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Projecting Priestman’s roster for Paris

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The players have done all that they can do on the pitch. Now, the ball is at the feet of Bev Priestman.

The head coach of Canada’s women’s soccer team is tasked with selecting the roster that will defend gold at the Paris Olympics. Priestman must choose 18 players, along with four alternates, to represent Canada at the Games.

“I said to the group, ‘You’ve made my life so difficult,’ and that’s credit to them,” Priestman told the media on Tuesday.

The Canadians are coming off a pair of friendlies at home against Mexico as part of the Summer Send-Off Series. Canada, ranked ninth in the world, beat Mexico 2-0 on Saturday in Montreal before settling for a 1-1 draw in Toronto on Tuesday.

These friendlies were the last matches before Priestman selects her roster.

“Being in camp, I’m like, ‘I don't know how I'm going to do this,’” Priestman told TSN last week. “There's not going to be a right call because, ultimately, top players are going to miss out.”

Priestman stressed the importance of striking a balance with this Olympic team.

“It might not be the very best 18 players. It might be the very best squad to get the best out of this team to go and win,” Priestman said.

“How many of those are great at finishing games? How many of them can run all day, in a two-day turnaround tournament? How many of them can play multiple positions? Because I think where you've got multiple-position players, it buys you an extra player in some ways.”

Complicating the matter are various injuries. Quinn, a regular starter in the Canadian midfield, missed this camp due to a knee injury. Defender Sydney Collins featured in five of Canada’s final six matches of 2023, including four starts, before fracturing her ankle at the beginning of this year.

“I don't want to say I'm overly stressed about the injuries,” Priestman said. “I have faith that by the time I have to pick that roster, there's a month really to go until the opening game, and then you've got the four alternates.”

More injuries arose during this past camp. Forward Nichelle Prince, who returned recently from a calf injury, was held out of both matches this window due to what Priestman described as “precautionary reasons.” Fellow forward Deanne Rose also did not feature in either match and was seen training separate from the rest of the team on Monday.

Priestman had a similar tough call before last year’s FIFA Women’s World Cup, with both Prince and Rose returning from Achilles injuries, which had kept them out long-term. Priestman named both to the 23-player roster, but they ended up being limited. Rose played just over 90 minutes across two games, while Prince managed only nine minutes against Nigeria in Canada’s opening match.

“My reflection on the World Cup – it might have been more about trying to put round pegs in square holes, rather than maybe a system that gets the best out of the talent in the group that we've got,” Priestman said.

“So, there's a lot to consider, but I'm committed to making bold calls, doing what's right for the team.”

Priestman is no stranger to making tough calls. She was on the job for less than a year when she named her roster for Tokyo, leaving off veteran midfielder Sophie Schmidt and forward Jordyn Huitema. Both were named alternates and eventually became part of the full roster after the IOC changed its rules due to COVID-19.

The 38-year-old acknowledges that there are key differences between then and now.

“When I was in Tokyo, I was new, right? And there weren’t any pre-existing relationships,” she said. “I'm now in a space where I've been in this role since 2021. The danger is, as a coach, you can become too loyal to what has been, you know what I mean? There’s a trust there with a group. I'm 100 per cent ready to do what's right and pick the team that I think can go and get us a medal, and that's going to be difficult.”

Priestman has until July 3 to name her roster. While she has said she wants to wait for as long as possible for proper evaluation and to give injured players time to return, she told the media on Tuesday she has committee to June 30 to name her squad. After that, the team travels to Europe for a pre-tournament camp and a pair of still to be announced matches during the FIFA window scheduled for July 8-16.

With a difficult decision looming, here’s a closer look at the players who may be travelling to Paris.

Goalkeepers

Locks
Kailen Sheridan
Sabrina D’Angelo

Alternate
Lysianne Proulx

The goalkeepers are essentially a no-brainer. Kailen Sheridan has been the clear-cut No. 1 since Stephanie Labbé retired two years ago. In 50 appearances, she has 25 clean sheets, including four this year. She was Goalkeeper of the Year in the National Women’s Soccer League in 2022 and was a finalist for the award last year.

Right behind Sheridan is Sabrina D’Angelo, who earned her 11th start on Tuesday, and has nine clean sheets for the national team.

Lysianne Proulx has yet to be capped, but she has been regularly called into camp for the past two years and is likely to be named an alternate as the third-string ‘keeper.

Centre backs

Locks
Kadeisha Buchanan
Vanessa Gilles
Jade Rose

In contention
Shelina Zadorsky

The trio of Kadeisha Buchanan, Vanessa Gilles and Jade Rose have started together in 11 of Canada’s 15 matches since last summer’s World Cup. With Priestman opting for a three-player backline, they are the coach’s go-to picks, and Gilles and Buchanan have also proven invaluable on set pieces.

Rose was injured just prior to last year’s World Cup, an absence which proved to be costly. Although she had just eight caps with the senior team before the World Cup, her rapid development as a player has allowed Priestman to switch formations and deploy a three-player backline.

While Shelina Zadorsky may no longer be a regular starter, she brings key experience to the centre back position, and will likely be relied upon as a depth player in Paris.

