The emotional turmoil of a bitter labour dispute took its toll on the Canadian women’s soccer team Thursday. And the U.S. took advantage.
Struggling to find their focus, the Canadian women were ambushed early in a 2-0 loss at the SheBelieves Cup.
Mallory Swanson scored in the seventh and 34th minute as the top-ranked Americans came out hot and had their way with a ragged Canada.
The sixth-ranked Canadians found some semblance of rhythm midway through the half only to gift Swanson her second goal with a defensive gaffe. There was little drama in the second half with only some wasteful American finishing keeping the score down before an announced crowd of 14,697 at Exploria Stadium.
Canada captain Christine Sinclair said given the backdrop to the game, it could have gone two ways.
“Either we’re fighting for everything and come out on fire or we come out flat. And I think you saw those first 10, 15 minutes, we came out flat,” she said. “I think we looked like a team that was tired, a team that’s mentally exhausted, coming up against a team, I mean, they’re defending World Cup champions for a reason and you have to be at your best to compete with them. And we weren’t tonight.”
The game should have been a celebration of women’s soccer, a marquee matchup between the Tokyo Olympic gold medallist Canadians and World Cup champion Americans. But the showdown was overshadowed by the Canadian players’ labour battle with their governing body.
The Canadian women announced last Friday they would not train or play until their grievances were addressed. They boycotted training the next day and had to be forced back on the field under threat of legal action by Canada Soccer.
“I couldn’t fault their effort,” said Canada coach Bev Priestman. “You could just see a flatness to them.”
Before Thursday’s kickoff, both teams gathered at the centre circle — Americans next to Canadians — and then closed ranks, turning the circle into a heart shape in a show of solidarity.
“Those images, I think, are really powerful moving forward,” said American veteran Megan Rapinoe, who helped the U.S. women win their pay equity fight.
The friendship ended quickly as the Americans laid siege to the Canadian goal.
Swanson tested Canadian ‘keeper Kailen Sheridan with a shot seconds after kickoff. A diving Sheridan had to be acrobatic to parry a shot by Ashley Sanchez in the third minute.
And the U.S. went ahead in the seventh minute when Canada failed to deal with a cross and Alex Morgan sent the ball to Swanson, who hammered home a right-footed shot. The Canadians huddled after the goal, trying to get their bearings.
“A bit shaky,” Canadian midfielder Jessie Fleming said of the start. “I think we kind of created our own mistakes and kind of created their chances for them.
“It just looked like a group of players that hasn’t been together in a while.”
Centre back Kadeisha Buchanan offered some resistance soon after, scything Morgan down with a take-no-prisoners challenge. There were plenty more hard tackles on the night, keeping both teams’ trainers busy.
The Canadians began to regain their composure but the Americans kept coming and Sheridan, in the 17th minute, had to be sharp to get a hand to a downward Lindsey Horan header.
Canada was undone in the 34th minute when a backpass from Vanessa Gilles, under pressure from Morgan near the sideline, did not reach Sheridan, allowing Swanson to pounce on the ball with an empty goal in front of her.
The Canadians didn’t test Alyssa Naeher until first-half stoppage time when the U.S. ‘keeper was forced into action to stop a Janine Beckie shot.
“Work to do at the break,” Canada Soccer said by way of understatement in a halftime tweet.
The governing body faces a challenge of its own next month after the House of Commons Heritage Committee passed a motion Thursday to “invite” Canada Soccer officials to testify at a meeting next month.
The Canadian women are playing the tournament under protest — and showed it.
The Canadians wore purple T-shirts, symbolic of gender equality, for the anthems and wore purple tape on their wrists during the game. They also wore their training tops inside-out during the pre-game warmup to hide the Canada Soccer crest, as they did Wednesday at practice.
They wore purple shirts for the anthems that were etched with the words “Enough is Enough.”
No. 9 Brazil beat No. 11 Japan 1-0 in the earlier game.
The Canadians now head for Nashville to face Brazil on Sunday. Then it’s on to Frisco, Texas, to take on Japan on Feb. 22.
And with this summer’s World Cup in Australia and New Zealand looming, there is little time to waste.
“This isn’t fixed overnight,” said Priestman, referencing the current on-field turmoil. “So we’ve got to push through. We’ve got to turn it around now and be fresh-faced and be ready to go again for Game 2 (against Brazil). Because there’s probably five games before a World Cup right now. That’s the difficult position we’re in.”
Priestman, who also wore purple tape on her wrist, is clearly torn by what is going on with her team.
“It’s difficult. I’m exhausted, they’re exhausted,” she said. “But we have to find a way. These things can be the reason this team wins a World Cup. These moments make you. Adversity makes you.”
Priestman also expressed pride in her players for standing up for their beliefs.
There will be fewer games ahead given the Canadian team has promised to boycott the April international window, when the women will be in a legal position to strike, unless their concerns are addressed.
The women want the same preparation and backing ahead of this summer’s World Cup in Australia and New Zealand as the men got last year before Qatar. Both the women’s and men’s teams want Canada Soccer to open its books and explain cuts to both programs this year.
The Canadian men refused to play a friendly against Panama in Vancouver last June over their dissatisfaction at the labour talks.
The Canadian women last played in November when they split a two-game series with Brazil in Santos and Sao Paulo. The Americans played twice in January, beating No. 24 New Zealand 4-0 and 5-0 in Wellington and Auckland.
After enduring a rare three-game losing streak last fall, the Americans have now won four in a row. Prior to the three-game slide, which featured losses to No. 2 Germany, No. 4 England and No. 7 Spain, the U.S. women had gone unbeaten in 21 matches (18-0-3).
“I thought they were great tonight,” Priestman said of the Americans, whose record against Canada now stands at 53-4-7.
The North American rivals last met in June 2022 when the U.S. won 1-0 in the final of the CONCACAF W Championship in Guadalupe, Mexico, on a 78th-minute Morgan penalty.
That marked the first contest between the two since Canada’s 1-0 semifinal triumph at the Tokyo Olympics in August 2021.
The U.S. are defending SheBelieves Cup champions and have won five of the seven editions of the tournament. France won in 2017 and England in 2019.
Canada placed third in 2021, its only previous visit to the event in Priestman’s debut as Canada coach.
—Neil Davidson, The Canadian Press