Meaghen Johnson: Canada closing in on World Cup qualification

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MONTERREY, Mexico – Canada is potentially 90 minutes away from booking its ticket to the 2023 FIFA Women’s World Cup.

The Canadian women’s soccer team plays Panama on Friday night at the CONCACAF W Championship in Monterrey, Mexico. Canada currently sits atop Group B after a 6-0 win against Trinidad and Tobago in the team’s opener on Tuesday.

The top two teams in the group automatically qualify for next year’s World Cup in Australia and New Zealand. A Canadian win, combined with a win or draw by Costa Rica against Trinidad and Tobago, would secure a World Cup berth.

“When I named the team, it’s about qualifying for a World Cup. That’s what we came here, first and foremost, to do,” head coach Bev Priestman said. “I think this group – they’re humble, they’re hard working, they’re focused.”

In Group A, the United States, who have won back-to-back World Cups, punched its ticket to Australia and New Zealand on Thursday. The Canadians, ranked sixth in the world, are looking to qualify for their eighth straight World Cup. The last time they didn’t feature in the tournament was in 1991, the inaugural year of the Women’s World Cup.

The winner of the CONCACAF W Championship also earns an automatic berth to the 2024 Paris Olympics.

Canada has played Panama just twice before, but both were lopsided wins. The most recent one came in the 2018 World Cup qualifiers, where the Canadians cruised to a 7-0 victory.

“I think we go into that game knowing that it’s a game we can definitely dominate, but we’ve got to take care of business,” midfielder Desiree Scott told TSN. “We’ve got to make sure we don’t give them anything defensively and just make sure we put the ball in the back of the net. One game at a time and hopefully we get the job done and qualify for that World Cup.”

Despite Canada having a clear advantage on paper, Priestman isn’t worried about her team getting complacent.

“I don’t worry about that overconfidence. If anything with this group, it’s often an under-confidence,” she said.

“We have that air of confidence, which we’ve been searching for years,” Scott added. “I think there’s just that full belief within the squad. Whether you’re in the starting 11 or a finisher coming on, we have full faith in anyone who’s on the pitch that we’re going to get the job done.”

While Canada was able to post a 6-0 win in its tournament opener, the game wasn’t without its struggles for the Olympic gold medallists. The score remained 1-0 for almost 70 minutes as the Canadians created numerous chances but were unable to capitalize.

Julia Grosso was finally able to double the lead in the 67th minute with her first international goal, and that lead to four goals from Canada in the final 11 minutes.

“I think, first game, nerves and the narrative around scoring goals – all those things caused a tenseness within the group,” Priestman said. “You always want that first game out of the way. I think now that we’ve got that, I think people have seen and feel that, listen – when we do take the handbrake off, we can be a really fluid, attacking team.”

Taking off the handbrake was the message Priestman sent to her players at halftime on Tuesday, and it’s one she’s echoing before Friday’s match.

“Where we ended the game, in the last game – I think that’s something that we need to continue with. I think it was a starting point. It’s not the end point,” she said.

“There’s always been this kind of cloud around us that we can’t score goals, and I think that we’re continuing to prove that we can,” forward Jordyn Huitema told TSN.

Huitema was one of Canada’s goal scorers on Tuesday, and believes the team is at its best when its playing on instinct.

“For us, especially as a forward group, we’ve talked a lot about just playing our game, bringing our creative side out and not overthinking the processes and where we need to be at what moment,” she said. “I think that’s something that we really focused on in the last game – just making sure that we’re enjoying it, we’re having fun, we’re bringing our flair, bringing our own individualized personality.”

“When this team can play on one-two touch, we look like a very, very good team,” Priestman said. “It’s when we start to slow the tempo down with two, three, four touches, that indecisiveness – I think that’s where we look like a less threatening team.”

Panama lost its opener to Costa Rica 3-0, but the 57th-ranked team in the world has pulled off upsets before. In the 2018 qualifiers, they defeated Mexico 2-0 in the group stage to advance to the knockout round for the first time, where they lost to Canada in the semifinal. Yennith Bailey took home the Golden Glove as the top goalkeeper.

In this year’s tournament, there have already been some shocking results in Group A, where the hosts, Mexico, lost its first two games to both Jamaica and Haiti and sit last in the group with a -4 goal differential.

As Priestman said, anything can happen in CONCACAF.

“We can’t switch off. We can’t switch off on set plays, transitions,” she said. “I think if we play with that freedom and fluidity, then I’m confident we can do what we need to do with the players that we’ve got out there.”

“I think what we’re going to expect is obviously a hard-fought battle,” Scott added. “There’s all to play for in this tournament. We expect them to be strong in transition, a team that’s going to try and hurt us offensively and us just being on our game, focusing on what we can do well.”

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