Tears flow as Canadian Olympic soccer team announcement comes with good and bad news

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Goalkeeper Kailen Sheridan wept when she heard from coach Bev Priestman that she was on Canada's 18-woman Olympic roster.

She got the news on the NJ/NY Gotham FC team bus in a phone conversation filmed by teammates. They started celebrating when an emotional Sheridan raised her arm in triumph mid-call.

"These are good tears," Sheridan told Priestman. "Good tears."

The 25-year-old Sheridan had been on the other end of such a call. In 2016, she was told she was not on the main Rio roster but was one of the four alternates in case of injury.

This time round she had to battle back from surgery after going down in the seventh minute of a game against the U.S. at the SheBelieves Cup in February. The injury came on an innocuous-looking pass to defender Vanessa Gilles. An MRI later revealed that she had torn one of her quad muscles off the bone with about a four-centimetre retraction.

Sheridan underwent surgery March 1 to repair her right quad. Some 115 days and a lot of hard rehab later, her trip to Tokyo was confirmed.

Adriana Leon's comeback was also rewarded. The 28-year-old West Ham forward underwent surgery March 12 after suffering a fracture in the fifth metatarsal — the long bone on the outside of the foot that connects to the little toe — of her left foot in the SheBelieves Cup.

"They were over the moon," Priestman said of the reaction when she told both they had made it. "There were tears."

Priestman said selecting the 18-player roster, plus four alternates, was the most difficult decision of her career.

"Which is a credit to all of the players," she said in an interview. "Some really difficult decisions, but felt at the end of the five days after coming home (from camp in Spain), I did everything I could to watch footage, statistics. Everything you could as a coach to show respect to all of the players.

"I did that and then I also just followed my gut. You could say I made some brave decisions but if I'm asking the players to be brave, I felt I needed to do the same to pick a team that I felt could go on and change the colour of the medal."

Canada won back-to-back bronze medals at the London and Rio Olympics under John Herdman, who is now in charge of the men's program. Priestman, a former Canada Soccer youth and senior assistant coach, succeeded Kenneth Heiner-Moller as coach in October.

Captain Christine Sinclair will lead the eighth-ranked Canadians at her fourth Olympics. The 38-year-old from Burnaby, B.C., Canada’s flag-bearer at the closing ceremonies in 2012 at London, looks to add to her world-record 186 goals in 299 international appearances.

The roster includes 12 veterans of the Rio Olympic squad: Sinclair, Janine Beckie, Kadeisha Buchanan, Allysha Chapman, Jessie Fleming, Stephanie Labbe, Ashley Lawrence, Nichelle Prince, Quinn (who goes by one name), Deanne Rose, Desiree Scott and Shelina Zadorsky.

Leon, Gilles, Jayde Riviere, Julia Grosso and Evelyne Viens will be making their Olympic debuts.

Riviere, Grosso and Leon were members of the 2019 World Cup squad in France. The 25-year-old Gilles (six caps) and 24-year-old Viens (seven caps) have impressed under the 35-year-old Priestman.

"What I was determined to do when I came in was to give players who were performing on form a chance and I think those two players really stepped up to the mark," Priestman said of Gilles and Viens.

"Vanessa really stepped in at a time when we really needed her. And will continue to do so," she added, referencing Gilles filling in for Buchanan when she was unavailable for two camps earlier this year. "And Evelyne scores goals. and that's why she's in the squad."

Veteran midfielder Diana Matheson (206 caps) was ruled out due to a nagging foot injury.

Veteran midfielder Sophie Schmidt (205 caps) and goalkeeper Erin McLeod (118 caps) were named as alternates along with 22-year-old fullback Gabrielle Carle (25 caps) and 20-year-old forward Jordyn Huitema (37 caps). All but McLeod, who was recovering from injury, were part of Canada's World Cup roster.

They will travel and train with the team. Carle was also an alternate in Rio.

Priestman said Schmidt was "absolutely devastated as you can imagine." But also ready to help however she can.

"Listen, that was probably the biggest call of my career." said Priestman. "I dreaded making that call to Sophie. Sophie. I can't underestimate the history that Sophie's got. And I think (she) will be an unbelievable alternate. But it was a massive call to make, a difficult one at that.

