Crashing out of the group stage of this past summer’s FIFA Women’s World Cup wasn’t the result the Canadian national soccer team imagined for themselves.
Now, less than two months later, the Canadians must mend their heartbreak and turn their attention to territory they’ve had much more success with — the Olympics.
But first, the three-time Olympic medalists and reigning champions need to qualify for Paris 2024 and it won’t be a walk in the park.
Canada, ranked No. 10 in the world, starts a two-game aggregate series versus Jamaica (No. 37) with the winner earning a berth to next summer’s Olympics in France. The first match is Friday at Independence Park in Kingston, Jamaica, while the second leg is Sept. 26 at a sold-out BMO Field in Toronto.
In a virtual media call earlier this month, head coach Bev Priestman said there’s been a lot of soul searching in the team’s post-mortem from Australia as they look ahead to the pivotal series with Jamaica.
“We’re motivated because obviously we want to put the wrong right and motivated because we know how dear the Olympic Games are to this group’s heart.
“Post-World Cup, I’ve had some really, really good individual conversations with every single player. We had a player reset meeting,” Priestman said, adding that “one million per cent” of that was addressing the mental performance piece.
“That last game [4-0 loss against Australia] is probably the bit that hurts the most in terms of how that game unfolded.”
In terms of overall team play, there are still question marks about the lack of goal scoring, but perhaps more concerning is the recent shakiness in the team’s seemingly impenetrable defense.
In seven matches so far in 2023, Canada has two wins, one draw and four losses, scoring just five goals while giving up a whopping 12.
As a comparison, during their gold-medal run in Tokyo, Canada scored six and gave up four in six games.
“Canada doesn’t concede [goals] but 2023 was the year of conceding,” Priestman said. “…Ultimately we need to get back to the values and the things that are associated with this team for sure.”
On paper, Canada is the clear favorite in this home-and-away series with Jamaica. In the past nine meetings, Canada won every match with a combined score of 60-1. Their last meeting was at the CONCACAF W Championship semifinals where Canada won 3-0.
However, the Reggae Girlz are coming off a confident run at the World Cup, where they finished second in Group F, posting scoreless draws versus top 10 nations France and Brazil plus a 1-0 victory over Panama before losing 1-0 to Colombia in the Round of 16. It was the first time they advanced to the knockout phase in two World Cup appearances.
It was even more remarkable given they had to crowdfund their way to Australia/New Zealand because of an ongoing pay dispute with the Jamaican Football Federation.
Jamaica, led by Khadija (Bunny) Shaw, the 2022 CONCACAF Women’s Player of the Year and a finalist for this year’s Ballon d’Or, will have history on its mind as it tries to become the first Caribbean nation to qualify for the Olympic Games.
“This is not the same Jamaica we faced last year or prior years,” Priestman said. “We have to respect what they did during the World Cup.
“I expect a difficult game.”
Four of the 12 teams for the 2024 Paris Olympic tournament have already been decided.
The United States qualified thanks to its 1-0 victory over Canada in the CONCACAF W Championship final a year ago, while hosts France, Brazil and Colombia have also secured berths.
Along with a second country from CONCACAF (Canada or Jamaica), two European and Asian teams will be chosen in February, one from Oceania in March and two African nations in April.