Canada is poised to make history at the FIFA women’s under-17 World Cup.
But whether or not that happens, Canada’s coach Bev Priestman is proud of how well her young players have weathered some major tests in this tournament.
It bodes well, said the coach, for the future of the women’s game in Canada.
“They’ve done brilliantly,” Priestman said.
The Canadians face Venezuela in the quarter-finals on Thursday in San Jose, Costa Rica, and a victory would put them into the tournament semifinals for the first time ever.
“Some of the girls have mentioned, ‘Is this the first time?’ if we do progress,” Priestman said. “But they’re very humble and they’re definitely focusing on this next game and we know that Venezuela can be very threatening in front of goal and that’s something the girls are aware of, and just focusing on the game plan.”
The Canadian squad has garnered some attention at the tournament for its ability to stand tall under pressure. The Canadians were drawn into arguably the tournament’s toughest group, and then played perennial powerhouse Germany to a 2-2 draw before tying 2012 runners-up North Korea 1-1. They finished the preliminary round by toppling Ghana 2-1.
Against Ghana, who beat both Germany and North Korea, the Canadians played the second half down one player.
“Really, really proud of them, they had 10 players to play with for 45 minutes, and for those girls, that will be a big learning experience and they pulled through together,” Priestman said. “
“When they’ve got the ball I feel like they’ve really lived what we want to live in going forward in the Canadian women’s national team, it’s what we want to breed,” she added. “But I think where they have really surprised themselves is the amount of defensive work, and staying within the game, that resilience has been absolutely fantastic against this level of opposition, and these teams who score goals for fun at times.”
Priestman said the girls are showing they’re capable of playing the style of soccer they’ll need to in order to some day step up to play for Canada’s senior women’s side.
“There are some players on this team who play well beyond their years,” Priestman said. “We have a bit of a mantra: ‘If you’re good enough, you’re old enough,“’ and therefore I expect to see some of these girls this summer in Canada and in the next few years with the women’s national team.“
She singled out team captain Jessie Fleming, a 15-year-old midfielder from London, Ont., and Sura Yekka, a defender from Toronto, who have both made appearances for John Herdman’s senior women’s team.
“So a very promising future,” Priestman said. “And a goal for me coming into this tournament was about having players progress up the system for sure and hopefully with their performances that that really happens.”
Priestman gave her team Sunday off following the game against Ghana — a chance for her players to get some homework in as well, since they’re all high school students. The German team went so far as to bring two teachers to the tournament, who supervised daily hour-long study breaks.
The Canadians were back at practice Monday, and Priestman said everyone is healthy.
“Playing at this level of opposition in the group has taken its toll physically,” the coach said. “But everyone is looking good and hopefully I can pick from 21 players.”
Marie Levasseur of Stoneham, Que., leads Canada in scoring with three goals, tied for second in the tournament behind Deyna Castellanos, a 14-year-old from Venezuela who has four.
Venezuela went undefeated through its group, defeating Costa Rica 3-0, Zambia 4-0, and Italy 1-0.
“I think what we’ve seen from them is. . . they’re a bit more direct, they’ll try to get in behind us, and they’re very dangerous in front of goal,” Priestman said. “It’s not like they’ve owned possession in all of their games, but they’ve converted that possession into goals. So we do expect that they’ll be quick in transition and we need to be defensively sound for that.”
The Canadians will play in the 35,000-seat Nacional Stadium in Costa Rica, another excellent learning experience for the young team.
“I don’t expect a full stadium, but regardless these girls, they’re not used to playing in front of crowds other than what they’ve experienced in this tournament really,” Priestman said. “And the girls are passionate, they know the country is behind them and the Canadian fans (at the tournament), as few as they may be, are behind them, and they’ll keep pushing through.”
The three other quarter-final matches see Japan playing Mexico, Ghana meeting Italy, and Nigeria versus Spain.
The semifinals are Monday, while the gold- and bronze-medal games are April 4.