Golden Opportunity: CanWNT ready to take on Sweden in massive Olympic soccer tournament final

Canada Soccer’s Women’s National Team will take on Sweden on Friday morning for a chance to win their first-ever major tournament. Here’s our preview ahead of that one.

It doesn’t get much bigger than this.

90 minutes of best-on-best soccer, for a chance to win an Olympic gold medal – it’s the sort of thing you can only dream of one day participating in when you’re a kid.

But for Canada Soccer’s Women’s National Team, they now have a chance to make that sort of dream a reality this week, after they advanced to the 2021 Tokyo Olympics Gold Medal match this past Monday, all thanks to a big win over their rivals, the US, their first such victory in 20 years.

Now, they’ll take on Sweden this Friday, in a showdown of a lifetime, with a spot in the soccer history books at stake, of which they’d certainly join with a win.

Just by making their first-ever major tournament final, this Canadian team is already playing with house money at this point, but at the same time, they’re all-in on chasing gold, so they’re fully aware of the opportunity that lies ahead of them.

Make no mistake, though – it’s a huge surprise that this Canadian side is even here, but at the same time, that’s a credit to how big of a year they’ve had to this point.

Heading into an Olympic year with a new head coach, as Bev Priestman was brought in to replace the departed Kenneth Heiner-Moller, no one knew how this Canadian side would look at this tournament, with there being a sentiment that this team had aged out and needed to transition to a younger roster.

Despite those concerns, however, Priestman elected to go against a full rebuild and instead decided to retool on the fly, integrating some new faces into her squad, while also trying to squeeze the most out of some veterans who are nearing the end of their time in a Canadian shirt. 

With the main goal being to build a side that could help Canadian captain Christine Sinclair, the all-time international goal scorer with 187 goals, compete for a medal at one of her last major tournaments, all while ‘changing the colour of the medal’ in the process, it wasn’t going to be an easy task, but it wasn’t an impossible one, either. 

And on both fronts, Priestman has succeeded in her mission. Canada is a much younger side, having only started 4 players under 30 in the semi-finals, compared to the other 7 who were 26 or under, but more importantly, this side has come together quite nicely around Sinclair, becoming about as complete a unit as they’ve ever looked before.

So heading into the final, it’s given those who watch them a real belief that they can actually win this tournament, something that many definitely wouldn’t have predicted before they even kicked a ball in Tokyo.

With all of that in mind, though, here’s what to expect from them in this final, one in which they’ll look to give this country a moment to remember.

Sinclair’s big moment: 

And to start, it’s important to point out how big of a moment this is for Canada’s ‘Captain Canada’, Sinclair, who has waited her whole career for a moment like this. 

When she made her debut as a 16-year-old back in 2000, one would’ve thought occasions like this would be a regular occurrence for her in her career, but 303 games later, despite her 187 goals, that hasn’t been the case, having never progressed past the final of a major tournament until now.

Because of that, it’s important that Canada takes full hold of this special opportunity to play in a major final. With the tide always rapidly changing in this sport, who knows what the international landscape will look like in 2023 at the next World Cup, or in 2024 at the next Olympics, making it hard to promise another good kick at the can like this for Sinclair. 

At 38 years of age, who knows how much she’ll have left in the tank to want to keep up at the high level she’s managed to maintain for over 2 decades, as she’d be excused for wanting to retire before something serious could happen to her. Considering how fit she is, you know she could play to 45 if she desired, but having mostly avoided major injury up to this point in her career, she wouldn’t be pressed if she hangs up her boots on her terms. 

So for someone who has always represented the Canadian shirt so faithfully and honourably, playing not only to the best of her ability as a player, but also doing so with great humility and passion, Canada will have every reason to want to go out and win for her in this game. 

One of the greats of this sport, the only thing missing in her extensive trophy cabinet is winning a major honour like this with her country, of which she’s finally got a shot of doing in this game. 

Because of all that, expect Canada to rally around their captain in this game, giving her a moment to remember. 

Having fittingly scored the first goal of their tournament, what a moment it would be for her to head out with a goal and a gold medal, only further cementing her status as a Canadian and global soccer icon. 

The new wave is taking over: 

But while Sinclair will be expected to play a big role in this game, so will her teammates, as this Canadian side has proven to be quite the cohesive unit at these games. 

