June 15th, 2024

Time, games running out for beleaguered Canada women ahead of summer World Cup

By Neil Davidson, The Canadian Press on February 17, 2023.

Members of the U.S. and Canadian teams meet on the field before a SheBelieves Cup soccer match Thursday, Feb. 16, 2023, in Orlando, Fla. THE CANADIAN PRESS/AP/Phelan M. Ebenhack

ORLANDO, Fla. – After coming out flat against the U.S. under the shadow of a bitter labour dispute with Canada Soccer, the Canadian women hope to find their game in Nashville where they play Brazil next at the SheBelieves Cup.

The clock is ticking. Time and games are running out with the World Cup looming in July.

Canada was overwhelmed early Thursday night in a 2-0 loss to the top-ranked Americans at Exploria Stadium, with goalkeeper Kailen Sheridan forced to make a save just seconds after a kickoff that followed a show of unity by both teams at the centre circle.

Trailing 1-0 after a seventh-minute goal by Mallory Swanson, the sixth-ranked Canadians regained their composure midway through the first half, only to gift Swanson a second goal in the 34th minute after a defensive gaffe.

Off-field distractions are taking their toll.

“This isn’t fixed overnight so we’ve got to push through,” said Canada coach Bev Priestman, who is clearly torn by what is happening to our team. “We’ve got to use this tournament for what’s in front of us. We can’t roll over and nor will this group roll over. I think we’ve got to turn it around now and be fresh-faced and ready to go again for Game 2 because there’s probably five games before a World Cup right now and that’s the difficult position we’re in.”

The World Cup opens July 20 in Australia and New Zealand with just two FIFA World Cup international windows in advance – in April and July, right before the tournament kickoff.

The Canadian women will be in a legal position to strike in the April window, which could cut further into preparations if the labour impasse drags on.

The off-field division can only detract from the product on the field.

Organizing and orchestrating protests, from purple T-shirts to a show of solidarity with the opposition before kickoff, takes time and energy that normally would go on the game itself.

“We’re going to continue the fight, obviously “¦ but I think what we saw tonight is we also have to focus on the soccer a little bit too,” captain Christine Sinclair said after Thursday’s loss.

A frustrated Priestman watched from the sidelines, knowing the pressure cauldron her team finds itself in.

“In many ways you think that your players are superhuman and they’re not,” she said.

Priestman, who wore purple tape on her wrist to symbolize gender equality as her players did, is caught in the middle – between her employer and players.

“It’s a difficult position but what I would say is I absolutely believe in equality. I believe anybody should be given the same opportunities as any other person,” she said.

She called the pre-game coming together of the Canada and U.S. players, first in a circle then closing ranks to form a heart at the centre circle “a powerful moment.”

“What you had is strong women out there who stand for great values, who’ve achieved incredible incredible things on the world stage. And for any young boy or girl coming through, they’re sending out a very clear message about what the future should be. And that’s something I’m behind.”

Sunday’s game against No. 9 Brazil at Geodis Park is a meeting of familiar foes. Canada and Brazil split a two-game series in November, with both games ending 2-1, in Santos and Sao Paulo.

Canada dispatched Brazil 4-3 in a penalty shootout in the quarterfinals of the Tokyo Olympics after the game ended tied at 0-0.

The Canadian women hold a slight 11-10-7 edge over Brazil in the all-time series. Brazil beat No. 11 Japan 1-0 in the earlier game Thursday at Exploria Stadium.

The Canadian women are demanding the same preparation and backing ahead of their World Cup as the men did before theirs in Qatar. Both the women’s and men’s teams want Canada Soccer to open its books and explain cuts to both programs in 2023 at a time when the sport is soaring back home.

Priestman looks for positives amidst the emotional turmoil.

“These moments make you. Adversity makes you,” she said.

“We’ve got to push through and hope this group can achieve their potential,” she added. “Because I believe this group on the day can go and beat anyone.”

The Olympic champion Canadian women say they are fighting for the next generation of players. Whether that comes at the expense of the present remains to be seen.

And whatever the labour outcome, scars will likely remain. Priestman and men’s coach John Herdman have both been linked to jobs elsewhere and while they say they are committed to their current job, where there’s smoke, there’s often fire.

Canada Soccer, citing confidentiality requirements, is largely staying mum. Rightly or wrongly, they are the villain of the piece.

Barring a behind-the-scenes breakthrough, with parliamentary hearings looming and Canada Soccer forced to talk, there may be more darkness before the dawn.

Follow @NeilMDavidson on Twitter

This report by The Canadian Press was first published Feb. 17, 2023

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