Positives Aplenty: Vanessa Gilles, spirited effort highlight positives in Bev Priestman’s CanWNT debut loss versus US

For the first time in 11 and a half months, the Canadian Women’s National team took the pitch on Thursday. In this, we look at what stood out from that game, as they ultimately fell 1-0 in a hard-fought battle with the #1 ranked US. 

Ultimately, it was a familiar sight for Canadian soccer fans. 

Against their noisy neighbours, Canada’s women fought to the very end, but due to some indecisive moments, and a bit of US magic, they succumbed to their rivals once again. 

But despite that familiar narrative, things did feel different on Thursday, as Canada began the Bev Priestman era with a strong performance against the US at the She Believes Cup, fighting tooth and nail with the Americans before falling to a late Rose Lavelle winner. 

Shorthanded due to a mix of injuries and some French clubs’ reluctance to let some of their players travel to Florida, Canada put up a respectable account of themselves against a US team that seems basically programmed to win games. 

It’s still early days under Priestman, but with this effort, it all of a sudden makes her suggestions of Canada being capable of Olympic glory all the less outlandish, instead driving stock in this team right back up. 

“For an opening game, as a new coach coming in, you want players to put everything out on the field and I’m really proud,” Priestman told reporters after the game. “I thought they did that, the mindset was right, first and foremost, they were brave, they worked really, really hard, and I think they took it to the US for moments of that game.”

Some stiff tests still await them, including battles with Argentina and Brazil in the next week, along with an April clash with England, among others, but seeing how they performed against the world’s best on Thursday, you can’t help but be excited about what you saw. 

So ahead of the rest of the tournament for Canada, who will be looking to both pick up some wins and play some nice football along the way, here is some of what stood out from their opening day clash with the current back-to-back World Cup champions. 

The compete level:

It sounds simplistic, but sometimes to win, you have to want to win. 

That’s not to say Canada hasn’t beat the US in nearly 20 years because they haven’t wanted to win, as that’s usually never an issue, but comparing Thursday’s loss with their last loss to the US, a 3-0 loss in the 2020 CONCACAF Olympic Qualifiers finals a year ago, there was a noticeable difference in their mentality. 

A big issue surrounding Kenneth Heiner-Moller’s tenure as Canadian coach was that his side often looked tentative in matches against bigger opponents, as Canada often seemed too content to let the game come to them, instead of trying to go make things happen. 

They didn’t dominate proceedings on Thursday (which to be fair, nearly no one does against the US), but that wasn’t due to a lack of effort, as they certainly had their fair numbers of chances to grab a lead, and probably felt like they could’ve done more on the goal they did give up. They did give away a few big chances that the US could’ve done way more with, but considering they were without their defensive rock in Kadeisha Buchanan, you felt like that was inevitable. 

Compared to 2020, where it felt like all they could’ve managed is a draw even if everything went right for them, they had the right mindset to go out and win the game, which was nice to see in Priestman’s first game in charge.  

The tactics will come with time, as they tend to do with when a new coach comes in, so there’s little to worry about there. A mentality change, however, can be noticed right away, and when watching how Canada performed on Thursday, you could see a big difference compared to when they last played the States. 

One game does not make a team, so it’s important to be careful in not reading too much into what happened in this one, but at the same time, if they can build off of this performance, you can’t help but feel a tad bit excited about where this team’s future lies. 

The Vanessa Gilles show:

At the same time, while it’s hard to evaluate a team after one game, much less a brand-new coach’s first game against the top team in the world, you can absolutely evaluate individual performances, and there’s one that captured the attention of all watching. 

In only her third senior game for Canada, defender Vanessa Gilles put up an outstanding performance, one that had social media ablaze both during and after the game. 

She was calm in possession, never seemed to lose an aerial battle, made some absurd tackles and blocks, helping Canada keep things mostly tidy at the back. She did pretty much everything except score a goal for her team, which to give credit to her, she nearly pulled off at one point on a corner, so full marks to how she performed in this one. 

