BEDAKIAN: 3 questions the CanWNT must answer in Concacaf W Championship
TORONTO – Questions, questions, there are plenty... but can Bev Priestman's team answer a few of 'em in July?
The Canadian women's national team begins their road to qualification for the 2023 FIFA Women's World Cup and 2024 Summer Olympics through the unified 2022 Concacaf W Championship tournament, with Les Rouges taking on Trinidad and Tobago tonight to kick off their joint campaign.
Catch the first two group stage matches LIVE exclusively on OneSoccer, with replays available on CBC Sports.
The CanWNT enter the tournament adorned in the glitter of Olympic gold, a shine that has yet to wear off on this defensively-sound group of Canadian heroes. But, with new heights come raised expectations, and Canada now faces a few key questions as they embark on this new adventure.
1. Can this team figure out how it scores goals?
They say a good defense is the best offense, and that tried-and-true mantra saw Canada survive their way to Olympics gold last summer in Tokyo... but, these days? Canada's goal-scoring woes have become the top concern among onlookers.
That this team has scored just six goals in as many games in 2022 weaves the start of this particular story – and a 0-0 draw against South Korea to prepare for this tournament didn't help brighten matters, either.
"You know, it's not a secret to anyone that we're having trouble scoring right now," Beckie offered ahead of Canada's first match.
"But, these games will present us with the opportunity to find different ways to score, and have multiple goal-scorers."
That, there, is the key to answering this particular question.
See, the issue isn't really that Canada isn't scoring – teams can go through dry spells just as strikers can and regularly do.
What Canada needs to figure out is how they're meant to score goals.
There's a clear disconnect between the desire to be an attacking, offense-driven team – a priority for Canada, as Priestman has laid out a number of times now – and the actual method by which Canada builds up, connects on plays, and punishes with that final stroke.
Is Canada a set-piece danger? A run-and-gun pressing machine? An intricate system of many moving parts, working in tandem? Fast and furious on the wings, with prowling strikers hungry and waiting in the middle?
We're not exactly sure – it seems to be all things at once, and none is particularly potent... yet.
No one in their right mind should lament winning Olympic gold, of course.
But that win did a lot to mask some of the deeper, tactical issues this team is still working to figure out.
Chance creation is up, as Priestman points out. That's a great starting block.
"There's a narrative around the goals, but I can trust that if we stick to our process and our identity, and what we're chasing, the goals will come," Priestman offered. "I have no doubt about that."
Part of answering this question, however, includes addressing another big topic.
2. What to do about Christine Sinclair today?
It's the million-dollar questions these days, isn't it?
As Emily Wilson points out in her piece, the question surrounding the future of Christine Sinclair has been the hot topic talking point surrounding this team for some time now.
It's clear that Sinclair remains a key cog in Canada's attack, and as Emily explains, Canada has plenty of options to consider in transitioning into a post-Sinclair world; Nichelle Price is killing it in Houston, Janine Beckie has been used across the park, Jordyn Huitema's potential remains untapped, Adriana Leon is fast-emerging as a top threat, and new faces like Cloe Lacasse and Evelyne Viens hope to complicate the matter with their own talents.
What happens with Sinclair tomorrow is one thing.
What needs to be addressed is how Sinclair is used today.
There's a delicate balance that has to be struck on the international stage, where planning is often done in four-year World Cup cycles. Managers like Priestman, and, on the men's side, John Herdman, have to choose between setting up their team for success in this current cycle, while also keeping an eye toward the next one.
So, when considering clear talents like Sinclair and Atiba Hutchinson, both 39 years old now, inexplicably, a starting role is still very much in the conversation because of what these two offer to the team.
But, that's not exactly... normal.
Bev Priestman on Christine Sinclair's #CanWNT future— OneSoccer (@onesoccer) June 14, 2022
"The last window told everyone out there – this team needs Christine Sinclair."
WATCH (FULL) ▶️https://t.co/ZyVHWLP6PK pic.twitter.com/aDAcSBDgJS
Most international teams phase out players around 34 years old, making way for the next generation. Apart from goalkeepers, very few teams in the last World Cup, for instance, brought players above that age – with Brazil's then-41-year-old midfield icon Formiga a rare exception.
Priestman's own dilemma is simple: If she puts Sinclair on the field, Sinclair will score goals (a world-leading number of them, actually).
But if she puts Sinclair on the field, she denies other strikers the opportunity to score goals, gain valuable experience, playing time, and confidence, learn the system, grow the tactical connections and partnerships, and set the team up for continued success through the next 1-3 cycles.
But, if she doesn't put Sinclair on the field, Canada struggles to score goals, because that transitionary period is now taking place in a World Cup and Olympic qualification tournament, where they can't afford not to score goals, ultimately leading back to question one, above.
We do have an answer to this quandry; Priestman has already said she plans to use Sinclair for Canada's first game against Trinidad, in some capacity. The Portland Thorns striker has been recovering from injury, and did not feature against South Korea, but if she's back in the mix, Priestman is ready to bring her on, one way or the other.
The long-term question here is whether that's the wise choice.
3. What does success actually look like for Canada?
Ultimately, this is the big-picture question that Priestman and her squad are attempting to answer.
The surface-level answer is simple: Make the final, qualify for the World Cup and Olympics and Gold Cup, and, if you can, win the tournament and retain some regional bragging rights over the likes of the U.S. and Mexico.
Climb to the top of the ladder, and you've got the big goal: Win a FIFA Women's World Cup.
That's the dream. That's the thing you chase. That trophy, that moment, is what all the work and hardship is for.
But there are many rungs of success between here and there.
Is this the #CanWNT's best starting line-up, sans Christine Sinclair? 🇨🇦@KaylynKyle on the virtues of playing Janine Beckie at RB #CanXNT | 🔴 https://t.co/EHYObIZKvB pic.twitter.com/0xxHuIFuor— OneSoccer (@onesoccer) April 12, 2022
If all things go as planned, and shooting stars bless some wishes along the way, a few things happen between today and next summer in Australia / New Zealand.
Canada establishes a front four that can break down opposition back lines and score regularly; a striker like Jordyn Huitema finally finds her feet and leads the post-Sinclair transition period; Canada develops a clear-cut attacking identity, adding much-needed dimension to a line-up that remains defensively stout; whatever Canada's identity is, it becomes a clear signature of the team's play, such that fans can marvel at its effectiveness – because champions play a certain way all their own, as those who watch the journey will one day delightfully recall.
Win a World Cup or not, that alone would constitute a measure of progress that you could clearly label a success.
Can Canada show the world in convincing fashion that they are a top team, to be respected, feared, and admired all the same?
Questions, questions, there are plenty.