Onwards and Upwards: 3 questions that the CanWNT/CanXNT will look to answer at the Arnold Clark Cup this week

The CanWNT/CanXNT is getting set to tackle the Arnold Clark Cup later this week, in which they’ll take on England, Germany and Spain in an exciting three-game set. Ahead of then, here are 3 questions that they’ll look to answer over the course of this camp. 

The next step of the journey begins on Thursday.

It won’t be an easy way to kick it off, however, but it’s a fitting way to kick off the start of an important adventure, as the CanWNT/CanXNT are getting set to take on England to begin the Arnold Clark Cup. As they get set to tackle a World Cup qualifying year, it’s a nice way to dive headfirst into what lies ahead of them this year, as they get set to take on the 8th-ranked Lionesses in England, which will be a challenge for a multitude of reasons. 

As part of the first-ever Arnold Clark Cup, in which 6th-ranked Canada and England are joined by 3rd-ranked Germany and 9th-ranked Spain to make up the debut quartet of this tournament, this is going to be an overall great challenge for Canada, who get to take on 3 of the best tier-one teams in the world right now in the span of a week. 

And for a Canadian team that hasn’t done too bad for themselves recently either, winning gold at last year’s summer Olympics, this is the perfect way to begin their journey towards the next step for them, which is to win the 2023 World Cup. 

So by taking on a semi-finalist, quarter-finalist and round of 16 finisher from the last World Cup, this should give them a good idea of what to expect on that journey, one that’s expected to be one heck of a grind.  

Starting with qualifiers this summer, and then moving (hopefully) to the tournament proper, Canada will be in tough as they look to best their best-ever performance at a World Cup, which is 4th place (back in 2003), a stage they haven’t really gotten close to reaching in the 4 tournaments that they’ve played since. 

But backed by their gold medal, they feel that they can take on anyone right now, and you can’t blame them. On the road to their gold medal, they had to take out some very good teams in 7th-ranked Brazil, 2nd-ranked Sweden and 1st-ranked United States, so taking on this level of opposition isn’t new to them. 

So even they’ll be missing some regulars this camp, as veteran Christine Sinclair will be absent from the tournament after the passing of her mother, while their co-leading scorer in 2021, Adriana Leon, is out as she returns from an injury, they’ll feel that those in camp will do what they’ve done every time someone has gone down this past year – just step up and keep going. 

As they head into their second full year under head coach Bev Priestman, that’s been their MO under her tutelage, and considering what they were able to accomplish in act 1, you wouldn’t put it past them finding a way to step it up to a new level in act 2. 

But returning to the Arnold Clark Cup for a second, this camp is a great way for Canada to kick off that act 2 on a high note. Even if they don’t win every game (or don’t win at all), by playing 3 teams of this calibre, they’ll get a chance to learn some valuable lessons along the way. 

And seeing that, to get an idea of some of the lessons they’ll look to learn in this camp, here are 3 questions that they’ll look to answer over the course of the tournament, one that Canada will hope can provide a strong framework for what’s to come for them this year. 

Can 2022 finally be Jordyn Huitema’s year?

To begin, there’s no better place to start than up front, where Canada enters this camp in a very unique spot. 

On a team where Christine Sinclair has led the way at that position for so long, scoring a world-best 188 goals in her career for Canada, there hasn’t been much of a question there for most of her 20+ reign, and for good reason. 

But that’s been changing over the recent years, as Sinclair starts to near her 40s, and a good crop of youngsters has started to come up and give her competition, giving hope that the impact of her absence can be softened in the future. 

And one of those players has been Jordyn Huitema, the 20-year-old striker currently at Paris Saint Germain, who despite not being able to drink in the US, is entering her 6th year with the National Team, having made her debut as a 15-year-old back in 2017. 

Since then, she’s done pretty well for herself, too, scoring her first goal as a 16-year-old, making her first World Cup squad as an 18-year-old in 2019, before bringing home the golden boot award from the 2020 Olympic Qualifiers as an 18-year-old, and winning Olympic gold as a 20-year-old. 

Along with her big move to French giants PSG at 18, where she’s won a D1Arkema title to go along with nearly 20 goals in her few years at the club, and it shows that she’s done well to get where she is at this age.

But now, it feels like she’s on the precipice of a breakout for both club and country. For both, she’s a key contributor, as reflected by her career tally of 30+ goals already, but at the same time, she’s had to do most of her damage in support roles for either side. 