From off the field, where all of the players have been quite close all year, to on the field, where Canada has gotten big performances from every player on the roster, this Canadian team is about as cohesive as they come. 

But while the group has a good mix of veterans and young players, with 6 players 30 or older, and 6 players 23 or younger, we’ve seen the younger players really take a big step forward in this tournament, representing a passing of the torch of sorts. 

From 23-year-old Jessie Fleming and 25-year-old Quinn’s big performances in midfield, to the good play from the pair of 26-year-olds up front in Janine Beckie and Nichelle Prince, along with sturdy play at the back from 25-year-olds Kadeisha Buchanan and Vanessa Gilles, Canada’s new generation has stepped up in a big way for this team this tournament. 

That’s not to say that the veterans have been rendered obsolete for Canada – far from it, actually, as veterans such as Allysha Chapman, Desiree Scott, Stephanie Labbe and of course, Sinclair, have all put up some big shifts as starters in most games, but Canada’s also gotten some standout performances from their younger faces in this squad.

For a team that has often been criticized for relying too heavily both on Sinclair, and her other fellow veterans, in recent years, those concerns have been quieted this tournament, as some young players have stepped up big time. 

Take someone like the 20-year-old Julia Grosso, for example. In past tournaments, a player like her would only play in spot duty in the group stages, and wouldn’t be heard of for the rest of the competition, barring injuries or any other absences. 

Instead, she started the second game of the group stages against Chile, and had a huge cameo off of the bench against the US in the semi-finals when the game was still 0-0, helping her team grab a lead and then shut down the game. 

And she’s not the only one, as Priestman hasn’t been shy to turn to her youngsters in all of the games. Against the US, for example, other than Grosso, the age of the other 3 subs were 20, 22 and 28, which shows Canada’s intent to invest in youth going forward. 

That approach has paid off for them at this tournament, big time, and it bodes well for them in the long term, as they’ve finally started to pass the torch to some of the talented players that are coming through the ranks. 

Before, it was always Sinclair’s team (and it still is to an extent), but it’s now also Beckie, Buchanan’s, Fleming’s and Ashley Lawrence’s team, and soon the likes of Grosso and Jordyn Huitema will join them much sooner than some would’ve imagined under Heiner-Moller a year or two ago. 

Vanessa Gilles has stepped up in a big way for Canada at this tournament (Canada Soccer/Richard Callis)

Revenge against Sweden: 

Shifting to their opponents for this match, though, Canada will have their hands full with their Scandinavian foes, who have rolled through this tournament. 

Through 5 games, they’ve won all 5 of their games, scoring 13 goals and allowing just 3 across those games. 

Despite playing the 1st-ranked US, 9th-ranked Australia (x2) and 10th-ranked Japan along the way, they’ve managed to get through all of their games without much concern, quickly becoming the favourites to win this tournament. 

They’re talented, well-coached and want to win, making them as formidable of a team as any in this tournament. Plus, with just 2 players 23 or younger, they’re an older team filled with players mostly in their prime, as they came into this tournament knowing that this is as good of a shot as any to win a major tournament. 

Led by the likes Hedvig Lindahl, Caroline Seger, Kosovare Allsani, Sofia Jakobsson, Magdalena Eriksson and Stina Blackstenius, their core of star players has proven to be a handful for all who have come in the way of their quest towards gold, and their supporting cast hasn’t been too shabby, either. 

Having lost in the final of the last Olympics, they’ve come to Tokyo looking like a team that wants to avenge what they would’ve felt like was a massive missed opportunity in Rio de Janeiro, where they lost 2-1 to Germany in the Gold Medal match. 

At the same time, though, they’ve got a lot of similarities with Canada. Although this is their 3rd final at a major tournament (compared to Canada’s 1st), much like Canada, they’re yet to win a major tournament, having made the semi-finals at 7 of 15 major tournaments (compared to Canada’s rate of 4 in 11), showing that despite constantly being in the top 3 conversation at these sort of competitions, they’re yet to really jump up and win that major honour. 

Plus, both teams have recent history, as Sweden knocked Canada out of the 2019 World Cup in the Round of 16, winning 1-0, as they went on to finish 3rd in that tournament. 

