For all of the Olympic glory the Canadian women’s team has enjoyed over the last decade, success at the FIFA World Cup has managed to elude it.
Canada has competed in seven World Cups since making its tournament debut in 1995, and has been eliminated in the group stage four times — including in 2011 when it finished in last place. Canada reached the semifinals in 2003, but it was unable to build upon that final-four showing in its two subsequent appearances in the knockout round, bowing out in the quarter-finals in 2015, when Canada played host to the tournament, and the round of 16 in 2019 in France.
Next year’s World Cup, co-hosted by Australia and New Zealand, could be different, though. Should the Canadians qualify, they’ll go into the 2023 World Cup as one of the favourites based upon their standing as the reigning Olympic champions.
To get there, Canada must first navigate its way through next month’s CONCACAF W Championship, July 4-18 in Mexico, which serves as the qualifying competition. Sunday’s international friendly vs. South Korea at Toronto’s BMO Field is vital to the team’s preparation for the CONCACAF qualifiers, as it’s the only game it will play before flying to Mexico.
Of the 28 players who make up the squad for Sunday’s match, 21 were members of the gold-medal winning team from last summer’s Tokyo Olympics. There are only three new faces in camp: goalkeepers Anna Karpenko and Lysianne Proulx, and fullback Bianca Bianca St-Georges. Only St-Georges (one cap) has previously played for Canada at senior level.
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In essence, what coach Bev Priestman has done is tip her hand about the path forward for the team ahead of next summer’s World Cup, choosing to rely on the core of proven players she has worked with in the past, rather than bringing in a slew of new recruits. The chemistry and makeup of the team is strong, and there’s no need to tinker.
“I think it would be short-sighted of me to take players that I don’t think can make it to that World Cup, so I’ve always got that in the back of my mind,” Priestman said. “But we do have to get there, and we have to perform now.
“I think particularly when you have younger players that maybe haven’t had as many minutes and those sorts of things, it’s the balance of potential versus performance.”
Ranked No. 6 in the world, Canada opens Group B at the CONCACAF W Championship against No. 76 Trinidad & Tobago on July 5, before taking on No. 57 Panama on July 8 and wrapping things up vs. No. 37 Costa Rica on July 11. Group A consists of the United States (No. 1), Mexico (No. 26), Jamaica (No. 51) and Haiti (No. 60). The top two nations in both groups move on to the semifinals and qualify for the 2023 World Cup.
The CONCACAF W champion also automatically qualifies for the 2024 Paris Olympics, while the second- and third-place teams will face off against each other for the region’s second Olympic berth at a later date.
With so much on the line, Canada has to hit the ground running and can ill afford any missteps in the first round at next month’s CONCACAF competition. As such, Priestman will look to a quintet of veterans to provide leadership and guidance: captain Christine Sinclair (310 caps), midfielders Sophie Schmidt (212) and Desiree Scott (175), and defenders Kadeisha Buchanan (118) and Ashley Lawrence (105). Should midfielder Jessie Fleming play on Sunday, she’ll join the 100-cap club for Canada.
“When you’re going into a major tournament — I very much approached the Olympics like that — you have to pick a team that can win now. I have to do that,” Priestman said. “But you also have to invest in some players that can get to 2023 and help us do well in that World Cup.
“It’s a real balancing act, but I can’t see myself taking a player this summer who I don’t see that can get to the 2023 World Cup and help us do well.”
At age 39, Sinclair shows little signs of slowing down, and remains a vital piece of the puzzle for Canada. She underscored her importance to the team in April when she came off the bench in a rare appearance as a substitute to score and help Canada earn a hard-fought draw against Nigeria in Langford, B.C.
“For me, if you look at the last international window, that window told everyone that this team needs Christine Sinclair,” Priestman said. “She comes on as a [substitute], it was the first time as a [substitute] for me, and you wonder how she will react to that role? It took her three minutes, and she goes and scores.”
Canada leads the all-time series against South Korea (No. 18 in the world) with eight wins in nine games dating back to 2000. The Canadians’ lone loss came in 2013. The Canadian women posted a 3-0 victory in their previous match against South Korea in the finals of the Algarve Cup in March, 2018.
Despite Canada’s dominance of its Asian counterpart, Priestman expects a tough game against a Korean side that has already qualified for the World Cup and features a number of dangerous attacking players, including former Chelsea midfielder Ji So-Yun.
“They’re a tactically, adaptable team. They’ll change formations in the game, which will be great for us [and] great experience heading into a tournament setting,” Priestman said.