Big Dreams in Texas: What to expect from Canada's Women National Team in Olympic Qualifiers

With Canada’s Women’s National Team getting set to get their 2020 Olympic Dreams underway later next week, we break down their road to Tokyo, some tactical questions and other burning questions ahead of their first match down at qualifiers; a date with St.Kitts and Nevis.

They’re heading down to Texas, where they’ll wrangle with their dreams of 5 ring bling.

In a few days, Canada’s Women’s National Team will get their 2020 competitive slate underway, as they take on St.Kitts and Nevis in Edinburg, Texas, to kick off Olympic Qualifying. After a busy 2019, with the World Cup held in France taking up a lot of energy, things promise to be similarly busy this year, as Canada is aiming to return to the Olympics for the 4th edition in a row. 

While they might not have done as well as they hoped last summer at the World Cup, losing in the Round of 16 to Sweden, the Olympics represents a chance at redemption, with another chance at global supremacy looming. It might only be a 12 team tournament, which is quite small compared to the 24 team event that the World Cup has become, but it’s never an easy competition to win, so Canada will have to bring their A-game in order to have their first-ever global triumph. 

That starts with qualifying, which used to be considered a walk, but is no longer the sure thing it sometimes seemed to be, with many CONCACAF confederations stepping up their efforts at developing the Women’s game. Gone are the days where the tournament was just Canada and the US playing what felt like friendlies en route to a meeting in the final, the stage required in order to qualify. 

With Canada looking to avoid wasting the last couple of cycles in the career of their long-time captain, Christine Sinclair, they’ll want to show that they’ve learned the lessons they were taught at the World Cup, where they bowed out meekly having only scored 4 goals in 4 games. Despite their staunch defensive record, as they also only conceded 3 times in those 4 games, they were unable to come up big when it counted, as they seemed offensively uninspired throughout the tournament. 

Things haven’t gotten much better since then, either, as they lost both of their next matches after the summer, an October clash with former World Cup winners, Japan, and a November outing against their familiar South American foes, Brazil, by identical 4 to 0 scorelines. While they partly redeemed themselves after the Brazil game, which was played as part of an invitational tournament held in China this past November, beating New Zealand 3-0 in a 3rd place match, there are several questions surrounding this Canadian squad. 

With 3 years until the next major tournament, this may be one of the best shots left to get Sinclair a coveted piece of silverware on her already very decorated trophy mantle, as the 36-year-old will be turning 37 a few months before the Olympics start. Will she still be around to play in her 6th World Cup at the age of 40 in 2023? It’s hard to put that past her, but as she continues to bang in goals at a solid rate, it would seem wasteful to not have a good run in this year’s tournament. 

Considering that Canada’s coming off back-to-back Bronze medals in the 2012 and 2016 editions of this competition, they know what it takes to find success in Olympic play, it’s just a matter of translating that to a gold medal triumph. 

To even dream of that, however, they’ll need to get through qualifiers first, which are going to be played over the next couple of weeks. With Canada’s 20 player squad now official, we know who the players that will represent the red and white down in Texas are, as they will all bond together in order to attempt and help Canada reach it’s 4th consecutive Olympic tournament. 

The path to Tokyo

Luckily for Canada, the Olympic qualifying format is one of the most straightforward avenues towards the tournament out there, with the 8 teams all having an equal chance at making it to Tokyo. 

Those 8 teams have been split into 2 groups of 4, in which they will all play each other within the group once, for a total of 3 games. After those 3 games, the top two teams in each group will advance to the semi-finals, which is where the fun really starts, as the 1st place team in each group will take on the 2nd place team in the opposing group. 

In the semi-finals, both matches represent ‘win and you’re in’ possibilities in terms of teams Olympic Dreams, as the two winning sides will head to Tokyo, with the final only played to declare an official tournament winner, along with seeding for the draw at the tournament proper. 

For Canada, their group consists of St.Kitts and Nevis, Jamaica and Mexico, who they’ll play in that exact order. St.Kitts and Nevis shouldn’t be too much of a problem for Les Rouges, as the small Caribbean island is ranked 127th in the world, a full 119 spots behind Canada, but the other two both pose interesting challenges on their own. 

Mexico is never an easy out, as they showed Canada back in the 2004 qualifying tournament, the first of its kind for CONCACAF. Canada, who had missed out on the first two tournaments, held in 1996 and 2000, lost to Mexico in the ‘win and you’re in’ semi-final match, extending their early drought to 3 tournaments, showcasing the unpredictable nature of this tournament. 

Mexico has fallen a bit off the standard that they set earlier this decade, as they made both the 2011 and 2015 Cups before missing out in 2019, but things are certainly on the way up in the country. They officially established their own domestic league in 2016, and are starting to attract fans, as average attendances have continued rising year over year, with some individual matches hitting between 20 000-50 000+ spectators. 

