Canada vs. El Salvador at Concacaf Gold Cup: What you need to know

Canada begins life without Christine Sinclair on Thursday when it takes on El Salvador in Houston in its Gold Cup opener.

Canada vs. El Salvador at Concacaf Gold Cup: What you need to know
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After nearly three months of inactivity, the Canadian women's team returns to action this week when it opens its account at the 2024 Concacaf W Gold Cup.

For the first time in a very long time, Canada will be without the services of Christine Sinclair in a major international competition. The Gold Cup also provides the Canadians a chance to prepare for this summer's Paris Olympics.

"We're just excited for the Gold Cup as a whole. Our expectation is to win the group and we look at it as a good opportunity to get together and play some tough games leading into the Olympics this summer," Canadian midfielder Jessie Fleming told TFC Republic.

Here’s what you need to know about Thursday's match between Canada and El Salvador at Houston's Shell Energy Stadium (9:30 p.m. ET/OneSoccer). 

How the Gold Cup works

The 12-team field has been divided into three round robin groups and features eight of the best teams from the Concacaf region. Four of the top nations from South America have also been invited to the tournament: Argentina, Brazil, Colombia and Paraguay.

The Canadians will compete in Group C at the Gold Cup and will play all of its group stage matches in Houston. The reigning Olympic champions will face El Salvador on Feb. 22, Paraguay on Feb. 25 and Costa Rica on Feb. 28.

Group A consists of the United States, Argentina, Mexico and the Dominican Republic. Group B features Brazil, Panama, Colombia and Puerto Rico.

The top two nations in each of the three round robin groups - as well as the two-best third place teams overall - advance to the knockout round. The quarter-finals run from March 2-3 in Los Angeles. San Diego will host the semifinals and final from March 6– 10.

Canada is No. 10 in the current FIFA rankings, well ahead of Costa Rica (No. 43), Paraguay (No. 50) and El Salvador (No. 104), so the expectation is that it should easily qualify for the quarter-finals.

"We have high expectations of ourselves. But what we do know is at the highest level in the women's game right now... the margins are very fine and on any day anything can happen. Our own expectations and standards will be that we deliver, we perform, and we'll grow through the tournament and be ready for whatever big games come our way," Canadian coach Bev Priestman said on Wednesday.

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First games for Canada without Christine Sinclair

How do you replace Christine Sinclair? 

That’s one of the big questions facing the Canadian women’s team as it prepares to compete in the Gold Cup. This competition will be Canada's first since Sinclair announced her national team retirement in December after more than two decades of international service.

With Sinclair out of the picture, it'll be up to the squad's core of veterans to step up and fill the leadership gap. One such player is Jessie Fleming, the 25-year-old midfielder from London, Ont., who has 19 goals in 123 caps since making her debut for Canada in 2013. 

As a young professional, Fleming is still trying to find her voice as a leader within the Canadian team. It’s something she’s keen to work on during the Gold Cup, especially in the aftermath of Sinclair’s retirement. 

“I see myself as a leader in some regards. I'll always work very hard for my teammates and give my best on the pitch. But there are so many different parts of my game that I would like to continue to develop and that's definitely one of them,” Fleming told TFC Republic

The Gold Cup truly marks a new era in the history of a Canadian team that has won three consecutive Olympic medals, including gold in Tokyo in 2021. Not since the 2000 Algarve Cup, where Sinclair earned the first of her team-record 331 caps as a 16-year-old, has Canada gone into a major international competition without the legendary forward from Burnaby, B.C. 

Canada has to find a way to move on without its iconic former captain and begin a new chapter in the women’s team program at this Gold Cup. 

“I fully trust the group of players we have here, and I think we have a lot of experience when you look at our team. There's a lot of leaders in this group so I don't think anyone is worried. Christine retiring was inevitable, so it's good that we've had enough time before a big tournament to adapt without her and adapt in terms of personalities and our leadership,” Fleming offered. 

