Soccer

Looking ahead to CanWNT Olympic squad selection headache

Credit: Canada Soccer/Twitter

With one of their deepest selection pools to date, Bev Priestman has quite the challenge ahead of her in preparation for the Tokyo Olympics – whittling down the pool of well over 30 players that have featured for Canada in 2021.

Heading into the tournament, Canada can only submit an 18-player roster instead of the 23-player roster traditionally seen at FIFA tournaments, let alone the 26-player rosters that will debut during the postponed Euro 2020 tournament. It might not necessarily be the best players that make it to the final roster, but the best at adapting to arduous circumstances.

Players selected to the squad will likely merit their spot on the basis of how adept they are at performing in different roles, something seen already under Priestman with Ashley Lawrence and Sarah Stratigakis deployed in multiple positions.

With two upcoming June friendlies scheduled against the Czech Republic and Brazil in Spain at the Estadio Cartagonova in Cartagena, this will be Bev Priestman’s final opportunity to assess the players at her disposal.

Goalkeepers

With an 18-player roster, Canada has opted to select only two goalkeepers in previous tournaments. Stephanie Labbé and Sabrina D’Angelo got the call to head to Rio 2016, but it’s likely that only Labbé will return of the duo. Erin McLeod was due to start but had to miss out, picking up an injury that hindered her for several years. That was then, and this is now – McLeod is back and ready for what potentially could be her swan song.

There’s no question that had McLeod been healthy prior to the tournament D’Angelo would not have gotten the nod, though it must be said that her performances have impressed when called upon in recent years. If McLeod is healthy, then her and Labbé will undoubtedly get the call from Priestman – their combined experience remains invaluable and unparalleled. McLeod is one of the few remaining members from that London 2012 bronze-winning Olympic side.

Though having appeared on the roster during the April friendlies, it isn’t quite yet Rylee Foster’s time to shine. Definitely one to watch for the future with a long career ahead of her. Kailen Sheridan isn’t a bad option either, and like D’Angelo, she too has performed well when featuring for her country. This pair would appear to be the natural successors to Labbé and McLeod, who at 34 and 38 respectively aren’t getting any younger. Should one of them make the roster, it would be a tremendous sign of intent on the part of Priestman and an indication of the future direction that she will take.

It speaks to the wealth of talent available that there really is no wrong option here – Canada is in safe hands, literally and figuratively.

Defenders

There hasn’t really been a trend with defenders taken to the Olympics for Canada – as many as nine were taken to London 2012, and as few as six brought to Rio 2016 to accommodate further attacking options.

These friendlies see the return of Kadeisha Buchanan to the national set-up after missing the previous few. An undisputed top defender on the global stage, there’s no debating her presence in the starting line-up; as Buchanan goes, so too will Canada. Coming back into the side after that lengthy absence she’ll be looking to prove herself once more – expect a tournament to remember from her.

In her absence Shelina Zadorsky, Vanessa Gilles and Jade Rose have all deputized at centre-back earning plaudits, performing admirably. If Priestman were to take these three in addition to Buchanan this makes the most sense, with Ashley Lawrence and Allysha Chapman all but locks at full-back. Jayde Riviere looks to be the final full-back selected, she’s appeared prominently for Priestman and looks comfortable in that position just as she does up top where she plays domestically.

That being said, Buchanan, Zadorksy and Gilles are workhorses – would Jade Rose really get the minutes that her selection warrants? If Priestman opts for those three, she also has the option of dropping Quinn into centre-back. As disappointing as it would be for Rose and the terrific performances that she’s put in, with the theme of utility in mind, this appears to be the likeliest scenario.

Midfielders

Quinn, Desiree Scott, Sophie Schmidt and Jessie Fleming – each of these midfielders have featured prominently for Bev Priestman in 2021, and all featured under John Herdman in Rio 2016. The one name from that roster missing for Canada in 2021 has been Diana Matheson, struggling to overcome her injuries.

Matheson, having appeared in every Olympics since 2008 along with Schmidt, would be a devastating loss on paper. She’s been a major proponent of those sides, a driving force that directs the ebb and flow of matches with her scintillating distribution. Yet with each international break that passes since she’s last appeared for Canada, the chemistry between Quinn, Scott and Fleming has truly blossomed.

Fleming has been free to create with Quinn and Scott behind her, operating in tandem. Defensively they drop between defenders caught out of position, in transition they’re the spark to move the ball forward in a direct manner, pushing the play upfield. This combination proved deadly against England and performed admirably against the United States – why separate them? Not one to diminish Matheson’s potential contributions, but where would she slot in?

In previous iterations of the competition, Canada have opted to bring six midfielders – Ashley Lawrence considered a defender for John Herdman’s Rio 2016 side but capable of playing in both roles. It’s suspected that this will be repeated, with five further midfielders to be listed on the roster. Quinn, Scott, Schmidt and Fleming are four midfielders already. Could Matheson, if healthy, prove to be that fifth?

Julia Grosso, Jordyn Listro, Samantha Chang and Sarah Stratigakis all have made appearances for Canada in 2021, but of the four Stratigakis appears to be the likeliest option. When called upon for Canada she has performed admirably in both attacking and defensive midfield positions, even scoring a last-minute goal during the SheBelieves Cup 2021.

So there it is – expect one of Stratigakis or Matheson to make that final roster. With Matheson yet to make an appearance under Priestman and time moving rapidly toward the Olympic roster submission date, it grows unlikelier by the minute that she’ll get called into the squad and through no fault of her own. Like McLeod in 2016, injuries can come at the worst of times but with them a determination to improve that ultimately could see a Matheson hungry return for the 2023 FIFA Women’s World Cup. Who wouldn’t want to see that?

Attackers

There is no question that Christine Sinclair remains the face of Canadian soccer. The greatest player that Canada has ever produced, she’ll wear the armband and contribute to the same high degree that we’ve come to expect. Of this, there are no doubts. The real question is who will be joining her?

Lindsay Agnew, Jenna Hellstrom, Janine Beckie, Jordyn Huitema, Adriana Leon, Deanne Rose, Nichelle Prince, Cloé Lacasse and Evelyne Viens have all been tremendous when called upon. Let’s whittle this list down – Huitema and Beckie are perhaps the only other locks besides Sinclair.

West Ham supporters will tell you that Leon has displayed an abundance of quality for them, Viens was terrific in the last bout of friendlies and both Rose and Prince having taken part in this tournament previously. Lacasse meanwhile has quietly been scoring at a rate of over a goal per match – 37 in 36 matches for Benfica. That Agnew and Hellstrom weren’t called into these friendlies which could indicate that they’re no longer in consideration for a spot on the final roster.

This selection will entirely depend on the type of roster that Priestman will opt to submit. With utility in mind, the fact that Jayde Riviere can also play up top does make a difference if you need someone up top in a pinch. The selections of Leon and Rose would make the most sense with that versatility in mind as they can each play a wide variety of roles. With this in mind, this is perhaps the most difficult position to forecast as there have been outstanding performances from each of the players listed.

Canadian Olympic roster prediction:

Goalkeepers: Labbé, McLeod

Defenders: Buchanan, Zadorsky, Gilles, Chapman, Lawrence, Riviere

Midfielders: Schmidt, Fleming, Scott, Quinn, Stratigakis

Attackers: Sinclair, Beckie, Huitema, Leon, D. Rose

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