“I thought Vanessa had an unbelievable performance,” Priestman said. “We’ve seen that throughout the camp, I think I said in these moments when you’re missing some core players, players have to step up and they’ll do things you don’t know they’ve got, and I think Vanessa absolutely did that.”

And while the eye test suggests that she had a strong game, some of the numbers back it up, too, as she had a staggering 20 clearances, as well as 7 interceptions. Those clearances represented half of the clearances made by both teams combined (40), while the interceptions were the highest of any player on both teams, as she always seemed to be in the right place at the right time. 

On a Canadian team already blessed with Kadeisha Buchanan and Shelina Zadorsky at centre back, this team wasn’t pressed to find another top centre back, but if Gilles keeps this up, they might have some interesting decisions to make in the future. 

With Canada having a few top attacking full backs, Ashley Lawrence and Jayde Riviere among them, does Gilles’s emergence allow Canada to play a 3 at the back with Buchanan and Zadorsky, freeing up Lawrence and Riviere? Or does Canada stick with a 4 at the back, rotating between the more in-form centre backs? 

Either way, the continued emergence of Gilles can only be a good thing for Canada, so hopefully we get to see more of her in the future. 

For someone who’s still only 24 and is getting regular minutes on a Bordeaux team that currently sits third in the French league after usual powerhouses Lyon and PSG, you have a feeling that she’s just getting started, and we appeared to see a breakout performance from her on Thursday. 

Don’t forget about the others, though: 

Canadian standout Quinn takes a shot in the first half versus the US (Canada Soccer/Jeremy Reper)

But while Gilles stole the headlines, it’s important to highlight some of the other bright lights from Canada’s narrow loss, as there were a few players that put up admirable performances despite the result. 

First, Quinn has to be highlighted for their work in midfield, as they did very well in a solid 60-minute cameo as a #6 alongside Desiree Scott. Having played as a centre back last year under Heiner-Moller, their inclusion in the starting 11 did pose questions of a potential back 5, but as the game rolled on, it was clear that Quinn had a job to do, and they did it excellently. 

Defensively, they barely set a foot wrong, using their length to disrupt a handful of US attacks, while chipping in offensively, consistently finding a way to progress the ball forward into smart areas. Along with a good first-half sequence that saw them dribble through a few players before unleashing a blocked shot, it was a great audition for the 25-year-old in front of Priestman. 

With Canada’s need for more transitional threat in midfield, Quinn showed they can be an interesting option worth trying out, and seeing how much they got out of Jessie Fleming while they were paired up together, you’d expect to see more of that partnership going forward. 

Elsewhere, Allysha Chapman was strong at full back, putting in a few monstrous last-ditch challenges, including one on Lynn Williams that was probably about as close to a perfect tackle as you can get in the sport these days. Her aggressiveness nearly cost her a few times, which can happen with her, but she hardly set a foot wrong on Thursday, quieting the US’s right flank. 

Along with Stephanie Labbe, who performed admirably after a 10th-minute entry for an injured Kailen Sheridan, and Nichelle Prince, who looked adept in a new #9 role in the moments she got on the ball, there were certainly some top performances for Priestman to reflect on. 

That cutting edge: 

So as a whole, you can’t take away from how Canada performed in this one. They battled hard, defended relatively well and had some strong individual performances. What more could you want? 

Well…

Let’s just say a lack of finish in the final third may have brought back some painful memories for some, who may have got 2019 World Cup flashbacks from some of the missed opportunities that went wasted at their hands in this one. 

While that should *probably* be expected when you’re missing the greatest goalscorer in international soccer history, Christine Sinclair and her 186 goals, but at the same time, Canada should’ve done better with what they created. 

As they’ve learned, a goal or two can go a long way for this team, especially with how they usually defend. They have what it takes to stay in these tight games, but that means nothing if they don’t offer more run support to their defenders, which wasn’t the case in this game. 

Again, this is the US they were playing. Many teams struggle to finish. Had you told someone before the game that Canada would lose 1-0 despite missing a handful of regulars in their coach’s first game in charge, most people would’ve taken that in a heartbeat. 

