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SheBelieves Preview: Canada turn the page with a new coach and a new generation

Canada enter SheBelieves on a long break. Their last games came in the Tournoi de France in the last few days before COVID lockdowns swept the world. During their 11-month forced break, they have brought in a new coach—with Kenneth Heiner-Møller heading home to Denmark and Bev Priestman taking over. Priestman has long been involved with Canada’s youth teams and also served as an assistant to Phil Neville for England's national team. But this is her first head coaching job for a full national team, and it comes at a pretty difficult time.

For the last two decades, Canada have been a constant presence in the top 10 of women’s football, making the occasional run at a major tournament without ever quite managing to overcome the true elites. But they suffered a disappointing defeat to Sweden in the round of 16 at the 2019 World Cup. Since then, their only wins have come against Concacaf rivals. They were blown away by the U.S. in the finals of the Olympic qualifying tournament and then managed two tight draws against Brazil and the Dutch at the Tournoi de France.

What’s more, the generation that earned Canada a place among the top teams in the world is nearing the end of the line. Chief among them is the incredible Christine Sinclair, who broke the all-time international scoring record a little over a year ago. She is now 37 and was forced to withdraw from SheBelieves due to injury. Also missing because of injury: Diana Matheson (36) and Erin McLeod (37).

In theory, that provides an opportunity to truly test the new generation. Unfortunately, Canada will also be missing several key players from that cadre, with French teams Lyon and PSG exercising their rights to deny release to players who would be forced to quarantine for COVID. That leaves Canada without possibly their two best players—Kadeisha Buchanan and Ashley Lawrence—as well as Jordyn Huitema, who is quickly becoming one of the world’s elite young strikers.

Canada won’t be entirely punchless—they retain a solid core that blends youth and experience—but this is hardly the strongest version of the team. So while winning the tournament will obviously be the goal, the real objective is probably finding their feet with a new coach and giving some of the younger core a chance to integrate.

Key questions:

1. Where will the goals come from?

Despite some excellent attacking talent, Canada have consistently struggled to score goals. The key players here are likely to be Janine Beckie and Nichelle Prince. Beckie has seen limited minutes for Manchester City this year but has been brilliant when available. Prince turned in an outstanding season last year for the Houston Dash, and she looks primed for a true breakout 2021. And don’t sleep on Evelyne Viens, still uncapped but playing some excellent football on loan to Paris FC. They should also get some attacking support from their fullbacks--especially the explosive Jayde Riviere.

2. Can this midfield compete with the best in the world?

At their best, the Canadian midfield should be the match for anyone. But it’s quite a tightwire walk, and that will be only more true without Sinclair. Expect Jessie Fleming to pull the strings, with Sophie Schmidt (also coming off a fantastic year with Houston) behind her to clean things up. Beyond that, it’s less clear. Desiree Scott has over 150 caps and remains a good defensive midfielder. But she has always been a limited player, and at 33 those limits are getting more serious. Might this be the tournament where Julia Grosso truly steps onto the stage? At 20, she is still developing, but she has the potential to do everything Scott has done for Canada and more. I don’t expect Grosso to start these games, but she is going to need to step in soon. And if soon, why not now?

3. Just how good are the new kids?

This roster contains nine players who are 22 or younger. Some of them are already stars. Some are still mostly just promise. The previous mini-generation—players like Lawrence, Buchanan, Prince, Beckie, Kailen Sheridan and Shelina Zadorsky—mostly developed well. That gives Canada a strong core, which really should be able to hang with anyone in the world. If this next set can fulfill their potential, Canada should remain among the best in the world. If they falter, Canada probably will as well. This tournament won’t settle the question, but it should give us quite a bit more information. After all, we haven’t seen this group in a year. And when you're 19 or 20, a year is a long time.

4. Will Canada ever beat the U.S. again?

On March 11, 2001, Canada steamrolled the United States 3-0. It was their second straight win over the defending World Cup champions. But unless Canada win their opener at SheBelieves, they will run their winless streak against the U.S. out to two full decades. That stretch now runs to 35 games. You better believe Canada would like to kill off this particular talking point. Can this slim roster do it? Probably not. Then again, freedom’s just another word for nothing left to lose. So don’t count them out entirely.

5. Will Priestman recognize that she has the best keeper in the world on her roster?

Stephanie Labbé is a nice keeper. But Kailen Sheridan is an incredible one. If she’s not the best in the world, it’s a very narrow thing. Canada need every advantage they can find right now. It’s time to install Sheridan as the permanent #1. Hopefully the new coach agrees.

Projected XI (4-3-3): Sheridan; Chapman, Zadorsky, Quinn, Riviere; Scott, Schmidt, Fleming; Prince, Viens, Beckie

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