BMO FIELD, TORONTO – It was unexpected. Yes, Jamaica couldn’t have been underestimated going into the second leg of the CONCACAF W Olympic qualifier despite being down 2-0, but Canada wouldn’t have anticipated a goal in the way it came: Julia Grosso had been ruling the defensive midfield but an unlucky handball got Jamaica a perfect free kick spot. Drew Spence put it up and over the wall, and around Kailen Sheridan, stunning the audience. It took the breath away from every spectator – all of the 29,212 on the lakeshore – side for the large Jamaican contingent who were transported to dreamland. As their vuvuzelas echoed throughout the cool September night, the Canadians gathered together at the edge of the box. Sheridan did the talking, and the Canucks were given valuable time to regroup.
Because, after all, you can never bet against the underdog if it’s Canada.
And after all, they weren’t just playing a football match, they were in the midst of the first step to defend their honour: a gold medal.
Canada wasn’t just going to give up the fight.
“I think it was just a moment for us to refocus as a group,” said striker Adriana Leon what was said in the huddle, “take a pause, and to really just have some positive communication amongst us, and to really just get it together and make sure that we were the ones that’d be scoring next.”
In the following minutes, they looked more dangerous than ever. Despite the equalizer by Cloé Lacasse coming off of a corner kick, Canada hasn’t looked this good from open play in a long time. Coach Bev Priestman has started to deploy a 3-5-2 with inverted fullbacks Sydney Collins and Ashley Lawrence, who add an invaluable bit of dynamism on offence and defence. It makes the whole squad a lot more fluid in how they move around the pitch, while also getting rid of a central target like a striker that can sometimes distract from simply moving the ball.
Lacasse and Collins were particularly threatening, combining well on many instances with pretty passing and incredible speed. While for Lacasse that is a natural talent, Collins’ youth helps her gain speed at a moment’s notice. She can deliver great crosses too, and Lacasse coming inside gives Collins plenty of space to whip a ball in. Lawrence did so too, eventually executing the perfect ball to Jordyn Huitema on her goal. Lawrence also showcased some incredible individual skill and flair in that moment and throughout the match. She can seemingly navigate her way out of any pocket, even if she is double-teamed or chased down.
S. 2 Ep. 21: Canada Doing What Canada Does – FC13 Podcast
“Yeah, I think the new formation has allowed us to push our wing-backs higher up the field and get more numbers in the attack, and so far it’s worked well for us, it’s just another tool that we can add,” added Leon on the new tactics.
It also seems that the new shape helps with chemistry, but at the same time, the improved connections between players could be a byproduct of World Cup heartbreak. Canada is more cohesive as a unit than what we saw at the disaster down under. There was reflecting, there was personal growth since then, and it all culminated in the fresh, fantastic performances of the last five days. Playing into a new mentality was the spirit of defending what is theirs. The gold medal was something that meant more to these players than any other career accomplishment, and they won’t take any prisoners on the road to another deep Olympic run.
“Yeah, it’s a great question, probably something I’ll need to sit on,” said Priestman on how defending gold played into how they got ready for the two-legged tie. “I think this team is better when they’re going after something, and I think ultimately we’re going after putting the wrong of that World Cup right. I think we have to be that mindset, I think the minute we’re defending a gold, you take a step backwards and I think what I’ve seen from this group is when we’re chasing something and we’re out there and we’re fighting, and in many ways an underdog – I hate to say it, I’m sick of saying it – but, ultimately we’re going into the Olympics off the back of a World Cup and I think we’ll come out swinging and when we’ll be at our best.”
Canada did indeed come out swinging, controlling the tempo of the match early with the offence consistently getting past Jamaica’s midfield. It was a case, though, of just not having enough to break the defensive line, and the two centre-backs for the Reggae Girlz, Chantelle and Allyson Swaby, held strong. Both Nichelle Prince and Leon, the goalscorers of leg one, weren’t able to be played through by Lawrence or Jesse Fleming with ease. As a result, Lacasse pitched in by making it a front three. Although there was a big obstacle in the Swaby sisters, Canada persisted and chased every ball like it was their last, with Lacasse providing close-range crosses that helped break down Jamaica and made them run a whole lot more to get back in time and recover.
At half-time, Priestman brought on the aforementioned Huitema, a decision that contradicted how good this team was with multiple players up top. Yet the taliswoman that is Huitema came through with one of her strongest performances in a Canada shirt: scoring just five minutes after coming on and then being a fixture of the attack, making room for Christine Sinclair when she came on by going out wide and putting the ball into the box. Huitema has struggled with that in the past, but she was on another level in the interplay on Tuesday. Receiving plenty of through-balls out of midfield, she collected nearly every single one. Her crosses were accurate, and nifty short passes into the box for Sinclair were also a positive feature of her game on the day.
Sinclair had a couple of great chances, almost singlehandedly created by her. She is, without a doubt, coming to the end of her storied journey in soccer. A goal on Tuesday would’ve created a level of noise not fathomed in this country. Coming painfully close, a performance like the one she had showed that even at 40, she is just as good as ever, with just as much drive and spirit as anybody. It truly is a shame she didn’t ripple the net cords because this could’ve been her last outing in Canada.
The evening symbolized something else for Sinclair: the official passing of the torch. Canada hadn’t played at home for months, and The Voyageurs had yet to see the change in captaincy take place. Fleming took the armband and looked incredibly cool and collected even with Jamaica’s quick press often barreling towards her. The general of the midfield alongside Grosso, Fleming took on more of an offensive role, delivering some great passes and showing off unmatched vision. Sinclair’s heir apparent will do just fine, as far as Canada is concerned.
Adding to the youth movement were Olivia Smith and Jade Rose, who both experienced their first famous night at BMO Field. Now fully integrated into the squad, those youngsters will certainly play a major role in the Olympics. Rose didn’t have the most work of Canada’s back three as the right-centre-back, but still got stuck in, preventing anything coming her way. In the stoppage time of the first half, she gave the ball away in a rookie mistake but ran back to make up for it with an excellent tackle. And as for Smith, well, not many 18-year-olds can make a crowd rise to their feet anytime they just touch the ball.
Canada’s 2-1 win (4-1 on aggregate) symbolized many things. Most of all is the fighting spirit that each of these athletes has. Whether that trait was grown after the World Cup following the surprise exit or Spence’s incredible free-kick goal, something has clicked in the squad that makes them a bigger threat than ever. Priestman has harnessed the full potential of the group, leaving all CanXNT fans with one thought: I can’t wait to see what they do next.
Where to start?
Paris is always a good idea.
Top photo by Kaj Peter Larsen
Subscribe to 13th Man Sports to get all the newest Canadian National Team news!