VANCOUVER — Canada coach Bev Priestman exits a difficult year with a broad smile on her face.
The 10th-ranked Canadian women ride into 2024 on a three-game winning streak, having won five of six outings since a disappointing World Cup.
Priestman spent most of the year balancing on a knife-edge.
Upset at the state of labour talks with Canada Soccer, the Canadian women briefly boycotted training at the SheBelieves Cup in February before returning to work under the threat of legal action from its governing body. Olympic qualification in September helped ease the sting of a 21st-place finish at an underachieving World Cup that ended prematurely at the group stage.
More recently Priestman has had to balance readying her team for next summer's Paris Olympics while honouring captain Christine Sinclair on her farewell tour.
"We've had a tough year, a very very tough year," she said after Tuesday's year-ending 1- 0 win over No. 11 Australia in Sinclair's international swansong. "And what matters the most is actually how much we've reapplied ourselves, got back up."
"There's been a turn," she added. "And we're on it. And we're ready for 2024 … You can see there's a real bounceback mindset there that this team has been familiar with in the past."
Witness 2012, when Sinclair and the Canadians won bronze at the London Olympics after finishing last at the 2011 World Cup.
Next up is the CONCACAF W Gold Cup in February in the U.S., the first step toward Paris where Canada will look to defend its Olympic title.
The Canadians, who went 7-5-1 in 2023, have recorded three consecutive clean sheets and conceded just two goals since the World Cup. For Priestman, it's a return to the Canadian DNA — "when the ball's given away, being really aggressive to win it back."
"Reflecting on the World Cup, with a lot of things going on, I think in many ways we lost our way in that sense," she added. "And it's back. You can see it, you can feel it. The mindset to defend is there … We celebrate clean sheets just like we do goals."
Jessie Fleming is expected to take over the captaincy full time. The talented Chelsea midfielder has been the first-choice skipper when Sinclair didn't start.
In goalkeeper Kailen Sheridan, Priestman has an elite shot-stopper. Vanessa Gilles, Kadeisha Buchanan and Jade Rose form a stingy backline with Fleming, Ashley Lawrence, Julia Grosso and Quinn, who goes by one name, leading the midfield.
And even without Sinclair, Priestman, has options galore up front — offering pace and guile — in Janine Beckie, Nichelle Prince, Cloe Lacasse, Adriana Leon, Evelyne Viens, Jordyn Huitema and Deanne Rose.
Veteran midfielder Desiree Scott is returning from a knee injury. Youngsters like Simi Awujo and Olivia Smith wait in the wings.
"The depth is what I really talk about," said Priestman. "Our depth was challenged in the summer with all of the injuries."
"There's more and more (talent) out there," she added. "It's going to be incredibly difficult — and it was the first time for Tokyo but it's going to be even harder to get this group down (to the Olympic roster limit). But we're incredibly blessed with depth and I think that can actually be a super-strength of this team."
The response to Sinclair's farewell games in her B.C. backyard also finally gave Canada Soccer to celebrate.
Sellouts of 6,012 and 48,112 at Starlight Stadium in Langford and B.C. Place, respectively, helped Canada Soccer's bottom line. And while still seeming unable to conclude a labour deal with the Canadian men, the beleaguered governing body delivered on giving its longtime captain a classy sendoff.
"I'm privileged and honoured to be a part of such an inspiration and professional celebration of one of the biggest legends ever to play the game," said Australia coach Tony Gustavsson. "The way Canada got behind Sinclair tonight and the way they package the celebration and the way she was honoured was very beautiful and very moving."
Priestman was asked post-game about a report that she had contacted CF Montreal about its vacant coaching job.
"That's not true," she said emphatically. "I absolutely love this team. And I'm actually trying to commit to the future, for the 2027 World Cup. Moments like tonight only remind you how special the people are in this team, not just as footballers. And I absolutely love them."
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This report by The Canadian Press was first published Dec. 6, 2023
Neil Davidson, The Canadian Press