Fullbacks/Wingbacks

Locks
Ashley Lawrence
Jayde Riviere

In contention
Gabrielle Carle
Allysha Chapman
Sydney Collins*
*injured

Although often unsung in the fullback/wingback position, Ashley Lawrence is one of Canada’s biggest stars. She has played every minute in all but one game for the national team this year. Her crosses and ability to spark the team’s offence is invaluable.

Jayde Riviere has had a frustrating start to 2024, only getting her first minutes with the national team in the recent friendlies against Mexico due to various injuries. But when healthy, Riviere is among the most dynamic fullbacks in the game. She has earned big minutes at Manchester United, and as Priestman recently said, “You wouldn't want to go into a 1v1 battle against her.”

If she’s able to rehab her ankle injury in time, Sydney Collins could provide valuable depth to the wingback position. Priestman admitted recently that Collins “probably” should have been part of the World Cup roster. Gabby Carle was a late addition to the World Cup team after Jade Rose’s injury, but she never saw the pitch. However, Carle filled in admirably while both Riviere and Collins were out with injuries, and she was part of the squad in Tokyo (albeit originally as an alternate).

Veteran Allysha Chapman is a longshot to make the Olympics after giving birth to her son in February. She was brought into camp as a training player for the matches against Mexico but has not played since the World Cup.

But as Priestman told TSN last week, “If there's anybody who can make a push this tight, and this quickly, it's someone like Chappy with a mindset that she has.”

Midfielders

Locks
Jessie Fleming
Quinn*

In contention
Simi Awujo
Julia Grosso
Desiree Scott
*injured

The midfield picture is a little more muddled. With Priestman opting mainly for a 3-4-3 formation, there are essentially two midfield spots available on the pitch, with the wingbacks taking up the flanks.

Captain Jessie Fleming is probably the biggest lock for the Olympic roster, as she continues to be the engine driving the team and plays invaluable minutes.

Quinn has proven they work well with Fleming in the double pivot, but they missed the most recent camp with a knee injury and their status is uncertain. If healthy, Quinn is an important defensive presence for Canada, but if their fitness is in question, that could lead Priestman to look elsewhere.

Simi Awujo, 20, has made a strong push for roster contention with her recent performances. She made the trip to Australia as part of the World Cup squad but did not see any minutes. She featured in both recent matches against Mexico. In the game at BMO Field in Toronto, she connected on 87 per cent of her passes and created multiple chances.

Julia Grosso has become a bit of a question mark for Canada. After scoring the winning penalty in the gold-medal match at the Tokyo Games, Grosso became a staple in Canada’s midfield, earning the golden boot at the 2022 CONCACAF W Championship and starting every game at last year’s World Cup.

But since that tournament and the formation change, Grosso has largely been on the outside looking in, starting just twice in 15 matches. With the emergence of Awujo, Grosso may have a tough time cracking the roster.

Veteran Desiree Scott has had a long road back to the pitch after a lengthy rehab from injury, which saw her miss all of 2023. She made her return to the national team in the series against Mexico, picking up a handful of minutes off the bench. With the Kansas City Current in the NWSL, Scott has played just 17 minutes this season.

She is by far the most capped player for Canada, with 187 appearances, but her experience may not be enough to be named to the roster.

Forwards

Locks
Janine Beckie
Cloe Lacasse
Adriana Leon

In contention
Jordyn Huitema
Nichelle Prince
Deanne Rose
Olivia Smith
Evelyne Viens

At the most recent camp, nine forwards were invited, creating a lot of competition for the position.

“Tell me about it,” Priestman deadpanned with the media.

Adriana Leon has emerged as Canada’s premier goal threat, finding the back of the net nine times this year, and now sits with 40 international goals.

Janine Beckie missed most of last year, including the World Cup, after tearing her ACL in March. Although she hasn’t scored for Canada since Oct. 2022, she is a key piece of the team’s attack even when her name doesn’t appear on the scoresheet. Her versatility could also prove invaluable with a shortened roster, as she can slot in at fullback/wingback and in the midfield.

Lacasse has been a mainstay on the national team since the Tokyo Olympics. Last year, she scored the tying goal on home soil against Jamaica in Olympic qualifiers. She is a dynamic presence out wide and a strong finisher in front of goal.

There is still some uncertainty on Jordyn Huitema’s health, who is coming off a back injury. Priestman praised Huitema’s work ethic and ability to return in time for this camp.

“That’s someone who’s determined to make sure that this time, she’s in the 18,” Priestman said.

Evelyne Viens was the top scorer in Serie A with AS Roma this year, and Priestman has lauded the striker’s ability to come off the bench and make an impact. In the first match against Mexico, Viens did just that, recording two assists as a substitute.

While Viens still has yet to truly translate her success at club to the international game, with five goals in 31 appearances, in terms of “super sub” status, there aren’t many on Canada who can do it better.

Olivia Smith was a surprise addition to last year’s World Cup roster, where she picked up a handful of minutes in the final match. Since then, she has been a dynamic force for Canada. She scored two goals during the Gold Cup at the start of the year before injury limited her during the knockout round. Her ability to play on the front line as well as in the midfield could be a major boon for Priestman.

Rose and Prince’s latest injury concerns have thrown their statuses into question. If Prince was being held out purely for precautionary reasons, she is a strong contender for the roster, with 16 international goals.

Rose, however, very well could be on the outside, even if she is fit. Although she missed close to a year before the World Cup with an Achilles injury, she has scored just one goal in her last 32 appearances dating back to 2021.