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Small gesture casts big shadow as Canadian players train ahead of U.S. showdown

Labour dispute tnsion at the forefront as women set to face top-ranked U.S. at the SheBelieves Cup
Canada women’s national soccer team head coach Bev Priestman pauses while responding to questions after an announcement, in Vancouver, on Wednesday, March 16, 2022. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Darryl Dyck

Canada coach Bev Priestman found herself having to address her future. Her players had to explain why they were wearing their training tops inside-out.

Just another not-so-normal day for Canada Soccer under the cloud of a bitter labour dispute that has pitted players against their governing body, which had to threaten legal action on the weekend to get the Olympic champion women back on the job.

Rather than discussing Thursday’s showdown with the top-ranked U.S. at the SheBelieves Cup, the talk has largely been on the emotional turmoil off the pitch.

With the players reluctant to talk about the major labour issues, presumably on the advice of legal counsel, a smaller gesture cast a big shadow at their final training session at Exploria Stadium.

Veteran midfielder Sophie Schmidt, who announced Tuesday she will retire from international football after this summer’s World Cup, offered a succinct explanation for the fashion statement.

The Canada Soccer crest normally sits on the side of the heart, she noted.

“And we are so proud and honoured to play for Canada. But right now we feel as though our federation has let us down,” said Schmidt, who has won 218 caps for Canada. “And that is the reason why we have it the other way around.”

Priestman wore her top with the crest in the right place. But she was clearly sympathetic.

“They’re fighting to push for things that should be there … For them it’s representing the greater cause they’re going after,” the coach said.

The players are demanding the same backing ahead of their World Cup in Australia and New Zealand as the men got ahead of their soccer showcase in Qatar. Both teams want a look at Canada Soccer’s books and an explanation for why both their programs are being cut this year.

The four team representatives — captain Christine Sinclair, Janine Beckie, Schmidt and Quinn (who goes by one name), met the media after Wednesday’s session. The scrum with the four players, who held their own virtual availability Tuesday, lasted 6 1/2 minutes before it was forcefully shut down by the team media attaché.

Another topic of conversation Wednesday was Priestman’s future.

Some two weeks after men’s coach John Herdman was linked to a move to New Zealand, The Guardian newspaper reported that Priestman was considering her options after the World Cup and is pondering a move to club football with a number of teams interested.

“Obviously post- (Olympic) gold medal there’s been regular opportunities put in front of me,” Priestman told a virtual availability earlier Wednesday when asked about the English report. “But I think that the biggest thing is I’m committed to this group of players and I’ve shared some incredible moments with them. And I want those moments to continue.

“It is a really difficult circumstance, we can’t hide from that. But my aim is to be with this group of players and to share more incredible moments.”

The Herdman report prompted a brief period of uncertainty before he and Canada Soccer put out a statement pouring cold water on the report.

Priestman said she had reached out to Herdman about how best to navigate the labour dispute. Herdman lived through it last June when the Canadian men boycotted a friendly against Panama in Vancouver.

“I’m not sure either of us are experts, I’m not sure a lot of coaches are out there … But what I do know is I’m not doing my job if I don’t prepare this group to go out and perform. And that’s everything I’ve tried to do,” said Priestman.

Both teams are negotiating labour agreements with Canada Soccer. The men are doing it formally for the first time. The women’s existing deal expired at the end of 2021.

Other than the fashion switch, the start of Wednesday’s practice was the same as any other. Music blared and players tossed an NFL football around before headed off to warm up. A butter-fingered Priestman showed, for all her coaching skills, that a role as wide receiver is not in her future.

“I think ultimately we all get along so well,” said Sinclair, asked about the relaxed on-field vibe. “We’re obviously fighting for something bigger than ourselves but out there we’ve got to enjoy ourselves.”

Concentrating on soccer is not easy, Quinn conceded.

“I think the reality is we are in the thick of it,” they said. “Unfortunately for us, we can’t just focus on football right now. We have to focus on things that are bigger than our team, bigger than ourselves and what we’re fighting for.”

It’s hardly a recipe for success against a U.S. team that holds a 52-4-7 record against its northern rival.

Despite the stress of the labour divide, Priestman said all her players will be available Thursday.

But she admitted that her conversation with Schmidt was “a little bit soul-destroying for me.”

“To have Sophie talk about retirement in floods of tears, that for me, more importantly for me as a coach working with players, that was really really difficult,” she said. “I’m just so thankful that that’s been on hold. That’s the sort of emotional turmoil that’s in there.”

Priestman said she was “incredibly proud and honoured to represent the group of players I have in front of me … (and) what they stand for.”

She said her team is working to ensure the future of the next generation of players.

“What comes out loud and clear to me is this group, they’re not just fighting for themselves in the next six months,” she said.

Priestman made her personal position clear.

“If you’re asking me as a woman, do I believe in equality? Absolutely,” she said. “I have a little boy and I want him to know that I get the same opportunity as anybody else in this world to perform and do the things I need to do.”

The Canada Women’s Soccer Alumni Association added its voice to those in support of the players.

In a statement Wednesday, the association said the current conflict “is nothing new and is the result of a toxic, dishonest and broken system that has gone unchecked for the past 30 years.”

The association co-chair is Helen Stoumbos, who scored Canada’s first-ever World Cup goal at the 1995 FIFA Women’s World Cup.

Asked about the 2023 program cuts, Priestman had little to offer, saying she was in a difficult position representing both the players and Canada Soccer.

“I think that everything that’s documented is well-known and it’s a really difficult time.”

Canada and the U.S. 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 Alex Morgan penalty.

That marked the first meeting between the two since Canada’s 1-0 semifinal triumph at the Tokyo Olympics in August 2021.

Priestman said her players will rise to the occasion Thursday.

“They’re elite high-performers who, when that whistle goes, will give everything they’ve got for the country. I know that,” said Priestman.

U.S. coach Vlatko Andonovski, whose team has already waged and won its pay equity fight, also hopes the Canada Soccer strife ends soon.

“We know what the situation is and we genuinely hope that they resolve their problems,” he said in a separate availability Wednesday. “We were able to do it on our side and we’re in support of them resolving the problem on their side.”

The other Canada victories over the U.S. were in 1986 (2-1 in Blaine, Minn., in the Canadian women’s second-ever official outing), 2000 (3-1 in a friendly in Columbus, Ohio) and 2001 (3-0 at the Algarve Cup in Portugal).

The sixth-ranked Canadians head for Nashville after Thursday’s contest to face No. 9 Brazil on Sunday. Then it’s on to Frisco, Texas, to take on No. 11 Japan on Feb. 22.

The February international window is one of the few opportunities in advance of the World Cup for the Canadian women to get together. There is another window in early April and one in July immediately before the World Cup.

The Canadian team will be in legal position to strike come the April window and Sinclair said Tuesday the team won’t participate then unless its grievances are met.

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.

Priestman is currently without the injured Nichelle Prince, Jayde Riviere, Deanne Rose and Desiree Scott.

—Neil Davidson, The Canadian Press

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