As she gets closer to her prime, however, she’ll want to change that, getting a chance to showcase the ability that caught many people’s eye a few years back, where she burst onto the scene as the next big thing. 

And the good news is that in this camp, she might get her best opportunity yet to do that for Canada. With no Sinclair, Leon or Evelyne Viens (who wasn’t included in the squad), that leaves Huitema as the only proper striker on the roster with a cap, as the only other #9 in Canada’s squad, Tanya Boychuk, is only in her first camp. 

There are others beyond those two who can play up front, of course, such as Deanne Rose, Nichelle Prince, Janine Beckie, Cloe Lacasse and even Jessie Fleming, but depending on Canada’s formation and what Priestman will ask of them, they might be needed elsewhere. 

Because of that, this feels like Huitema will get full reins of the #9 position across the three games in this camp, giving her arguably her best chance ever to showcase herself given the level of opposition. 

Which is exciting. You can tell that Huitema has really found a new level for PSG as of late, and that showed in Canada’s last camp in November, where in 2 games against Mexico, Huitema scored a great goal and just overall looked as about good of a threat up front as she’s ever been for this team. 

Before, she’s always had the raw skill, be it via her height, deceptive speed or ability to finish chances in the box, but now she’s starting to look and play like a true all-around striker, one that can hold up the ball, bring in teammates and weaponize space, doing the sort of little things that veteran players do. 

So for a Canadian team that has had all sorts of questions asked of them in terms of wondering where goals will come from now and in the future, they’ll hope that in Huitema, they have someone who can help fill that gap. 

She’ll get as good of a chance as ever to do so in this camp, and ahead of World Cup qualifiers and the World Cup next year, it’ll hopefully set the table for what can be a big 2 years for her, as she continues her rise in this sport.  

What’s the situation in goal?

But shifting elsewhere on the pitch, while the picture might be clear as day up front for this camp, the same can’t be said in goal, where 4 players are competing for time in goal. 

What was expected to be Stephanie Labbe’s job until the World Cup is now wide-open again, as the longtime Canadian starting goalkeeper announced her retirement last month, leaving Canada to find a successor for the two-time Olympic medallist. 

And the good news? They have a pretty good list of options to choose from for this camp here. 

For example, how about the veteran Erin McLeod, who is also a two-time Olympic medallist, who at 38 years of age, is still plugging away with the Orlando Pride? 

Or if not, to go a bit younger, how about Kailen Sheridan, who split time with Labbe throughout last year, serving as her backup? Or what about Sabrina D’Angelo, who was a forgotten name in the Canadian fold, but returned in November after a strong season for Vittsjo? 

And lastly, if neither of those 3 grab your attention, how about a fresh face in that of the promising Devon Kerr, who after representing the US at the youth level over the years, is in the Canadian squad for the first time? 

Ultimately, the hierarchy is pretty clear as of now – Sheridan will start as the main option, with D’Angelo behind her, while McLeod stays as the veteran 3rd option and Kerr sits in the wings, but that could stand to change quickly, especially knowing this sport. 

Ahead of a big year, Canada will want to make sure to have the best possible option in goal, and while it might be Sheridan right now, someone like D’Angelo or Kerr could surprise in training or if called upon in a match. 

So with 3 games in a short amount of time in this tournament, it’ll be interesting to see if Priestman really tries to make it a competition, or if she decides to let Sheridan try and run away with it first before opening that door further down the road. 

Either way, one thing is for sure – this Canadian team is set in goal for both the now and in the future with Sheridan (26), D’Angelo (28) and Kerr (24) all still very much at a good age for goalkeepers, allowing them to overcome the loss of Labbe. 

It’ll take some time for them to fill the void of Labbe’s leadership, as well as the comfort that she had with her backline, no doubt, but in terms of capable replacements, there’s no reason why any of those 3 can’t become that goalkeeper with time. 

The question now is to figure out which one will do that, and be it via training, or giving them a shot in these games, you have to imagine that Priestman will continue to keep competition intense at that position to help better understand who that will be going forward. 

Kailen Sheridan looks on before one of the two appearances she had in goal against Mexico in November (Canada Soccer/Mexsport)

What changes will we see to Canada’s tactical profile?

