Head coach Bev Priestman’s message to the Canadian women’s national soccer team after the SheBelieves Cup in February was simple: “Show up ready in April.”
Canada will have two European friendlies over the next five days to see whether they’ve done their homework.
Canada plays world No. 31 Wales in Cardiff on Friday and No. 6 England in Stoke-on-Trent on April 13 as part of its ongoing preparations for the Tokyo Olympics less than four months from now.
The matches give Canada a look at two different styles — a buckle-down defensive Welsh side and the Lionesses, a solid back-to-front squad that plays direct and is a threat on the counter attack.
WATCH | CBC Sports’ Signa Butler previews Canada’s upcoming U.K. friendlies:
So, are the Canadians ready? For national team standout Ashley Lawrence, the first few days of camp have looked promising.
“It’s a very healthy, competitive environment,” Lawrence told reporters Thursday from Cardiff. “From day one, I’ve been pushed and hopefully I’m pushing others around me. We’ve been looking really good on the field and our goal is to show that in the game [against Wales] and against England.”
It’s the first time in over a year the 25-year-old from Brampton, Ont., has been with her national teammates. She wasn’t released by her professional club, France’s Paris Saint-Germain, for the SheBelieves Cup due to travel restrictions related to the pandemic.
Good to be back 🇨🇦❤️😊<a href=”https://twitter.com/nichelleprince7?ref_src=twsrc%5Etfw”>@nichelleprince7</a> <a href=”https://twitter.com/sophieschmidt13?ref_src=twsrc%5Etfw”>@sophieschmidt13</a> <a href=”https://twitter.com/CanadaSoccerEN?ref_src=twsrc%5Etfw”>@CanadaSoccerEN</a> <a href=”https://t.co/zOGh0zP7CG”>pic.twitter.com/zOGh0zP7CG</a>
Though she and PSG teammate Jordyn Huitema, Lyon’s Kadeisha Buchanan and injured players like Christine Sinclair and Diana Matheson weren’t at that February camp, Lawrence said she was completely invested, watching all the games and training sessions and even virtually attending team meetings.
But nothing beats being together in person.
“It’s been nice to catch up and see players I haven’t seen in a long time, even some new faces, and also get acquainted with the new staff,” said Canada’s 2019 player of the year.
Priestman eager to gauge progress
Priestman’s first matches in charge at the SheBelieves Cup saw Canada win one game — 1-0 in stoppage time over Argentina — and lose two, a hard-fought 1-0 contest to No. 1 United States and 2-0 to fellow No. 8 Brazil.
While the February tournament wasn’t a true evaluation of her squad, as it was hurt by player injuries and availability issues, Priestman still had concerns over two things — the team’s match fitness and lack of goal scoring.
“I felt that while we were fresh, we could compete,” she said on a recent media call. “I think that U.S. game, granted we lost, but I felt we competed even with a weakened roster. But with the reality of COVID and a lot of players not touching a ball for a long time, I felt that by the third game, physically we struggled.
Those players have since been prepping for the National Women’s Soccer League’s Challenge Cup, which begins this weekend, while the NCAA players have been gearing up for their spring seasons.
Hungry to score goals
Canada’s goal-scoring issue is a more complicated one to solve, but Priestman and her staff are confident it will come if players put the work in.
The staff did an analysis after the tournament and surmised they definitely created chances and were in much better positions against those teams historically, but “ultimately it is about putting the ball in the back of the net,” Priestman said.
“I’ve challenged the group away from camp. You don’t develop in those areas on camp, you have to turn up ready,” she said, adding that many players went back to their clubs and were doing extras after training to gain that confidence.
“We have to be ruthless in both boxes,” Priestman added. “Stopping goals but also scoring them, and I think you stick with that process [by] getting in those positions. It’ll only help because we had the chances.”
“I think we have shown a lot of growth in a short period of time and we are on the right track,” she said. “We have a lot of players on the field that are hungry to score some goals. We know the quality and the talent that we have. It’s about putting the ball in the back of the net.
“I’m really confident that we’re going to be doing that in these two games.”