July 20th, 2024

Canada coach Bev Priestman takes positives from soggy CONCACAF W Gold Cup exit

By Neil Davidson, The Canadian Press on March 7, 2024.

Canada's Jordyn Huitema, second from right, celebrates with teammate Jessie Fleming, right, after scoring a goal against the United States during the second half of a CONCACAF Gold Cup women's soccer tournament semifinal match, Wednesday, March 6, 2024, in San Diego. Fleming did everything but score from the penalty spot in the CONCACAF W Gold Cup semifinal. THE CANADIAN PRESS/AP/Gregory Bull

Jessie Fleming did everything but score from the penalty spot in the CONCACAF W Gold Cup semifinal.

Sadly the 25-year-old from London, Ont., was not the only one. American goalkeeper Alyssa Naeher stole the show in Wednesday’s penalty shootout on a waterlogged pitch at San Diego’s Snapdragon Stadium, stopping spot kicks by Fleming, Adriana Leon and Jordyn Huitema while converting a penalty of her own.

The second-ranked Americans won the shootout 3-1 after 10th-ranked Canada rallied twice to force extra time at 1-1 and the shootout at 2-2.

Fleming was the last Canadian shooter, walking away from goal disconsolately as the Americans rushed to mob Naeher.

But Fleming, who took over the captaincy after longtime skipper Christine Sinclair retired from international football in December, has no reason to hang her head. From the get-go Wednesday, she drove the Canadian team.

The Portland Thorns midfielder was one of the first to realize that the ball was sticking on the pitch because of the standing water. So she started looping balls behind the U.S. defence, hoping a teammate could run under it. And when the ball went in touch, Fleming was often the first on the scene, looking to keep play and Canada on the move.

It was a masterful performance by Fleming, who was in constant motion in earning her 128th cap for Canada.

“For me, Jessie the whole tournament has been immense,” said Canada coach Bev Priestman. “It’s probably the things lot of people don’t see “¦ Her leadership, I can’t speak any higher of someone who’s had to step into some big shoes. And of course she’s got an unbelievable player group around her. But she led by example in every yard she covered on that pitch.

‘That’s exactly what Jessie does. She would do anything to get this team over the line. She was immense tonight. She was everywhere. She was up to every first (ball), up to every second ball. It’s probably a reflection of the tournament. And I think this team in safe hands.”

Fleming also probably deserved a penalty after going down in the 48th minute, seemingly after U.S. defender Tierna Davidson made contact in the penalty box.

While the Americans prepare to face No. 1 Brazil in Sunday’s final, with US$1 million going to the winner and US$500,000 to the runner-up, the Canadian women now return to their clubs with next month’s SheBelieves Cup their next international assignment.

Canada will open against Brazil while the host Americans face No. 8 Japan. The two winners will meet in the final while the loser square off for third place.

The Paris Olympics come in late July, with Canada looking to defend its Tokyo title.

The Canadian women have gone 9-1-1 (Wednesday’s penalty shootout loss is officially counted as a draw) since their disappointing exit after the group stage of last summers FIFA World Cup in Australia. They have outscored their opposition 28-4 and posted eight shutouts.

“We’ve lost some critical veteran players who’ve moved on. And I’ve seen this group thrive and grow, some immense leadership on the pitch tonight in some testing moments,” Priestman said. “A younger team could have crumbled.”

The hope is Priestman will have the injured Janine Beckie, Nichelle Prince, Desire Scott, Jayde Riviere and Sydney Collins heathy and available for the Olympics.

Young guns Simi Awujo, Jade Rose and Olivia Smith put up their hands at the tournament.

“This team feels like it’s taken a step forward. We’re on our way. We know where we need to get to,” said Priestman.

As for the soggy conditions, which turned the first half into a farce, both Priestman and U.S interim coach Twila Kilgore echoed each other in saying the pitch was unplayable, forcing them to throw out their game plans in the first minute.

Canadian centre back Vanessa Gilles, who was involved at both ends as the game wore on, was seen wringing water out of jersey in the first minute or so. Gilles also showed her bravery, taking an unwitting punch to the head from Naeher as both went for a ball in the air, earning the 127th-minute penalty that Leon converted to force the shootout.

“I’m just super-proud of the players. I couldn’t ask any more from them,” Priestman said.

While Canada won penalty shootouts to dispatch Brazil and Sweden at the Tokyo Olympics, Naeher was too good Wednesday.

“It’s penalties. We were on the good side of them before. We were on the bad side of them today,” said Priestman.

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This report by The Canadian Press was first published March 7, 2024

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