As the recent emergence of European national teams has shown, creating your own domestic league can be huge for developing talent, and it seems like only a matter of time until Mexico joins Canada and the US at the top of CONCACAF. It’s unsure if that will be as soon as this year, as they don’t yet have the top-end depth in their squad, but they have a solid set of players who are familiar with each other (15/20 players play in the LIGA MX Feminil), and they have shown in the past that they’re never easy to handle. 

Jamaica is going to be Canada’s stiffest test, however, at least in the group stages, as they’re fresh off of their first-ever appearance at the World Cup, where they bowed out with 3 losses in 3 group stage games. With that confidence booster of having made a big tournament for the first time ever, they’ll be motivated to show that it’s all part of their current rise, as beating Canada would be a sparkling achievement to showcase just that.

With a young squad, as 15 out of the 20 players in their group are 25 or under, things are looking up for Jamaica. They’ve got a solid league of their own, giving young talent an avenue to come up in, before moving on to the NWSL and various other European leagues, as many of their top players are currently doing. 

While losing to any of these 3 teams wouldn’t be the end of the world for Canada, who just need to get out of their group to keep their Olympic dreams alive, a loss could severely hamper those aspirations. The US, current back-to-back World Cup champions, are unlikely to lose any of their 3 games, which would mean that a 2nd place Canadian finish sets up a US-Canada final, which is a fixture that has troubled Canada mightily over the years. 

That is why it is imperative that Canada brings their best form to Texas next week, starting with all 3 group stage games. They’re betting favourites in all 3 games, but the matchups against Mexico and Jamaica are far from a guarantee, and falling short against either of those two could lead to a date with a team no one wants to face until the final. 

Tactical Trouble?

Christine Sinclair in action against Haiti last week (Canada Soccer/Patrick Gilbreath)

Part of why many are less confident in Canada than they’ve been of recent editions has been due to the tactical side of things, with Canada going through a swath of changes since the departure of former head coach, John Herdman, back in 2018. His replacement, Kenneth Heiner-Moller, has been solid, but there are a lot more questions than answers with this team right now. 

Heading into the World Cup, the main question was offence, as Heiner-Moller drilled his team marvellously on the defensive end, but with 8 goals conceded in the 3 (really 2) games since that tournament, it doesn’t quite yet appear the balance between offence and defence has been maintained. 

Adding to the doubt has been a lack of friendlies that they’ve played since then, with teams like the US playing 7 games since their triumph over the Netherlands in July, compared to Canada’s paltry total of 3. Had the Canadians been playing games and showing signs of improvement, things would be less worrying at the moment, but they haven’t, hence the myriad of questions currently surrounding this side.

Heiner-Moller’s worked with them a lot lately, doing loads of training in preparation for this tournament, but we’ll find out how all of that works out when the matches kick off next week. Canada did play a closed-door training match a few days ago, drawing 68th ranked Haiti 1-1, but with it being a heavily rotated friendly match, the result should be taken with a grain of salt, as it was likely a chance for some new faces to audition, along with a chance to work on some tactics. 

For Canada, the biggest question tactically this tournament will be figuring out how to use their midfield more, as they struggled heavily in that area of the pitch in 2019. They have quality attackers, and a pretty stout back 4, but the midfield seemed unable to help them transition the ball forward effectively in games, which along with Canada’s struggles to break teams down in the final third, was a big catalyst for their offensive struggles.

What will be interesting is to see how they choose to set themselves up formation-wise, as the 4-4-2 was the main way to go during the World Cup, while the 3-5-2 was the set-up of choice after it, leaving many questions to be asked of both set-ups. A 4-3-3 seems like a happy medium, but with Canada only having 5 natural central midfielders, compared to 6 forwards/wingers, they do seem more equipped for a 3-5-2 or a 4-4-2. 

Whatever they do select, however, their main goal will need to be assuring that they avoid getting too stretched out defensively, that they can use the likes of attackers Nichelle Prince, Janine Beckie and Sinclair in transition, while midfielders Sophie Schmidt, Desiree Scott, Jessie Fleming, Gabrielle Carle and Julia Grosso can all help the attackers thrive through their varied skillsets. 

With Beckie, Sinclair and Prince all dangerous options up front, along with the tall and deadly Jordyn Huitema, the wrecking ball Adriana Leon and the clinical Deanne Rose, Canada has the juice to make things happen offensively, provided that they can get them the ball. Ashley Lawrence can help do that from full back, Schmidt, Fleming and Scott have shown to be able to do it as well from midfield, while several young faces such as midfielders Grosso and Carle, along with full back Jayde Riviere, have the potential do, but will that be enough?

Ultimately, it should be, but it may require creative maneuvering. Do you play a 3-5-2 to get the most out of Lawrence, who can make things happen from full-back? Or do you go with a 4-4-2 to keep things solid defensively, but still put out Beckie, Sinclair, Prince and Leon/Huitema/Rose all at once?

