What a difference a year can make. No one can attest to the truth of this statement more than the Canada women’s national team.
For many Olympians, the COVID-19 pandemic and subsequent 12-month postponement of Tokyo 2020 may have represented time to recover from lingering injury or fatigue, an unwelcome extension of careers in their twilight, or the halting of valuable momentum.
For the Canadian women’s national team, the delay has been nothing short of transformative to their Olympic experience.
A post-Olympic slump
Post-Rio, the team experienced a slump in form. An early exit in a disappointing 2019 World Cup was followed by heavy defeats to Brazil and Japan. Canada ground-out a 1-0 result against Costa Rica to qualify for Tokyo 2020. They then took a 3-0 drubbing at the hands of their CONCACAF rivals USA. Not many who follow the Canadian team believed they would be able to make good on their mission to “change the colour of the medal” upon qualifying for Tokyo 2020 after back-to-back bronze medals in London 2012 and Rio 2016.
In the end, the opinions of those outside the camp would not matter. After 120 minutes and a dramatic penalty shootout, Canada are Olympic champions. The team that lined up for the final on Friday was nearly unchanged from the starting 11 that was deputized to face Sweden at the World Cup in the round of 16. Tottenham’s Shelina Zadorsky made way for Girondins de Bordeaux’s Vanessa Gilles. OL Reign’s Quinn replaced Sophie Schmidt of the Houston Dash.
A slow start leads to changes
The similarities would end there. Fortunately for Canada, history would not repeat itself. They struggled to hold Sweden’s considerable attacking talent at bay through the first half. Canada eventually fell behind in the 34th minute thanks to a Stina Blackstenius strike. Head coach Bev Priestman then made the surprising decision to replace Janine Beckie of Manchester City (who had been shown a yellow card in the first half for a late challenge) for West Ham’s Adriana Leon.
The University of Texas’ Julia Grosso also came on for Quinn. Quinn had struggled throughout the first half after starting in all but one of Canada’s games in the Olympic football tournament.
The substitutes had Priestman’s intended impact. Leon immediately looked lively down the left side of Canada’s attack. Grosso provided good cover for Jessie Fleming to venture forward.
The Chelsea midfielder was once again called upon to rescue Canada with a penalty in the 67th minute. Priestman would bring on Deanne Rose, who recently signed for Reading in the FAWSL. PSG’s Jordyn Huitema also came on to fortify Canada’s attack. Both strikers combined well with Leon and Sinclair to improve Canada’s offensive creativity. Additionally, they were able to track back to provide support in defense. Would these be the changes needed as Canada claims gold?
A stellar defence
Thanks to defensive work by the substitutes and stalwart defending by a stingy back line led by Gilles and Lyon’s Kadeisha Buchanan, Sweden’s attack was repeatedly rebuffed through the remainder of normal time and 30 minutes of extra time. Prior to Priestman’s appointment, Gilles had made only one appearance for the national team. Despite Gilles’ dearth of international experience, Priestman has kept faith in the in-form defender since her brilliant display against USA in the SheBelieves Cup in February.
The decision has paid dividends for the former England assistant coach. Many view Gilles as Canada’s player of the Olympic football tournament. She started all of Canada’s knockout games at centre-back alongside Buchanan. Despite having little experience playing together, the central pairing has impressed in Japan. The duo shut out both Brazil’s and USA’s attacking arsenal to propel Canada into the gold medal game.
Canada claims gold
On Friday, Gilles and Buchanan’s defensive display and Priestman’s brave substitutions garnered a dramatic penalty shootout against the favoured Sweden.
Despite heroics from both Stephanie Labbé and Hedvig Lindahl in net, it was the 20-year-old substitute Grosso who would finally score the decisive spot kick, and Canada are Olympic champions for the first time.
The 22-person Olympic roster might have had many similarities to that of the 2019 World Cup. However, the 22 players celebrating on the pitch at International Stadium Yokohama bore otherwise little resemblance to their tearful counterparts at Parc de Princes in Paris two years ago. This time out, Canada claims the gold.
For the first time in a long time, it is not only the future that looks bright for Canadian soccer – the present looks pretty amazing, too.