And breathe, Canada.
While the sting of crashing out of the Women’s World Cup may linger, the Canadian women’s national team put that recent heartbreak behind them by showing CONCACAF’s best-performing team at the 2023 showcase that gold medal pedigree that Canadian fans love.
Canada conceded the opening goal but came back to top Jamaica 2-1 in front of a sold-out crowd at BMO Field on Tuesday night, thanks to goals from Cloé Lacasse and Jordyn Huitema. CanWNT officially punched their ticket to Paris 2024 by beating Jamaica 4-1 on aggregate.
“We feel incredible,” head coach Bev Priestman said post-match. “I think I’ve been on a journey now with a group of players who’ve had the ultimate high, probably had the ultimate low. And then I’ve seen them come out swinging.”
Canada put nine of their 14 attempted shots on target and kept nearly 60 percent of possession on the night in a game that, much like the Jamaican men’s team in March 2022 when CanMNT qualified for Qatar, Jamaica just couldn’t get a hold of.
“I thought the crowd tonight was unbelievable and they kept pushing. There were some hairy moments, but it was the crowd that got us going again,” Priestman said.
The crowd, an announced Ontario record 29,212, certainly had a lot to cheer about across two legs. Even when the visitors took the lead in the 33rd minute on Tuesday night, thanks to an outstanding free kick from Drew Spence, there was this feeling in the air that it would be Canada’s night. And it was.
Six minutes after falling behind, and after two near goals — one a-near own goal and the other a rocket of a shot from Ashley Lawrence that struck the bar — CanWNT found their equalizer, courtesy of one of the hardest-working players on the pitch, Cloé Lacasse.
“We knew that Jamaica was going to come out with absolutely everything so we didn’t just have to match that, we had to top it,” Lacasse said in the post-match mix-zone. “Getting that sold-out home crowd, BMO definitely was the 12th man, like Bev said. [The crowd] gave us that extra boost until the very end of the game.”
The Sudbury, ON, native enjoyed a spectacular 2022/23 season at Portuguese giants Benfica, which earned her a big summer move to Arsenal. But at the World Cup, Lacasse was used primarily as a super-sub, whose energy and work ethic was called upon when Canada was desperate. Starting in both games against Jamaica, Lacasse showed again on Tuesday how valuable she can be to an evolving style of play.
Canada’s formation, which both excited and puzzled everyone who watched Friday’s win in Kingston, was again transformative and fluid at BMO Field. For most of the night, CanWNT defended in a 4-3-3, Priestman’s usual formation. But in possession, new addition Sydney Collins would fly up the left side of attack, allowing Lacasse to move centrally. The Arsenal forward would regularly track back as far as or behind Collins and defend in the 18-yard box. The unexpected partnership this month was one that Jamaica could not handle and created several opportunities for Canada.
Priestman turned to her bench at halftime bringing on Shelina Zadorsky and Jordyn Huitema for Jade Rose and Nichelle Prince. Canada’s No. 9 wasted no time in making an impact, heading home CanWNT’s match-winner on the night and the insurance marker in the tie.
“The bit that inspires me about the group is character, fight, hard work, working for the person next to you,” Priestman said. “Probably that was what was lacking at times in that World Cup. Everybody’s put a real shift in, players and staff, to do whatever we could to turn this around.”
There really was something different about this team across these two do-or-die legs against Jamaica. Not only was there a composure and efficiency that was absent in Australia, there was a boldness that CanWNT has lacked since beating the United States in that Tokyo 2020 semi-final two years ago.
“I knew when I left the World Cup that I needed to be brave like I was for the Olympics, bold and make some big calls,” Priestman said. “You have reflections, and if that moment [exiting the World Cup in the group stage] wasn’t going to make me better than I don’t know what was.”
Not starting Christine Sinclair in what could be her last-ever game in Toronto would certainly qualify as a bold move. After not seeing the pitch in Kingston on Friday, Sinclair did come off the bench for the final half-hour and international football’s all-time leading goalscorer looked determined to add to her tally.
Sinclair nearly blew the roof off the place in the 61st minute when she cut in just inside the penalty area but fired her shot directly at Jamaican goalkeeper Rebecca Spencer. She had another chance moments later with a long-range shot from the corner of the box but pulled her effort wide of the net.
When asked in her post-game press conference by Canadian Soccer Daily contributor Har Johal if Sinclair would be a key part of the Olympic team next summer, Priestman was complimentary of the 40-year-old’s professionalism but short on details.
“Christine told me she wanted to help the team get to the Olympics,” Priestman said. “After this international break, I’m going to sit down with all the players and this conversation [on the rest of his career] will certainly be part of it. She handled it like a true professional, like the Canadian she is, humble, respectful.”
For many, it’s hard to imagine a CanWNT without Sinclair. But from the glimpse we got in this international window of what this next evolution of this team can look like, the future looks very bright.
“Exciting plans for sure are in the works,” Priestman hinted when asked about the upcoming women’s international window, which Canada Soccer previously said would include friendlies before the end of this calendar year. “We know we’ll be in Paris and everything we do between now and then is to be ready.”
Canada join the United States — winners of last year’s CONCACAF W Championship — as the two CONCACAF teams that will compete at next year’s Olympic Games.