The best choice may come down to a combination of all of those things mentioned.

They could play with 4 at the back, but with the left back either being the more conservative Alysha Chapman or even centre back Rebecca Quinn, allowing Lawrence to shoot forward from right back without worry. In the midfield, Schmidt and Scott would sit deeper to protect the defenders, but be expected to launch the ball forward, with Lawrence supporting on the right, while Beckie does the same on the left, helping them transition up the pitch. 

Fleming would then act as a #10, while Sinclair would be the striker, with Prince making her deadly runs into those channels between the centre backs and full backs alongside them. 

Might it work? Maybe, as it could just as easily not work, but it’s one idea, amongst many, that they could go for. Given that Heiner-Moller has had several months of time to stew over all of the possibilities, he surely has a few tricks up his sleeve, now we’ll see exactly what cards he plays.

Which considering the talent at his disposal, hopefully his plans can come to fruition, as they have the pieces to make some noise, at least more than what they showed at the World Cup. 

Will the kids be alright?

In order to do that, youth is going to have to play a big role. Canada has only 5 players 30 and older, but an impressive 12 players 25 and under, which is going to mean that the kids are going to have to be more than alright in order for them to have any success. 

Some of those 25 and under players have started to play huge roles, with Beckie, Prince, Fleming, Lawrence and Kadeisha Buchanan all key contributors for Canada. Offensively, Beckie and Prince will need to provide the wide support to get Sinclair the service she needs, while defensively, Lawrence and Buchanan will be key at stopping and starting Canadian attacks. 

But out of the 5, Fleming will be the most interesting player to watch. It feels like forever ago that she made her debut at the 2015 World Cup at 16, coming onto the scene as the next big Candian thing. She’s still only 21 (!!), but it feels like it’s soon time for her to make the next big step. With her college career soon coming to an end, you’d expect her to make a big move to Europe or the NWSL, which will help, but you’d hope that a huge breakout at these sorts of tournaments could be the launching pad towards that. 

As an attacking midfielder, Canada will need her to be huge, as they don’t really have anyone else to transition the ball from defence to attack. Schmidt can do it, to a certain extent, but at 31, for how much longer? Fleming has shown to be consistently able to in college, and in flashes with the National Team, so hopefully she can start to do it regularly for Canada, who will certainly need her to. 

Elsewhere, the two young guns to watch, aside from Riviere, Rose and Carle, will be a pair of former Whitecaps academy grads, Huitema and Grosso. Grosso, who’s an offensive midfielder, can help Canada offensively if needed, as she’s shown lots of growth so far in her stint with Texas in the college game. 

Up front, Huitema will need to be an effective wild card, either as a starter, or off the bench. Still only 18, her move to Paris has seemed to pay dividends for her so far, as she’s started to develop the maturity of a true striker. She has the talent, she has the size, and now she’s gathering that final cutting edge, so you’d figure it’s only a matter of time before she starts hitting them in with regularity for Canada. 

With so many young players on the roster, the kids are going to have to come up big this tournament and beyond, as the likes of Sinclair, Diana Matheson, Schmidt, Scott, Chapman and other important members from the 2012 and 2016 bronze medal squads continue to transition towards retirement. These youngsters have the potential to do it, but they’ll need to find a way to reach those aspirations, which this tournament could certainly provide them an avenue towards doing. 

Looking Forward

The qualifiers kick off next week, on Tuesday, January 29th, when Canada takes on St.Kiits and Nevis in Edinburg. After the quieter post-World Cup schedule, it’ll be nice to see them play a handful of games, especially with the qualifiers schedule being so congested, giving us a strong idea of where this team is at. 

When you look at it, at least on paper, they have lots of potential for great things, but they just need to find a way to put everything together in order to start fulfilling that. You’d figure that happens eventually, but with veterans like Sinclair and Schmidt not getting any younger, you’d hope it comes sooner, rather than later, especially with such a vital tournament in the Olympics rapidly approaching.

But before looking ahead that far, they’ll need to make sure that they get there, first. That will require 4 solid performances, starting with Tuesday. As Sinclair chases history, only 2 goals off of being the all-time highest women’s international goal scorer, while Canada chases that coveted first major women’s triumph, there is no shortage of storylines to monitor, which we’ll be doing our best to do here on our site. 

After a disappointing 2019, there’s a good chance for Canada to turn the page, starting with qualifiers, now it’s time to see if they can add another interesting chapter to what’s been an entertaining book over the course of their time together as a program. 

Cover Photo by: Canada Soccer/Patrick Gilbreath

4 thoughts on “Big Dreams in Texas: What to expect from Canada's Women National Team in Olympic Qualifiers

  1. I get the feeling that we might sh*t the bed and lose the semi-final, eliminating us from the Olympics! Too many observers take qualification from this zone for granted but I am not convinced for this year.

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