On the other hand, you can’t live in a vacuum. Canada generated the chances needed to win, but they just didn’t convert on them, which can be the difference between a top team and a middling one. 

Janine Beckie knows that more than anyone, having missed a few herself, but there were also a few other attempts from her teammates that could’ve caused a bit more trouble than they eventually ended up causing. Yes, there was also a potential handball that could’ve been given as a penalty had there been VAR in this game, but Canada didn’t need to depend on that.

The good news, however? They proved they can hang with a top team while shorthanded. That bodes well for potential Olympic podium ambitions. If they work on their finishing, which again should improve when the likes of Sinclair and Jordyn Huitema, who PSG didn’t release for this camp, return to the fold, things will get better. 

And if their coach has anything to say about it, it seems like personnel or no personnel, finishing will be an area that will be addressed in training, as well.  

“We should’ve put our chances away (today), but by the time the Olympics come, I think that we will,” Priestman boldly stated Thursday. 

Shoutout to Schmidt:

Sophie Schmidt taking the field for the 200th time as a member of the CanWNT on Thursday versus the US (Canada Soccer/Jeremy Reper)

Also, a big shoutout goes out to BC’s own Sophie Schmidt, who became the third Canadian player to reach the exclusive 200-cap club on Thursday with her appearance.

The talented midfielder always puts in an honest shift, and is about as nice as they come in this sport, so it’s good to see her hit this well-earned milestone.

As she showed last year in the NWSL, she’s got a lot more still in the tank, so hopefully we see more of her on the pitch in 2021 and beyond.

Fingers crossed: 

To round things off, here’s to hoping that injuries to Kailen Sheridan and Bianca St. Georges aren’t too serious, as the two 2020 NWSL standouts both have been felled by injuries in recent weeks. 

First, it was St. Georges, the young Quebecois full back, who picked up an injury in the tournament’s pre-camp, forcing her to withdraw from the squad. According to her own Instagram, that injury actually ended up being a meniscus tear, which upon early research, could see her out for anywhere from a few weeks to nearly a year. 

For her sake, as well as Canada’s, here’s to hoping it’s closer to weeks than it is months, as she was well-deserving of this call-up after her play for Chicago last year. 

With Sheridan, she picked up a knock early in the game against the US, which saw her removed in the 10th minute for the veteran, Labbe. One of the top goalkeepers in the NWSL last year for Sky Blue, it felt like Sheridan had a chance to become Canada’s #1 this camp, so it was painful to see her be withdrawn in tears after a non-contact injury. 

You never know how bad those injuries could be, and there’s no update as of writing, but you hope that she can recover in time for the start of the NWSL season in April, at the very least. 

As for some of the other players out injured, veterans Christine Sinclair, Diana Matheson and Erin McLeod, you just hope their absences are more related to wear and tear than any long-term issues, so keep your fingers crossed there, as this young Canadian team will want them back as soon as possible. 

A powerful stand:

Canada kneels during the Canadian anthem ahead of their clash with the US (Canada Soccer/Jeremy Reper)

And lastly, shout out to Canada for kneeling during the National anthem while adorning matching Black Lives Matter shirts, protesting the continued unjust treatment of Black people.

During Black History Month, with a Black captain in Desiree Scott leading the way, you can only tip your hat to how Canada went about spreading an important message before the game.

Looking Forward: 

But now, Canada gets back at it on Sunday against Argentina, who will be looking for revenge after a tough 4-1 loss to Brazil on Thursday. 

Given the threat South American teams always tend to offer, Canada will have to bring their A-game once again, as they’ll look to show that their performance against the US was no fluke. 

With the short turnaround between games, we might see some new faces then, as well, so there should be plenty to keep an eye out for. 

And while picking up a result will be more than expected, especially seeing the 23 spot gap between the two sides in the FIFA Rankings, this She Believes cup is mostly about setting building blocks for Canada, so hopefully they can build off of what they started against the US, on top of a victory.  

Up Next: Canada vs Argentina, Sunday, February 21st, 2021, 15:00 PST, 18:00 EST (Exploria Stadium, Orlando)

Cover Photo via: Canada Soccer/Jeremy Reper

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