"I think Sophie will bring a level of experience and calmness to the group. And if Sophie has to come in, you've got someone who can absolutely step in. For that call, it was based on the blend in the midfield and not taking the same type of players. And unfortunately that meant Sophie just missed out."

Schmidt, who turns 33 on June 28, played at the 2012 and 2016 Olympics and 2007, 2011, 2015 and 2019 World Cups.

Priestman said history has shown the alternates may well see action.

"I needed to pick a group of alternates (that), one, I could trust to go on the pitch. Two, who had either had great experience or (were) a big a part of the future. And the last but probably the most important is their character as to represent the values that the group needs to get us on the podium, whether they make the pitch or not."

Fifteen of the 22 players in the full squad have 50 caps or more with the full roster totalling 1,755 caps, for an average of 80. Nine play their club football in the NWSL, nine in Europe and four in the NCAA.

Priestman's roster has combined for 324 international goals, with Sinclair accounting for 57 per cent of them.

Canada opens its Olympic campaign July 21 against No. 11 Japan before continuing Group E play against No. 37 Chile on July 24 and Britain on July 27. Britain, unranked by FIFA, draws on players from No. 6 England, No. 23 Scotland, No. 32 Wales and No. 48 Northern Ireland.

The first two games are in Sapporo with the Britain match in Kashima. Eight teams will progress from the 12-country round-robin to the knockout stage.

Unlike the World Cup, where a 23-woman roster including three goalkeepers is allowed, the Olympics only allows an 18-person squad with two 'keepers.

That means versatility is a prized asset with players like Beckie, Lawrence and Quinn among those able to play multiple positions.

Priestman's 18 includes four midfielders and six forwards. But she notes that Beckie and Leon could play as attacking midfielders, while Lawrence can shift to midfield from fullback and Fleming could take up a more defensive midfield role if needed.

Priestman said while it may look like a "bare-minimum sort of midfield," such player versatility allowed her to pick the best 18 players.

Canada is 3-2-2 under Priestman, who did not get hands-on time with her team until January due to the pandemic.

Her team lost to the top-ranked U.S. (1-0) and No. 7 Brazil (2-0) and beat No. 35 Argentina (1-0) at the SheBelieves Cup in February. It then posted away wins over No. 32 Wales (3-0) and No. 6 England (2-0) in March before playing the Czech Republic and Brazil to scoreless draws in Spain earlier this month.

The Canadian women qualified for Tokyo by finishing runner-up to the U.S. at the 2020 CONCACAF Women's Olympic Qualifying Championship in Texas and California in early 2020.

Canada is one of just five countries to have qualified for the last four Olympic women's football tournaments. In Rio, the Canadian women became the first Canadian Olympic team to win back-to-back medals at a Summer Games in more than a century.

The Canadian women leave Monday for a camp in Los Angeles before flying to Japan, where they will play a warmup match behind closed doors against an as-yet unidentified team. The squad will then head to Sapporo for its first match.

The players will stay near their match locations in Japan, checking into the Athletes Village if they make it deep into the knockout round.


CANADA ROSTER

Goalkeepers: Stephanie Labbe, FC Rosengard (Sweden); Kailen Sheridan, NJ/NY Gotham FC (NWSL).

Centre Backs: Kadeisha Buchanan, Olympique Lyonnais (France); Vanessa Gilles, FC Girondins de Bordeaux (France); Shelina Zadorsky, Tottenham (England).

Fullbacks: Allysha Chapman, Houston Dash (NWSL); Ashley Lawrence, Paris Saint-Germain (France); Jayde Riviere, University of Michigan (NCAA).

Midfielders: Jessie Fleming, Chelsea (England); Julia Grosso, University of Texas at Austin (NCAA); Quinn, OL Reign (NWSL); Desiree Scott, Kansas City (NWSL).

Forwards: Janine Beckie, Manchester City (England); Adriana Leon, West Ham (England); Nichelle Prince, Houston Dash (NWSL); Deanne Rose, University of Florida (NCAA); Christine Sinclair, Portland Thorns (NWSL); Evelyne Viens, NJ/NY Gotham FC (NWSL).

Alternates

Erin McLeod, Orlando Pride (NWSL); Gabrielle Carle, Florida State University (NCAA); Sophie Schmidt, Houston Dash (NWSL); Jordyn Huitema, Paris Saint-Germain (France).

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This report by The Canadian Press was first published June 23, 2021

Neil Davidson, The Canadian Press

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