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Christine Sinclair celebrates a goal against St. Kitt's during Olympic qualifying action in Edinburg, Texas, on Jan. 29, 2020.HO/The Canadian Press

Fitness and finishing will be priorities for coach Bev Priestman as the Canadian women take on Wales and England later this month in soccer friendlies.

In reviewing Canada’s performance at the SheBelieves Cup in February, Priestman said her team was understandably rusty on both fronts in Orlando given the long layoff owing to the pandemic.

“My departing message to the group [was] we have to turn up in April ready,” she told reporters Thursday. “While we were fresh, we could compete. So that U.S game, granted we lost, but I felt we competed even with sort of a weakened roster.

“But I think the reality of COVID and a lot of players not touching a ball for a long time, I felt by the third game we just physically struggled in that tight turnaround, in that heat.”

Priestman hopes the short time between the games in Britain will help that.

Canada, ranked eighth in the world, takes on No. 31 Wales on April 9 in Cardiff before facing No. 6 England on April 13 in Stoke-on-Trent.

Finishing chances in front of goal is another priority.

Canada, in its first action since March, 2020, and first tournament under Priestman, went 1-2-0 at the SheBelieves Cup, losing to the top-ranked U.S. before beating Argentina 1-0 and losing 2-0 to Brazil.

Brazil is tied with Canada at No. 8 in the world rankings, while Argentina and Wales are both at No. 31.

“We definitely created chances, were in much better positions than historically against those teams over the past couple of years,” Priestman said. “But ultimately it is about putting that ball in the back of the net. And I think that’s the hard truth that this group is working towards.”

Priestman said a lot of her players have done extra work on both their fitness and finishing.

“For me, that’s the next level now, that ruthless streak,” she said, echoing the words of men’s coach John Herdman, who made ruthless a keyword in recent World Cup qualifying wins over CONCACAF minnows Bermuda and the Cayman Islands in Florida.

“We have to be ruthless in both [penalty] boxes. Stopping goals but also scoring them,” Priestman added.

The Canadian women have scored three goals in their past seven matches (1-4-2) dating back to the loss to the U.S. in the final of the CONCACAF Women’s Olympic Qualifying Championship in February, 2020.

Captain Christine Sinclair and goalkeeper Erin McLeod are back in the squad after missing the SheBelieves Cup through injury. Paris Saint-Germain fullback Ashley Lawrence and forward Jordyn Huitema are also available after being denied release by their French club for the February tournament.

The 37-year-old Sinclair, the world’s all-time leading scorer with 186 goals, is “thrilled to be back in,” Priestman said.

“It’s been too long. Let’s go!” Sinclair tweeted when the roster was released.

Priestman, while delighted to have the skipper back in the fold, says when it comes to scoring goals “it has to be more than Christine” given the schedule demands at the Olympics.

Unavailable for the British friendlies owing to medical reasons are goalkeepers Kailen Sheridan (Sky Blue FC) and Sabrina D’Angelo (Vittsjo GIK, Sweden), defenders Kadeisha Buchanan (Lyon, France) and Bianca St-Georges (Chicago Red Stars), midfielder Diana Matheson (Kansas City NWSL) and forward Adriana Leon (West Ham, England).

Matheson was also unavailable for the January camp. Sheridan, St-Georges and Leon were injured at the SheBelieves Cup or in the camp leading up to it. Lyon denied Buchanan’s release in February.

The Canada squad includes first-time call-up Cloe Lacasse, a 27-year-old forward from Sudbury, Ont., who plays in Portugal for Benfica.

“She scores goals, can be quite direct, a threat in transition,” Priestman said.

Uncapped Liverpool goalkeeper Rylee Foster, a 22-year-old from Cambridge, Ont., who did not see action in the SheBelieves Cup, gets another call-up.

The other ‘keepers are veterans Stephanie Labbé and McLeod.

Other veterans include Desiree Scott and Sophie Schmidt, who took turns captaining the team at the SheBelieves Cup in Sinclair’s absence. Sinclair (296), Schmidt (202) and Scott (158) have 656 caps between them.

Priestman’s roster includes four players who made their senior debut at the Florida tournament: defender Jade Rose, midfielders Jordyn Listro and Samantha Chang and striker Evelyne Viens.

Priestman has decisions to make on her roster

She is bringing 26 players into camp, which opens Sunday in Cardiff. The Olympic roster is smaller, with just 18 players allowed.

“There’s absolutely no spot guaranteed. And I want to keep it like that right up to the Olympics Games,” she said.

“For me it’s a blank canvas in terms of seeing this group and it’s there for the taking. That’s the message,” she added.

But realistically there is a core of players who have already earned their spot in Canada’s starting 11, and Priestman said she will work on increasing their “chemistry and fluidity.”

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