Priestman, Schmidt and Canada at their best with backs against the wall

A triple substitution helped the 'Maple Heads' flip the scoreline and get their first win at the 2023 World Cup.

It was looking bleak. Puddles on the floor. Wind. Rain.

Canada trailed the Republic of Ireland by a 1-0 deficit with halftime approaching. Perth, Australia has never - at least in my imagination - looked like a harsher place to play a football match.

However, a lucky skid and bounce off of Irish defender Megan Connolly, from a tantalizing Julia Grosso cross on the left wing, gave the ‘Maple Heads1’ a lifeline.

In these circumstances, 1-1 at the interval didn’t look so bad. Especially as the North Americans had trailed in every statistic apart from possession. Ireland had battered them for 45 minutes.

With 33% of the ball, Ireland had rattled off nine attempts and four on target. McCabe’s outstanding and outlandish Olimpico, which handed them the lead, ironically was their least likely chance on goal of the night.

The Irish will leave Perth cursing their luck. The football gods shined on Canada.

With the fortuitous equalizer in the bank, the Canadian players emerged for the second half like that they had been shot out of a cannon. Determined. Refreshed.

Within eight minutes of the restart, they had the go-ahead goal; winger Adriana Leon slickly finished off a great passing move.

Just like that. Technically in the span of nine minutes of play, Canada had flipped a 1-0 deficit into a 2-1 lead.

Over the final 37 minutes of the match, Canada dominated at both ends. Out-shooting Ireland 12-5 (4-1 on target) in the second period. After the 66th minute, the Irish didn’t register a shot above 0.1 xG.

“[I’m] proud of our team, we came back. It wasn’t the start we wanted, it was a bit scary out there but I’m proud of the team for the resilience and grit to get back in the second half. Two goals and got out that win,” beamed second-half substitute Sophie Schmidt after the final whistle.

Sophie Schmidt talking after the 2-1 World Cup win over Ireland | Courtesy of Canada Soccer

“It’s not the ideal situation to be in. Our team knows that we're resilient. We do not break, we bend. We came back in the second half stronger. Christine Sinclair came in at halftime, and said ‘Well, welcome to the World Cup, this is what it’s all about’. It’s just about taking those high-pressure situations and making the most of it.”

How did Canada stun the Irish?

In the first half, Canada was too direct, too obvious. The Irish defended with glee. Sitting in. Knowing where to be as the impatient team in white showed few creative ideas.

Canada has been known as a hard-to-beat, defensive, sludgy, goal-shy team in the three years under head coach Bev Priestman. But they do know how to shut down a game. To control a lead and maximize the few goals they score.

In the 29 matches of her tenure - prior to the Ireland game - Canada averaged 1.13 goals per game. The ‘Maple Heads’ failed to score in 15 of those matches (51.7% of the time).

Furthermore, playing from behind hasn’t come naturally to Priestman’s team. Before today, Canada had won just one match2 under the head coach when they conceded the first goal. An 8% win rate in those situations.

At the break, head coach Bev Priestman wasted no time to be impactful. She turned to her bench to influence the flow of the match and made a bold triple substitution.

Not every change was predictable. The boldness of those moves varied. It transformed the spine of the Canada team.

Due to injury, Shelina Zadorsky replaced Kadeisha Buchanan in defence.

Up front, not a massive surprise, Christine Sinclair was ushered into the ineffective Evelyne Viens’ spot. Two very different types of players. But the theory was that Viens pressing ability wasn’t doing much when Canada needed to link on the ball more in front of the Irish defenders.

Some eyebrows were raised when Julia Grosso made way for double-centurion Schmidt. After all, the Juventus midfield had created Canada’s opener. She also led Serie A in assists in 2022-23.

“It was a great pass from Sophie”

But Schmidt has a lot of experience when it comes to World Cup matches, contests where everything is on the line. One of her best attributes is communicating a game plan and leading her teammates.

The Houston Dash midfielder is also strong in ground duels, tackling, and could handle Ireland’s physicality. On the ball, she can break the lines with her passing.

“Christine, Sophie, Shelina, big subs at half time. They all came in and did their job. The important thing for me is I’ve got 23 players who helped us get the win,” Priestman said defiantly after the match.

Schmidt’s introduction paid serious dividends. The minute she began conducting the midfield Canada started keeping the ball better and probing Ireland. Schmidt as a “number eight” with Quinn behind and Jessie Fleming in front made Canada’s midfield more dynamic and help move players around.

Schmidt’s match-winning assist epitomized what Canada had been missing. Control in tight spaces. Deft passing in front of the Irish defensive lines.

What makes Schmidt’s pass so good is the height and weight. The floated trajectory drifts far enough away from Connolly, so she can’t block it but it is hit soft enough to cradle into Leon’s path (the space between CBs).

It’s a perfect first touch from the goalscorer too. Knocked into her stride and primed for a low finish past the goalkeeper.

“Sometimes you only get one chance in a game. I’m just fortunate I put the ball in the back of the net. It was a great pass from Sophie,” Leon said of her match-winning goal at full-time.

Fluid movement creates space

With Sinclair dropping in, to collect the ball, it also helped free up more central space for Leon and Jordyn Huitema to move into on the run.

Right before Leon’s goal, quick passing in the final third between Schmidt and Sinclair teed up Huitema to rifle a shot on the edge of the box. Courtney Brosnan was equal to it, and parried the ball away for a corner. But it helped Canada grow confident and purposeful.

Huitema had three of her four on-target shots of the match (and five of her six total) in the second half after Sinclair came on to change the forward line’s complexion.

The wider forwards didn’t need to pick up the ball and carry it into the box. Sinclair was a decoy. A link player, not a finisher. A false nine.

As a knock-on effect, the wider forwards getting central allowed the Canada full-backs, Ashely Lawrence and Jayde Riviere to push on into the wide channels in the Irish defensive third.

The duo led their team for passes into the final third with 15 and nine respectively. Lawrence had a good shout for being named player of the match. A complete display in the second half at both ends.

Canada had one foot out of the World Cup with seconds to go before half-time. A defeat would’ve made advancing to the Round of 16 a much more difficult, nearly impossible, task.

Instead, at the final whistle, it is debutants Ireland who are now mathematically eliminated from the competition after two defeats in their opening two matches.

The ‘Girls in Green’ matched Australia and Canada for considerable spells but ultimately couldn’t turn enough chances into goals.

Seeing how Priestman was able to use her bench to influence this match shows the difference in the depth of talent between these two nations right now.

Next, Canada will take on the co-hosts Australia in Melbourne. In September 2022, the ‘Maple Heads’ beat the Matildas twice on Aussie soil. Today, they battled a very rowdy pro-Ireland crowd and the elements. They should be well prepared for what awaits in that final Group B match.

When their backs are against the wall, Priestman and Canada tend to deliver their best.

  1. As we all know, Canada has no official nickname. This is the one I have attributed to them.

  2. The only other comeback win also came in Australia (Sydney) against the Matildas in 2022. Mary Fowler opened the scoring before an Adriana Leon brace gave Canada a rare from-behind win.