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Canadian women's triumphant soccer return a good sign as World Cup, Olympic qualifications loom

·4 min read
Canada’s Jessie Fleming scores on a penalty shot during the first half of her team's 5-1 victory over New Zealand in Celebration Tour action at TD Place in Ottawa on Saturday. (Adrian Wyld/The Canadian Press - image credit)
Canada’s Jessie Fleming scores on a penalty shot during the first half of her team's 5-1 victory over New Zealand in Celebration Tour action at TD Place in Ottawa on Saturday. (Adrian Wyld/The Canadian Press - image credit)

As far as homecomings go, the Canadian women's team returned as conquering queens.

Out of action since winning gold at the Tokyo Olympics, Canada completed the first leg of its "Celebration Tour" by recording consecutive wins against New Zealand in a pair of friendlies, including a 1-0 decision on Tuesday in Montreal.

Three days earlier, the Reds dominated the Football Ferns in a 5-1 victory in Ottawa, their first game on Canadian soil in over two years.

Both matches were played out before thousands of adoring supporters, allowing the Canadians to finally be properly fêted for their Olympic success and reconnect with their loyal fanbase.

They also had a chance to rub shoulders with Ottawa's glitterati - goalkeeper Stephanie Labbé met former minister of national defence Harjit Sajjan, and defender Vannesa Gilles dropped the puck at a Senators home game.

On the field, the Canadian team took care of business to extend its winning streak to five games, and its unbeaten run to 12 matches. Overall, Canada has won nine of 15 contests (just two losses) since coach Bev Priestman's first match in charge in February.

But it says a lot about the expectations on this team, and the higher standard it is now held to following the Olympics, that Priestman wasn't exactly thrilled with Tuesday's win. Her side dominated possession and bossed the game, but New Zealand made life quite difficult at times for Canada with its suffocating pressing style.

"What I liked, obviously, was the (shut out). We definitely didn't want to concede. It wasn't a great performance, I don't think. I partly expected it with the amount of (line-up) changes, and you miss a bit of chemistry and flow with some partnerships. We had good spells, but we didn't have sustained spells and I'm pushing the team to be more consistent back-to-back. … We just have to keep pushing," Priestman said after the game.

WATCH l Canada keeps clean sheet against New Zealand in Celebration Tour:

Canada can't afford to lose focus

Priestman knows this team can't afford to lose focus, especially with the 2022 CONCACAF Championship around the corner. Next summer's tournament serves as the qualifiers for the 2023 FIFA Women's World Cup and the 2024 Paris Olympics, and Priestman is adamant about using every match between now and then as preparation.

That's why this "Celebration Tour" is about more than the players having their moment in the sun. It's also about building for the future, specifically the World Cup, where the path to the final is littered with tricky games against lesser nations who would relish the chance to beat the Olympic gold medallists.

"How do we keep (the momentum) going? We know being undefeated goes and wins you gold medals, championships, but at the same time, we're not going to come up against all tier-one teams. So it was important for us to play a tier-two team like New Zealand to put our stamp on it," Priestman said.

Canada's gold-medal run was largely achieved on the strength of its goalkeeping and defence. The Reds scored just six goals in seven games, and registered a single multiple-goal game. Getting more out of the attack is top of Priestman's priority list.

"We've been a very difficult team to beat. But I think we now also have to go put the ball in the back of the net," Priestman stated. "We want to be a team that can get numbers higher, not be one that sits back, and bring that aggression."

WATCH l Canadian women claim dominant win over New Zealand in opening leg:

Adrianna Leon making case to start

To that end, she had to have been pleased with Adriana Leon's performances. Usually deployed as a substitute, Leon is making a case to become a starter after scoring three times in this two-game series. With 23 international goals, Leon is Canada's third-leading scorer among active players, and is one goal behind Andrea Neil for seventh-most in team history.

There is also an argument to be made that the attack might benefit from Janine Beckie playing as a right fullback, rather than a forward, her natural position.

With Ashley Lawrence out injured, Beckie slotted in on the right side of the back line and was Canada's best player over the two games, driving the attack forward with her probing runs and quality service into the box. Beckie had a hand in creating all five goals in Ottawa, and it was her shot that led to Leon scoring off a rebound in Montreal.

"Her versatility is an X-factor... When you have that at your disposal, as well as what Janine brings — she can run, and run, and run — and I think when you're in a major tournament, she's a real asset to have. And then just her commitment to be better everyday — I think she brings that to the group," Priestman said.

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