Canadian women set out to take another step forward with Olympic berth on the line

Olympic berth on the line

TORONTO — Bev Priestman's still feeling the effects of a loud and boisterous crowd on her voice after Canada's 2-0 victory in Jamaica on Friday. 

She's hoping her throat will be even more sore after Canada hosts Jamaica on Tuesday in the second leg of their playoff to determine the final CONCACAF entry for the 2024 Paris Olympics. Priestman, Canada's head coach, said her voice was still gravelly from shouting over the din in Kingston, Jamaica, as the 10th-ranked Canadians beat No. 37 Jamaica.

"I think from a mindset perspective, we have to go into it positively," said Priestman softly about Tuesday's match. "Because I think the worst thing you could do is just drop off and invite pressure.

"We have a few things up our sleeve but ultimately, we've got to build on the first performance. I think the group, we were happy but there's areas we wanna improve and I think our focus has been on taking another step forward."

Striker Adriana Leon, who scored in Friday's win, said she was happy to play at home in front of a sold-out crowd.

"It's definitely exciting that we're playing at home," Leon said. "We don't get a chance to do it too often.

"Hopefully we can start to play at home a little more often, that's something that we've talked about as a team, that's something that we'd like to see. … I don't think I've ever played in front of a Toronto crowd of that size, so exciting."

Leon said the physicality of Friday's match was an example of "the state of the game" but that Canada is ready for more.

"We're expecting them to be even more physical tomorrow night, so it's something that we prepared for," Leon said.

Friday's win was Canada's first match since a disappointing finish at the FIFA Women's World Cup in July, where the reigning Olympic champions failed to make it out of the group stage.

Canada tied No. 32 Nigeria 0-0 and beat No. 24 Ireland 2-1 before being eliminated in a 4-0 loss to No. 11 Australia. The result caused Canada to fall from No. 7 to No. 10 in the world rankings.

Striker Nichelle Prince, who also scored in Friday's victory, said the group is dialed in trying to get back to its past ways.

"I think we all had to go back into our own environments and just reflect on what we could've done better individually and as a team," she said. "I just felt a different energy from the team in that we're working harder than ever and I think we needed that.

"Unfortunately, that's maybe what it (World Cup result) took but we don't wanna be in that position again." 

The Canadian women have taken part in the last four Olympics, winning gold, bronze and bronze after finishing eighth at the 2008 Beijing Games. 

The U.S. qualified directly for the Olympics by defeating Canada 1-0 in the CONCACAF W Championship final in 2022. Jamaica, which lost 3-0 to Canada in the semifinal, defeated Costa Rica 1-0 after extra time in the third-place playoff to set up the two-legged playoff with Canada.

Canada has won all nine of its previous meetings with Jamaica, outscoring the Reggae Girlz 60-1. Now with a two-goal edge heading into Tuesday, Canada could qualify for Paris 2024 even with a 1-0 loss on aggregate.

That's not how the team is thinking though.

"I think that throughout the team, we understand that this is only halftime of the two games," centre back Jade Rose said. "The job isn't yet done, we can't step off the brake, we've got to step back on and keep pushing until the job is done." 

Priestman fielded a 3-4-3 formation, that at times flowed into a 4-4-2 or 3-5-2 based on the situation in the first match against Jamaica.

While the team had to learn the fluid formation in camp quickly, it received good reviews from players.

"If we learned something from the World Cup, it's that we needed to change something," Leon said. "I think that's what the formation allowed, was just a bit of change, a bit of excitement in the players.

"We knew we individually needed to be the best out there and that's what we brought. We focused on ourselves and it all came together and hopefully it just continues to get better the more we train it."

This report by The Canadian Press was first published Sept. 25, 2023.

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