession and also earned a penalty kick late in the game.

“She had an outstanding pre-camp. She’s getting more confident, fitter, stronger, and she’s super exciting as a midfielder, even driving with the ball to get the penalty,” Priestman said postgame.

While players like Awujo and Smith have seen their stocks rise, others are in a fight to prove themselves.

Julia Grosso, who started all three of Canada’s matches at last summer’s World Cup, has only made one start since then. Despite Grosso being in strong form with her club at Juventus, in the new formation, Priestman has most often opted to use a central pairing of Quinn and Fleming.

Deanne Rose, who has dealt with numerous injuries over the past year and a half, has struggled to regain her form with the national team, and other forwards have been putting in strong performances. Cloé Lacasse recorded a goal and three assists in Canada’s Gold Cup opener, and Clarissa Larisey earned her first international start on Wednesday after picking up an assist off the bench against Paraguay.

Competition will likely be intense for the 18 Olympic roster spots – especially as injured players return to the mix.

Veterans Beckie and Desiree Scott are out of this tournament but are nearing the end of their rehab after suffering long-term injuries. Sydney Collins, who fractured her ankle prior to the start of the tournament, had started in four of Canada’s past six matches in 2024. Canada is also currently missing other regulars like forward Nichelle Prince (who sustained a calf injury in the first match of the Gold Cup) and fullback Jayde Riviere.

It's an opportunity for bubble players like Gabby Carle, Bianca St-Georges and Marie-Yasmine Alidou (who has 23 goals in all competitions for Benfica this season) to showcase themselves. Priestman has given minutes to all but one of the 23 players on the roster for this tournament, with third-string goalkeeper Lysianne Proulx still yet to be capped for the national team.


A focused group

The Canadian players were plagued by off-field issues at this time last year, embroiled in disputes with Canada Soccer over pay and gender equity issues.

The distractions clearly impacted the group on the pitch. The team was under protest at the 2023 SheBelieves Cup after Canada Soccer threatened to sue the players over a strike attempt. In their first match of the invitational tournament, a mentally exhausted Canadian team lost 2-0 to the U.S.

Although the players and Canada Soccer were able to reach a deal prior to the World Cup, the behind-the-scenes distractions seemed to dog the players for most of last year.

“We learned very quickly what helps you win and what doesn't. A lot of the distraction – it didn't help,” Priestman told TSN before the start of the Gold Cup.

It seemed like history may repeat itself before the start of this tournament, when it was reported that the players filed a $40 million lawsuit against 15 current and former Canada Soccer board members.

But despite more off-field escapades, the team has looked sharp so far this tournament. Fleming, who was named captain before the Gold Cup began, said the players aren’t discussing it.

“This team is currently focused on what’s in front of them,” Priestman said before Canada’s first match. “There’s been no side conversations. It’s all been about what’s going to happen on a football pitch.”

The bigger tests are yet to come. If Canada can advance past Costa Rica in the quarter-finals, they could face the United States in the semifinals. The Americans stumbled in their group stage finale, losing 2-0 to Mexico, a defeat that saw them fall to the fourth-seed in the quarter-finals, where they’ll face Colombia.