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Canada's Sophie Schmidt, right, goes up against Sweden's Nilla Fischer, left, during the Women's World Cup round of 16 at Parc des Princes in Paris, France on June 24, 2019.Francisco Seco/The Associated Press

Though it’s been 345 days since the Canadian national women’s team last kicked a ball in anger, many of the squad weren’t even born the previous time Canada recorded a win over its neighbour to the south.

Almost 20 years have elapsed since Christine Sinclair and Charmaine Hooper both hit the target in a 3-0 win over the United States at the Algarve Cup on March 11, 2001.

At least one of those lengthy runs will come to an end Thursday night, though, as Canadian national team women’s coach Bev Priestman marks her first game in charge with a tournament-opening tussle against the United States as the SheBelieves Cup kicks off in Florida.

With the United States holding a record of 50 wins, three losses and seven ties in the 60-game series between the two countries, the weight of history is very much tilted in favour of the Americans, most memorably playing out in their 4-3 win in the 2012 Olympic semi-final. But with the rescheduled Tokyo Olympics on the horizon, Priestman, who succeeded Kenneth Heiner-Moller as head coach last October, is just eager to see what she has to work with.

“Obviously coming into this tournament is not how I had originally imagined my first tournament would be, particularly playing the No. 1 [team] in the world,” she said. “But it is a great opportunity for anybody to step up and try and get their name on that Olympic roster.”

Few introductions will likely be necessary to the Englishwoman, however. The 34-year-old was working with various Canadian national youth squads before leaving the Canadian Soccer Association in 2018 to be an assistant coach for the England women’s team.

A number of known quantities will miss this tournament, however, with Olympic bronze medalists Sinclair, Diana Matheson and Erin McLeod all absent with injuries that Priestman describes as minor. On top of that, younger regulars Kadeisha Buchanan, Ashley Lawrence and Jordyn Huitema are all staying with their clubs in France as FIFA determined that the mandatory seven-day quarantine time was deemed too long for the teams to be forced to release the Canadians.

All told, that is 845 international caps and 229 goals that Priestman will be missing for her first tournament in charge, which also features games against Argentina on Feb. 21 and Brazil on Feb. 24.

But beyond the offensive numbers, the absences also give Priestman a taste of what life will be like without some of the established stars. For instance, while Sinclair is the most prolific striker in the history of international soccer with 186 goals, she will be 38 by the Olympics, and although she has committed to the Tokyo Games, she can’t go on forever.

“That’s going to be the really interesting part,” Priestman said. “We have to prepare for life without Christine Sinclair, whenever that is.”

Those preparations look to have begun in earnest at the SheBelieves Cup. Five of the 23-player squad are possibly in line to make their first international appearances at the senior level, while the average age is just 25.

Skewing that average upward are a pair of veterans, 32-year-old Sophie Schmidt and 33-year-old Desiree Scott, who are the most experienced players in this Canadian squad. Both will anchor the midfield throughout the tournament, leaning on their 356 caps of experience to help mentor the youngsters.

Schmidt will become just the third Canadian player after Sinclair and Matheson to reach 200 international appearances the next time she steps onto the pitch.

That milestone could be reached as early as Thursday. While some might wish for a slightly more forgiving reintroduction to the rigours of international soccer, the veteran of four World Cups and three Olympics Games isn’t one of them.

“Every game against the U.S. is a battle, a fight tooth and nail to the end,” Schmidt says. “We don’t like them, they don’t like us. I think nothing changes in that regard.

“What an opportunity. They’re No. 1 in the world, see where we’re at right away heading into this Olympic year.”

Given the lack of preparation time between now and the Olympics, Priestman says that she isn’t about to overhaul everything that her predecessor, Heiner-Moller, put in place, and talks about making “tweaks” here and there instead.

Those include demanding more of one another within the group and becoming harder to beat.

The team’s training camp in Florida has been the first gathering of the players since a 2-2 draw with Brazil to wrap up the Tournoi de France last March. Since she took charge in October, the head coach has had to make do with conducting Zoom meetings with the players to go over tactics and playing styles.

For veteran midfielder Scott, this training camp has been the first time she has been on a pitch at all since that match against Brazil. She didn’t play in the National Women’s Soccer League Challenge Cup last summer because of family commitments and didn’t take part in the league’s Fall Series, either.

“It’s really been a long time coming to get on a field with other people,” she said. “So the first team meeting, we walked in and I just got teary-eyed because I’ve really missed being in the environment.”

Back in her native Winnipeg, Scott had to make do with a training program devised by the strength coach to keep her in shape in her basement.

“I invested in a treadmill and dumbbells and [the coach] kind of just adapted my program to that,” she said.

Scott says the first training sessions under the new regime have been focused on small tactical things, although she adds that there has been a lot of competitiveness within training sessions.

According to Priestman, that’s all been by design, with the overarching principal of trying to make her Canadian players, well, less Canadian. They will certainly need it against a U.S. team currently on a 34-game unbeaten streak.

“The world’s moving forward in women’s soccer and we have to do the same,” she said. “Maybe that’s the next layer to us, to be those nice Canadians when we’re off the field, but when we’re on it, we demand [more] of each other.”

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