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Canada’s Olympic prep begins with CONCACAF W Gold Cup

Bev Priestman Bev Priestman - The Canadian Press

Canada’s women’s soccer team begins its 2024 campaign with a new international tournament.

The CONCACAF W Gold Cup starts on Tuesday and runs until Mar. 10. The tournament features 12 teams from the CONCACAF and CONMEBOL regions, including top-tier opponents like the United States and Brazil. Canada kicks off their group stage on Thursday.

“I think the tournament's giving us totally different styles of play, which is brilliant,” Bev Priestman, Canada’s head coach, said during a recent media call.

The teams are divided into three groups. Canada will play out of Group C in Houston, with the other groups taking place in San Diego and Carson, Calif.

The top two teams from each group, along with the two best third-placed teams, advance to the knockout round. The quarter-finals will be played at BMO Stadium in Los Angeles, while Snapdragon Stadium in San Diego will host the semifinals and final.

Here’s what you need to know about the tournament and the top storylines for Canada.


What is the CONCACAF W Gold Cup?

The Gold Cup is a new tournament that was initially announced by CONCACAF in late 2020. It’s not to be confused with the CONCACAF Women’s Gold Cup that ran in the early 2000s, which was the qualifying tournament for the FIFA Women’s World Cup at the time.

This iteration of the Gold Cup doesn’t serve as qualifiers for a major tournament. Instead, this is CONCACAF’s version of Nations League, with the goal to provide more national team matches for CONCACAF teams, particularly those nations that don’t have as many opportunities or resources for friendlies or matches outside of official qualifying tournaments.


Which teams are participating?

Twelve teams will take part in the tournament. The United States, ranked second in the world, automatically qualified as winners of the 2022 CONCACAF W Championship (the qualifying tournament for the 2023 World Cup).

Canada qualified after beating Jamaica in the two-leg CONCACAF Olympic playoff last September.

Six other CONCACAF teams will also participate. Mexico, Panama, and Costa Rica all qualified as winners of their respective groups in the Road to CONCACAF Gold Cup. The three remaining CONCACAF teams (Dominican Republic, Puerto Rico, and El Salvador) earned their spots after winning their respective playoffs on Saturday.

The remaining four teams are invitees from CONMEBOL and qualified as the top four teams from the 2022 Copa América Femenina: Brazil, Colombia, Argentina and Paraguay.


Who is in Canada’s Group?

Canada is in Group C and will play its games at Shell Energy Stadium in Houston, home of the Dash in the NWSL and the Dynamo in MLS.

The Canadians, currently 10th in the world, are the highest-ranked team in their group. They’ll take on Costa Rica (43rd), Paraguay (50th), and El Salvador (104th). 

Canada will open the tournament against El Salvador on Thursday. El Salvador beat Guatemala 3-1 in a playoff on Saturday to qualify for the final tournament, thanks to a hat trick from Brenda Cerén.

The Canadians have never played El Salvador at the senior level. The nations’ under-20 teams met in Feb. 2022, with Canada winning 4-0. Jade Rose, Olivia Smith, and Simi Awujo, who are all on the senior team roster for this tournament, played in that match, with Smith notching a goal.

The first game will be a tight turnaround for several of Canada’s core players. The 12 players who are in-season in Europe, including the likes of Ashley Lawrence, Kadeisha Buchanan, and Vanessa Gilles, are expected to join the team by Monday, three days before the opening match.

“I think we have to focus on nailing what we do well, particularly in that first game,” Priestman told TSN. “We have to be ready, and we will be. It’ll be re-immersing, in terms of how Canada plays, while respecting the opposition.”

Canada will next play Paraguay on Sunday. The South American side finished fourth at the 2022 Copa America, tying the country’s highest-ever finish. The Paraguayans also narrowly missed qualifying for the 2023 World Cup, losing 1-0 to Panama in the inter-confederation playoff for one of the final berths.

This will be the first-ever match for Canada against Paraguay. The South Americans are also coming off a fifth-place finish in last fall’s Pan American Games, beating Costa Rica 3-1 in the fifth-place match.

