Canada looked relaxed at training Wednesday ahead of its FIFA Women’s World Cup opener against Nigeria, although several players appeared to be working at their own pace.
Midfielder Jessie Fleming was mostly a spectator in the portion of the morning practice open to the media at a local soccer club. And forwards Deanne Rose and Nichelle Prince, who are both returning from Achilles injuries, worked out on their own under the direction of a trainer.
“A few players are on their own individual plan,” said Canada coach Bev Priestman, downplaying an injury question. “Today was a light day. You would have seen Deanne, Nichelle doing some specific work on their rehab. So yeah, I think Jessie should be fine.”
One hopes so.
Fleming is one of Canada’s most important cogs. The 25-year-old Chelsea midfielder, at her third World Cap with 115 caps and 19 goals on her Canada resume, makes things happen.
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The seventh-ranked Canadians open play Thursday night (10:30 p.m. ET) against No. 40 Nigeria at Melbourne Rectangular Stadium.
Injuries have dogged Canada in the lead-up to the tournament. The hope was that storyline was done.
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The injuries have slowed Canada’s momentum.
The Canadian women had won five straight going into their final match of 2022 when Prince was taken off in a stretcher in a 2-1 loss to Brazil in November in Sao Paulo.
“We’ve got a teammate out. We stick together. I need you to stick together,” Priestman told her team in a post-match huddle after the Brazil game.
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Canada has gone 3-1-0 this year, scoring just three goals. Three of those games were at the SheBelieves Cup in the U.S. in February when the players’ focus was clouded by the ongoing labour dispute with Canada Soccer.
An interim deal covering compensation for the World Cup is near completion and the Canadian brain trust had hoped a lengthy pre-tournament camp in Australia would allow the team to find its feet again. Concern over Fleming and question-marks over how many minutes Prince and Rose have in them to start the tournament are not what the doctor ordered.
Excitement in the air
Despite that, the mood was light at training.
The three goalkeepers were the first onto the field, busting some moves to Madonna’s “Vogue” and S Club 7’s “S Club Party.”
“We’re really excited to get going,” said Kailen Sheridan, Canada’s No. 1 goalkeeper. “We’ve been here for a couple of weeks. I think the anticipation is getting high. We’ve loved our time so far but there’s nothing like playing a World Cup game.”
Priestman was all smiles as she met the media.
“We’re here and we’re excited and we’re ready to go,” she said. “We’ve kept it fresh. I’ve talked a lot about being fresh and being fresh when it really matters later in the tournament. And everything we’ve done has been designed that way.
“So absolutely the fun you’ve seeing them have, I think this team is at its best when it’s having fun.”
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Asked about the pressure of being Olympic champion going into the tournament, Priestman referenced a favourite metaphor.
“We talk about climbing a mountain. We’re just taking one step at a time,” she said. “I think we are very much focused on the process. We enjoy the process. And what we do know from the Olympics is you take one game and you grow from it and you get better and better and better.
The climb has been a theme Priestman has turned to repeatedly since the Olympic triumph in Tokyo.
“You get to the top of a mountain, you look out, it’s all great. But when you look back, actually it is the climb that is the most important thing. Since the minute Tokyo happened, we targeted little things to help us get better and better. And that very much will be the focus in this tournament.
“We haven’t played a lot of games recently. We’re going to get better and better and better and learn from it [Game 1]. So absolutely it is literally one step and one climb at a time.”
The challenge of Canada’s Group B schedule grows each game. After Nigeria, the Canadians face No. 22 Ireland and then No. 10 Australia.
The top two teams in the group advance with the pool winner likely avoiding a matchup with No. 4 England, the reigning European champion, in the round of 16.
Veteran midfielder Sophie Schmidt was a picture of calm Wednesday despite acknowledging the Canadian women “have always underperformed at the World Cup.”
The Nigerians have had their own pre-tournament issues, unhappy with the lack of support from their federation.
Nigeria has won 11 of the 15 Women’s Africa Cup of Nations since its inception in 1991. The Super Falcons won the first seven tournaments did not drop a point until the fourth edition in 2000 and didn’t lose their first game until 2002.
But Nigeria finished fourth at the 2022 Africa Cup of Nations, losing to eventual runner-up Morocco in a penalty shootout in the semifinal and 1-0 to Zambia in the third-place game. The top four teams qualified for the World Cup.
With every other edition of the tournament serving as a World Cup qualifier, Nigeria has qualified for all nine editions of the soccer showcase. The Super Falcons have made the knockout round just twice, however, losing to Brazil in the 1999 quarterfinals in 1999 and Germany in the round of 16 in 2019.