And speaking of Priestman, one thing to keep an eye on (other than her competitive goalkeeping situation) is to see how she continues to develop Canada’s tactical profile, of which she promised to do heading into this tournament.  

Which for this Canadian team, is an exciting prospect to dive into. Obviously, their tactical profile is already in a pretty decent place, especially considering that they won the Olympics, but there’s no doubt that there is another gear for this team to find. 

Just taking a look at some of the talent that Priestman has at her disposal, especially at the offensive end, there’s no reason why they can’t find that next level as soon as this camp, and if not, by the World Cup next year. 

And there’s no better example of that than if you look at Canada’s offence. 

At the Olympics, they rode defensive excellence to a gold medal, conceding just 4 goals across 6 games, but there’s no secret that their offence wasn’t always something to write home about, scoring just 6 goals en route to their medal, 2 of them penalties. 

They did enough to win, so there were no complaints there, but it certainly isn’t a sustainable way to live by, because while their defensive excellence means that they don’t need many goals to win, you’d still like to see them find the net a tad bit more often to give their defenders some margin for error.

And the good news is that Priestman agrees with that, as she suggested to reporters when her squad was introduced last week, saying that it’s something that she and her staff are looking at. 

 “We’ll work harder than anyone we play, and we’re very front footed,” Priestman noted. “But where I think we need to move to is also being a big threat at the other end, so we can be world-class in our own box, which we are, but also move towards being much better in the opposition’s box, too.”

So seeing that, it’ll be interesting to see what sort of changes she’ll now make to help her side get to that point, be it via the tactics, or via the formation itself. 

To speak of the latter, for example, last year, Canada used a 4-3-1-2 for most big games, and while that formation is quite solid, Canada felt a bit limited in the final 3rd at times. 

They did control the ball a lot more in midfield thanks to the 3, which often became a diamond of sorts with Sinclair dropping down from the 1, but it put a lot of emphasis on the forwards, often some combination of Janine Beckie, Nichelle Prince, Deanne Rose or Adriana Leon, to carry the load there. 

And that wasn’t always easy, especially with Canada playing so narrow, although Ashley Lawrence did her best at full back to help provide that width. 

But to change that, Canada could try and find a way to both get that width, as well as find that link between the midfield and the front three, which is something they’ve toyed around with, which also ties into the tactics. 

For example, they used a 3 at the back formation in November against Mexico, and while it backfired for them in a 2-1 loss, they were missing a lot of the personnel who that switch would have benefitted, namely Lawrence, Beckie and Shelina Zadorsky. Because of that, with those 3 back in the fold for this camp, it could be worth revisiting that, maybe in a 3-5-2 of sorts.

Otherwise, they could also try to switch to a 4-3-2-1, which could work as well, especially given that would allow Canada to keep their midfield 3, while having a little more in terms of link-up play with the 2, which could be filled nicely by having Jessie Fleming and Deanne Rose, for example. They might still lack a bit of width there, which is a worry, but Fleming and Rose can also push wide, and of course the full backs could still push forward, especially given Canada’s solidity in midfield. 

And at the very least, no matter what formation they play, Canada will just want to continue to improve their movement and passing in the final third, too. They’ve shown plenty of good flashes in games, and have put it together at times such as in convincing wins over Wales and New Zealand last year, but now the next step is doing it in bigger games and on a more consistent basis, of which they’ll try to do this camp. 

So even though doing so against Germany, England and Spain won’t be easy, especially without the likes of Sinclair or Leon, this Canadian team still has plenty of firepower to play around with, something that Priestman will certainly be aware of as she continues her quest to shape this Canadian team’s profile. 

Looking Forward:

But either way, one thing is for sure if you’re Canada right now – this should be an exciting tournament, no matter what happens. 

With bigger games coming up in the future, this is the sort of hard test that they need to try and find the next level, especially if they’re to conquer the beast that is the World Cup. 

Because of that, this camp is really going to be about learning and competing with these teams. Obviously, winning all 3 games is a goal, but at the same time, you want to see growth, be it from an individual or a collective standpoint (if not both). 

And Canada is ready for that. They chose this tournament for a reason, as they wanted these sorts of stiff tests, so now, it’s up to them to really go out and relish that, starting with their match against England later this week. 

Up Next: Canada vs England, Thursday, February 17th, 2022, 11:30 PST, 14:30 EST (Riverside Stadium, Middlesbrough). 

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