ST. JOHN’S, Canada—An encouraging defensive effort through 80 minutes started the Bev Priestman era with a bang before Rose Lavelle spoiled the party late with the game’s lone goal as the Americans topped Canada 1-0 in their SheBelieves Cup opener.
While the players and manager alike will be disappointed with the result, there was no shortage of positives to take from this one.
Between noteworthy individual performances and some improved overall identity within the team, there’s plenty to build on heading into Sunday’s fixture against Argentina.
FT: United States 1-0 Canada— NWSL Analitica (@NwslAnalitica) February 19, 2021
Shots (OT): 28 (10) - 9 (3)
Possession %: 56 - 44
Duels won %: 56 - 44
Aerial duels won %: 58 - 42
Total passes: 356 - 288
Passing accuracy %: 73 - 70
Opp. half passing accuracy: 72 - 64
Total crosses: 42 - 17
Fouls: 10 - 12
Despite the positives, there were some clear concerns in the 90 minutes as well, including an injury between the pipes, some wastefulness in front of goal, and imbalances in the middle of the park.
Overall, here’s what we at Waking the Red noticed in Thursday evening’s entertaining contest.
Stable defensive effort highlighted by standout individual showings
Facing a front three of Megan Rapinoe, Carli Lloyd, and Lynn Williams is a tall task for any team to face on a given night. Replace that trio with Alex Morgan, Christen Press, and Rose Lavelle near the hour mark and Canada’s defensive duties become near impossible to sustain over a full match.
Ultimately, Lavelle would indeed find a winner off the bench for the Americans finishing neatly at the near post to beat Canadian keeper Stephanie Labbé following a set piece situation.
It would be beyond harsh to fault Labbé for conceding, particularly given her nine other stops on the night and the fact she only found herself in goal due to an early Kailen Sheridan injury. Commanding the area with a physical and confident presence, Labbé’s shot-stopping bailed out Canada on several occasions.
Thriving in the absence of first-choice options became something of a theme for Canada in this game beyond just goalkeeping.
The pace of Nichelle Prince was a constant threat to the American backline, yet it’s easy to suggest her spot in the starting XI was granted due to the absence of Christine Sinclair, Jordyn Huitema, and other offensive weapons.
While praise for Prince and Labbé is rightfully being sung, many were busy waxing lyrical about the performance of defender Vanessa Gilles.
The 22-year-old center-back was chosen by Priestman to fill big shoes in the absence of Kadeisha Buchanan —arguably Canada’s most important player— and did not disappoint.
While the entire squad deserves credit for the defensive effort displayed on Thursday, no one individual played a bigger part than Gilles.
One herculean performance might not have been enough for Gilles to snatch a regular starting XI spot when the squad is at full health, but at the very least it provides Priestman with some flexibility, both in squad rotation and the potential for tactical adjustments such as suiting up in a back three.
Gilles will deservedly steal the headlines but special mentions for the performances of Quinn and Allysha Chapman are in due order as well.
Attack lacking killer instinct in the final third
Sinclair’s absence in the forward line was evident on several occasions both positively and negatively on Thursday night.
Prince’s aforementioned pace caused the sort of trouble a now 37-year-old Sinclair simply can’t create at this stage of her career. As a result, Prince found herself in threatening positions regularly.
The problem from that point however was the end product that not only Prince but her teammates failed to provide.
It was Janine Beckie who was presented Canada’s two biggest scoring chances—perhaps the match's best two looks prior to Lavelle’s finish—with the pace of Prince a major factor in the buildup.
The question remains, however, whether a player with the scoring prowess Sinclair possesses would have squared that chance for Beckie. From that point, were it Sinclair receiving the pass, it feels as though the rest would have been inevitable.
The takeaway here is less a slight on either player and more a sign for the success a natural number nine might have stationed between Prince and Beckie.
Evelyn Viens was introduced on the hour mark—her first Senior cap for Canada—and the no. 9 looked a more like-for-like replacement in Sinclair’s absence in her short audition for the role.
With an opportunity to gain some confidence going forward against a lesser opponent in Argentina for their second match of the tournament, it will be interesting to see how Priestman chooses to configure her attack on Sunday.
Mobility in midfield a must moving forward
As Canada finds a new identity and begins a new chapter under Priestman, their approach to the battle in the middle of the park could see—or rather should see—a changing of the guard.
Now at Chelsea and training with/facing off against the top midfielders in women’s football on a weekly basis, Jessie Fleming should be a lock in midfield when healthy and available.
Her dynamism and creativity brings something to the Canadian midfield unmatched by any of her teammates and if her eye for a pass doesn't warrant a sure start, this sequence against the US alone should secure her place in the XI.
Quinn’s bravery and tackling through 55 minutes of action saw their stock rise significantly, and if sustainable should justify a regular position in the first team as well.
Although Sophie Schmidt did earn her 200th international cap on Thursday, she was forced to settle for a cameo appearance off the bench, with Desiree Scott preferred to start by Priestman in this one.
After Schmidt replaced Quinn in the 55th minute, things appeared to become much easier for the Americans.
Of course, the introduction of fresh American attackers minutes later played a big part in the late onslaught but the combination of Schmidt-Scott simply couldn’t provide the mobility required to keep the U.S. attack at bay and left Fleming with too much ground to cover.
Between Scott and Schmidt, the midfield duo have a combined 357 appearances for their country and both have been two of Canada’s most serviceable options for the past decade.
At this stage of their careers, however, it appears Priestman would be wise to select one or the other to provide stability to a midfield three without taking too much of a hit to the group’s collective fleet of foot.