So because of all of that, this match promises to be a big one. Both teams have talented squads, have recent history, come into this tournament with plenty of players in their prime, and most importantly, have never breached this frontier before, giving them every reason to go for it in this game. 

Instead of what we saw at each of the last World Cup and Olympic finals, where it was the case of a team that had been there and won before (US, Germany), against a team looking to break through that barrier (Netherlands, Sweden), this will be a matchup between 2 teams hungry for that breakthrough, which should only up the entertainment value. 

Heat concerns: 

But despite that intent to ramp up the pressure and combine for a good game, both sides might unfortunately not be able to do that in this game, because as it stands, the projected weather forecast for the game does not look promising for that kind of high-intensity play. 

With temperatures projected to be upwards of 30 degrees Celsius at kick-off (which will reportedly feel closer to 40-45 degrees), unless something changes, this game will be played in conditions that will not make it easy for two already tired teams who’d want to leave everything out on the field. 

Due to a strange scheduling quirk that saw organizers schedule this game at 11 in the morning local time to appease the favoured American audience (for whom this game will be in the evening/night instead of early in the morning as the rest of the games this tournament), as it stands, this game will be played in borderline dangerous playing conditions. 

Because of that, both teams have submitted a request to have the game moved to another time, because although it benefits Canadian viewers to remain at this time, the welfare of the players is of the utmost priority, and both sides recognize that. 

As of writing, there has been no word of if that request will be honoured, so until any news emerges on that front, assume that this game will remain at the current time, but it does feel like a change might be imminent. 

So while it might be rough for Canadian viewers if this time is changed, the players’ health has to come first, and hey, having woken up for all of the other games of this tournament, most hardcore viewers will have adjusted to this schedule so far. 

Plus, it’s a major final, so for those who aren’t yet adjusted to the early schedule, it won’t be hard to get up for a game like this, as Canada’s chase for history should be plenty of motivation for those who struggle to get up early for something like this.

(UPDATE: The kick-off time was indeed changed to later in the day. The final will now be played at 5:00 AM PDT, 8:00 AM EDT.)

Etched in history: 

And speaking of that, it’s important to highlight how big of a moment this is for Canada, as they’re already heroes no matter what happens in this game. 

For a country that loves to rally around this sport, filling bars for countless men’s and women’s World Cups, Olympics and continental cups (Euros, Gold Cups, etc.) to support their ancestral countries, to finally have their chance to cheer on their home team in a major final is a massive opportunity. 

Because of that, this game will possibly be one of the most-watched games in Canadian sporting history, no matter what time it’s played at, as this country has rallied around this team in a big way as the games have gone along. 

As they did so when this Canadian team won bronze medals at the last 2 Olympics before this, Canada is behind this team, no matter what happens, as they’ve already blown away expectations. 

Barely expected to make it past the quarter-finals by most pundits, to then go on and make the final of the whole thing, allowing them to ‘change the colour of the medal’ as they’ve long-stated their goal was to do this tournament, it’s already been a special run, one that will mark them as heroes back in Canada. 

So while now Canada will look to put the cap on this amazing run with a big victory, this has already been a special tournament, one that will be remembered for years to come. 

Projected XI:

Lastly, here’s Canada’s projected XI for this pivotal match. Barring any surprise changes, Priestman should be expected to run it back with the same XI from the US game, as seen below. 

Looking Forward: 

So now, with everything set, all that’s left is for the teams to go out there, battle for 90+ minutes, and try to come out on top as Olympic gold medallists.

For Canada, this is a chance that has been a long time coming, so it’s important that they head out there and make the most of the occasion, doing what they can to win. 

They’ve done that all tournament, growing in pretty much every game, so it’s not a new concept for them, but now, that final frontier looms. 

Having already accomplished the first part of their main quest, which was to ‘change the colour of the medal’, they’ve now got a golden opportunity to make sure that gold is the flavour of the day for them this tournament, putting the cap on an already memorable campaign. 

With history already in their back pocket, they’re now looking to do something that would reverberate across the nation, providing a moment that wouldn’t be forgotten for years to come. 

Up Next: Canada vs Sweden, Friday, August 5th, 2021, 5:00 AM PDT, 8:00 AM EDT (National Stadium, Tokyo)

Cover Photo via: Canada Soccer/Richard Callis

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