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Player lawsuit looms large at Gold

News broke on Wednesday evening that the Canadian Soccer Players’ Association, the union representing the Canadian women’s team, has filed a $40-million lawsuit against 15 current and former board members of Canada Soccer.

The lawsuit filed in Ontario Superior Court of Justice alleges “negligence and breach of fiduciary duty” by a number of defendants, including former Canada Soccer presidents Steve Reed and Nick Bontis, and current president Charmaine Crooks.

The lawsuit is in response to the agreement Canada Soccer signed several years ago with Canadian Soccer Business, which gives Canada Soccer’s marketing and sponsorship rights to CSB in exchange for an annual fee.

This lawsuit is the latest chapter in the ongoing controversy over the CSB deal which included members of the Canadian women's team testifying before a committee of MPs on Parliament Hill a year ago.

Bev Priestman maintains that the lawsuit won't serve as a distraction for the women's team at the Gold Cup as it's "focused on what's in front of them."

"There's been no side conversations. It's all been about what's going to happen on the football pitch," Priestman stated.

Jessie Fleming added: "The mood in camp is really good ... and it's just not something that's being talked about among the players in camp."

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Makeup of Canada's roster

Coach Bev Priestman earlier this month announced her 23-player squad for the Gold Cup, which features several familiar names, including newly minted captain Jessie Fleming, goalkeeper Kailen Sheridan, defenders Kadeisha Buchanan and Ashley Lawrence, midfielder Quinn, and forwards Adriana Leon and Nichelle Prince.  

Recalled into the national team fold are forwards Deanne Rose and Clarissa Larisey. Rose previously featured in Canada's 2-0 win over Brazil in Halifax last October, while Larisey's last cap came in a 2-1 loss to France on April 11, 2023.

One player who was on the squad for December’s international window who didn’t make the cut this time around is midfielder Jeneva Hernandez-Gray. Forward Janine Beckie and Desiree Scott are still unavailable as they continue their rehabilitation from long-term injuries, while fullback Allysha Chapman is pregnant. Also missing for Canada is defender Emma Regan.

Midfielder Marie-Yasmine Alidou and defender Bianca St-Georges were omitted from Priestman's original Gold Cup squad. But injuries to fullback Jayde Riviere and defender Sydney Collins (suffered during Canada's pre-camp) saw Priestman call up both St-Georges and Alidou as replacements.


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A quick look at El Salvador

La Selecta had to go through the qualifiers in order to punch their ticket for the Gold Cup. 

El Salvador topped its group in CONCACAF W Gold Cup qualification League B with a perfect 6-0-0 record before beating Guatemala 3-1 in a one-game playoff on Feb. 17 in Carson, Calif. Forward Brenda Cerén netted a hat trick for the Salvadorians. 

Undefeated in its last eight games, El Salvador features several dual nationals, but all eyes will be on 19-year-old forward Victoria Meza and midfielders Danielle Fuentes and Samantha Fisher to lead the charge for Eric Acuña's side. Goalkeeper Idalia Serrano was also a key player for El Salvador by making six saves in the crucial win over Guatemala. 

"What we've seen from El Salvador is they can be dangerous, they can score, and we have to respect that," Bev Priestman said. 

She later added: "You have to talk about the likes of Cerén and Fisher; the link up play they have is critical [for El Salvador]. But you also have some wingers and fullbacks that look to join in, too. We have to be aware of that threat." 

What happened last time between Canada and El Salvador

This is the first ever meeting at senior level between the two nations. 

Canada's under-20 side thumped El Salvador 4-0 on Feb. 27, 2022, in the group stage of the Concacaf Women's U-20 Championship held in the Dominican Republic. Midfielder Olivia Smith, who was among the goal scorers that day, is a member of Canada's Gold Cup roster. 

What's next for Canada

The Canadians will take on Paraguay on Feb. 25 in Group C play from Houston's Shell Energy Stadium.

(Top photo courtesy of Canada Soccer)

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