“I think you'll get that sort of South American-type game, little things like shooting from distance, element of surprise, and individuals that maybe can bring things to life, dribblers of the ball. You have to respect some of that play that they have, and we've got to be ready for that,” Priestman said.

The Canadians will finish the group stage on Feb. 28 against Costa Rica, who qualified after topping Group C in the Road to the CONCACAF W Gold Cup. Costa Rica rattled off three straight wins after losing their qualification opener 1-0 to Haiti, including two lopsided victories over Saint Kitts and Nevis (11-0 and 19-0). Maria Paula Salas set a national team record with seven goals in a single match.

When it comes to their group stage opponents, Canada by far has the most history against Costa Rica. Since their first match in 1991, the Canadians are a perfect 15-0 against the Central American side, outscoring them by a combined total of 28-6.

However, Costa Rica has a new head coach, Benito Rubido, after Amelia Valverde, who had been at the helm since 2015, left following last summer’s World Cup.

“We'll use the group stage to learn a little bit more… But I think like Costa Rica are always a good threat that you've got to respect,” Priestman said.

The two nations last met in the group stage of the 2022 CONCACAF W Championship. Canada came out on top 2-0, with goals from Jessie Fleming and Sophie Schmidt (who has since retired from international soccer).


What’s going on with Canada in 2024?

This is a big year for the Canadians. For the first time, they will enter a major tournament as defending champions as they aim to repeat as gold medallists at this summer’s Paris Olympics.

All matches leading up to that tournament will be in preparation for the Games, especially with the added scrutiny on the team following their disappointing showing at last year’s World Cup.

The Canadians entered the tournament in Australia and New Zealand with high expectations as the reigning Olympic champions, but they failed to advance to the knockout round for the first time since 2011 following a 4-0 loss to Australia in the group stage finale.

It was part of a tumultuous year for the national team, with the players also embroiled in ongoing disputes with Canada Soccer over pay and gender equity issues.

“I think whenever you've had a setback and a disappointment, you have a chance to reflect and it makes you realize how hard it is to win,” Priestman told TSN. “But absolutely, I see the same feeling of hunger and desire in the group’s eyes that I've seen very much so when we didn't have all of that distraction.”

The Gold Cup also marks the official start of the post-Christine Sinclair era. The Canadian legend retired from international soccer with a send-off match in Vancouver in December. The Paris Olympics will be the first time Canada plays in a major tournament without Sinclair since the 1999 World Cup.

Fleming has worn the captain’s armband in the majority of Canada’s matches following the World Cup, but Priestman continues to be careful not to name a direct successor to Sinclair.

“The captain isn't going to fill Christine’s shoes,” Priestman said. “I want to take any pressure away from filling Christine’s shoes and more put attention on a group of players with very good experiences, medals around their neck, unique qualities. They’re all going to contribute to help lead moving forward.”

Canada’s 23-player roster for the tournament boasts a good amount of youth, with an average age of just under 26.

Priestman has leaned on her younger players since the team’s early World Cup exit. Centre back Jade Rose, 21, started in all but one of Canada’s final six matches of 2023, and 20-year-old Awujo earned her second career start for the national team in the first of two friendlies against Australia in December, netting her first international goal.

“What we know is a trend from the World Cup, under 25s who were performing at the highest level – the more successful teams had them,” Priestman said. “I think what you see post-World Cup from us is blooding the likes of a Simi starting games, Jade Rose, all of these sorts of players who are very young but are ready to take the reins.”

This tournament will give Priestman a chance to evaluate players for the Paris Games, where the coach will be tasked with narrowing the roster to 18 players, with four alternates.

“I don't know about you but trying to get this to a 23[-player] roster was very hard,” Priestman told the media.

The Canadians are still missing key players Janine Beckie and Desiree Scott, who are continuing their return to play from long-term injuries. Scott joined the national team for a pre-camp last week but is returning to her NWSL club in Kansas City for pre-season.

“Both of them were dying to be ready for this Gold Cup. We'd always sort of had this as the marker,” Priestman said. “I think we've had to take the bigger-picture decision for both of those players so that they're ready to kick off the NWSL season and have She Believes Cup [in April] in mind.”