Defensive headache for CANWNT ahead of first SheBelieves Cup

Allysha Chapman of Canada hangs her head down.
Allysha Chapman of Canada during the Tournoi de France match between Canada and the Netherlands at Stade de l Epopeeon on March 07, 2020 in Calais, France. (Photo by VI ANP Sport/Gerrit van Keulen IV)

After 345 days of coaching changes, cancelled camps and overhauled rosters, the Canada women’s national team returns to the pitch on Thursday, February 18 in their opening game of the 2021 SheBelieves Cup against the United States.

Participation in the four-team tournament will provide new coach Bev Priestman and her side with the opportunity for much-needed preparation ahead of the Tokyo Olympics.

Canada has not seen action since a 2-2 draw against Brazil in the inaugural Tournoi de France last March. That game played out behind closed doors due to the growing threat of the COVID-19 pandemic.

Now, a late influx of injuries and absences due to travel restrictions will be forcing Priestman’s hand.

A different kind of Canada

In many ways, the team that takes to the field this week will bear little resemblance to their last outing against the world champions in Olympic qualifying last February.

The omission through injury of talismanic captain and all-time world international goalscoring record holder Christine Sinclair is certainly of note. Yet, it is the absence of Kadeisha Buchanan and Ashley Lawrence that will most keenly be felt by the North American side. Neither of their club sides (Lyon and PSG, respectively) released them for the tournament.

Lyon's Kadeisha Buchanan (left) and Paris Saint-Germain's Ashley Lawrence (right) battle for the ball.
Lyon’s Kadeisha Buchanan (left) and Paris Saint-Germain’s Ashley Lawrence (right) battle for the ball during the 2017 UEFA Women’s Champions League Final at Cardiff City Stadium. (Photo by Nick Potts)

Since their debuts in 2013, Canadian Players of the Year Buchanan (2020) and Lawrence (2019) have each established themselves as an integral part of the national team. 

Buchanan has consistently marshalled the centre of defense in her 101 international matches for Canada. Meanwhile, Lawrence began her international career under former coach John Herdman as a midfielder before moving to defense. Over the course of her 91 caps, Lawrence cemented her role as a fullback.

While Canada will struggle to fill Lawrence’s shoes completely, University of Michigan’s Jayde Riviere has proven herself at the senior level. She can supply Priestman with cover for the PSG defender. Veteran Allysha Chapman and Florida State University’s Gabrielle Carle provide options on the opposing wing.

Finding the right defensive combination

Tottenham’s Shelina Zadorsky, whose partnership with Buchanan has long cemented her place in the starting XI, is available for selection and is likely to take part in Thursday’s match. If Canada are to return to a back four under Priestman, having tested the waters under previous coach Kenneth Heiner-Møller, it is in Zadorsky’s centre back pairing that Priestman will find herself with the true selection headache.

Shelina Zadorsky of Canada waves to fans.
Shelina Zadorsky of Canada waves during the 2019 FIFA Women’s World Cup match between Netherlands and Canada at Stade Auguste-Delaune stadium. (Photo by Mikolaj Barbanell)

Chicago Red Stars’ uncapped defender Bianca St. Georges is also out with injury. This leaves Priestman with a largely untested pool of defensive players. For instance, Girondins de Bordeaux’s Vanessa Gilles, who played for France at the youth level, has a single cap for Canada and is participating in only her sixth camp with the senior team.

Although 18-year-old Jade Rose has a combined 17 appearances at the U-15, U-17 and U-20 levels, she is uncapped for the senior team. Prior to the slew of last-minute changes, Rose was not expected to be in the final 23-person roster.

Quinn has previously played in central defense. They most notably stepped in for Zadorsky at the 2016 Rio Olympics. However, Quinn has more recently frequented midfield for the national side.

Under Heiner-Møller, midfielder Sophie Schmidt was also occasionally deployed on the left of a back three or back five. This was the case in Canada’s 3-0 loss to the U.S. one year ago. In the absence of Sinclair and Diana Matheson (another injury casualty), Schmidt is the reworked roster’s most capped player.

The Priestman era begins

Priestman has described the upcoming fixture as “a massive opportunity for individuals to step up.”

Speaking on the unexpected absences, she said, “I don’t think we can hide from the fact that we’ve got a big core of the group missing now.”

All eyes will be on Priestman to see what the new coach (in her first senior-level match at the helm) will make of the defensive conundrum she has on her hands.