After disappointing 2023, defending Olympic champion Canada has steadied heading into Paris Games

Even coach Bev Priestman acknowledges the Canadian national team lost its way last year.

Two years after winning Olympic gold at the Tokyo Games, the Canadians were humbled by a poor performance at last summer's Women's World Cup. Canada failed to advance out of the group stage for the first time since 2011.

"Had an unbelievable 2021 and arguably 2022, of some really good runs. And for whatever reason, I think we know that we lost our way and I lost my way, I would say, in terms of my values and principles and being able to see the woods for the trees,” said Priestman, who is now preparing her team for this year's Olympics, where Canada begins play on July 25.

Canada was ranked by FIFA at No. 6 in the world going into the World Cup, then fell to No. 10 afterward.

Simmering in the background for the past two years has been the national team's ongoing — and sometimes contentious — labor dispute with Canada Soccer.

Without a contract since 2021, the team struck compensation deals for 2022 and the World Cup, but the issue has become so fraught that the women filed a $40 million lawsuit this year accusing Canada Soccer board members of negligence and breach of fiduciary duty.

Complicating matters is that the women are seeking equal pay to the men's national team, much like the U.S. women's team succeeded with its collective bargaining agreement in 2022, and Canada's men don't have a labor agreement either.

Priestman, who admittedly had a difficult task keeping the team focused amid the outside noise, takes full responsibility for the team's on-field shortcomings last year.

“I think the biggest thing is, we played it safe, I played it safe," she said. "You could see that in 2023 when there was a lot of clutter, and maybe that was the safe thing to do, to make the environment feel that way in what was going on."

Captain Jessie Fleming said Priestman's assessment that the team lost its way was fair.

“I think when you look at our performances at the World Cup, they certainly weren't performances that we were happy with, it wasn't close to our best. I think we learned a lot from that summer,” Fleming said. “I think it's difficult. Teams are always in transition and we've had a lot of transition in recent years. But since the World Cup, I feel we've had some really good performances as a team.”

Canada has indeed rebounded since last September, with just one loss in regulation. The team's other stumbles were to the United States: Canada played to draws with their rivals in both the CONCACAF Gold Cup semifinals and the She Believes Cup before ultimately falling on penalties.

The team has also undergone some key changes in personnel. Christine Sinclair, the top international career scorer among both men and women, retired in December.

Sinclair, in addition to her record 190 goals, was the beloved captain of the team and the most recognized soccer player in Canada. She played in six World Cups and four Olympics.

Veteran midfielder Sophie Schmidt also stepped away from the national team.

But Canada has seen new players emerge. Fleming, the captain, is just 26. Jordyn Huitema and Julia Grosso — who struck the winning penalty in the gold-medal match in Tokyo — are just 23.

The deadline for naming an 18-player Olympic roster is July 3, although Priestman is aiming to name hers by the end of June. Then the team will head to Europe and play a pair of friendly matches during the July FIFA window.

Canada has a tough group at the Olympics. The team opens play against No. 28 New Zealand on July 25 before facing No. 3 France on July 28 and No. 23 Colombia on July 31.

“The proud thing for me is, when you stood on the sideline, I think you see things in these players that — listen, we might win, we might lose. But there’s values out there of never say die, of being a good teammate, respect, humility, working harder than any other team," Priestman said. "These are all things that are in the DNA of this squad.”

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AP soccer: https://apnews.com/hub/soccer