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2019 Women's World Cup team previews: Canada

After winning medals in each of the past two Olympics -- the only CONCACAF team that can make that claim -- Canada will try to finish on the podium in a World Cup for the first time.

A quarterfinal appearance four years ago marked the second-best showing for the Canadians in a World Cup (they finished fourth in 2003), but it also felt like a missed opportunity for a team that was blessed with the twin luxuries of both hosting that tournament and Christine Sinclair in her prime. Now the challenge is to prove that a well-regarded youth movement has matured in time to give Sinclair, who turns 36 during the group phase but is still in fine form, one more shot at a trophy.

How they got here

Although it ultimately couldn't register its first win against its neighbor since 2001, Canada had already qualified for the World Cup by the time it lost to the United States in the final of the 2018 CONCACAF Women's Championship. The Canadians breezed to qualification with wins against Costa Rica, Cuba and Jamaica in the group phase of that event and a 7-0 rout of Panama in the semifinals -- the most lopsided semifinal in the tournament since 2002.

Canada has qualified for every World Cup since missing out on the inaugural event in 1991.

Strengths/weaknesses

Highlighted by a 1-0 win in April against England in Manchester, Canada has largely maintained its positive momentum since Kenneth Heiner-Moller replaced John Herdman as coach last year. The Canadians won two Olympic bronze medals on Herdman's watch, but the current squad retains the continuity of veterans like Sinclair, Sophie Schmidt and Desiree Scott who helped produce those results.

Heiner-Moller's version of Canada still brings the North American physicality and toughness with which this team has long been associated. And a younger generation, well represented among attacking players, also lends finesse, speed and skill.

The downside is that for all the potential of Janine Beckie, Adriana Leon, Nichelle Prince, Deanne Rose, and despite all the goals Canada piled up in qualifying, the attack still feels Sinclair-or-bust at times. Before breaking out with a 3-0 win against Mexico, Canada scored five goals in its first six games this year. That included scoreless draws against Iceland and Sweden (and a 0-0 training match against Switzerland). Sinclair scored three of those five goals. That bodes poorly in a group that might lack a minnow.

Money stat: 181

Sinclair's goal tally is arguably one of the entire tournament's defining statistics. The Canadian captain arrives in France with 181 international goals. While breaking Abby Wambach's world record of 184 goals will be a feat worthy of the spotlight whenever it happens, doing so on the World Cup stage would be fitting for a player who is as synonymous with one nation's soccer success as any player in the sport.

Players to watch

Kadeisha Buchanan: She missed the team's final warm-up game because she was busy playing for Lyon in the UEFA Women's Champions League final. That speaks to the company the 23-year-old defender keeps, even if playing time isn't always a given on the sport's most star-studded team. She was selected the 2015 World Cup's best young player, ahead of current Ballon d'Or holder and Lyon teammate Ada Hegerberg. Buchanan is Sinclair's heir, not as a goal scorer, obviously, but as Canada's most celebrated contribution to the world game.

Jessie Fleming: Watch the midfield maestro work and then imagine that Fleming and Mallory Pugh could still be playing on the same UCLA team. Still part of the Bruins, Fleming is also already a World Cup and Olympic veteran with more than 60 caps at 21 years old. Think former French star Louisa Necib crossed with former Canadian hockey legend Haley Wickenheiser.

Christine Sinclair: Barely 20 years old at the time, in 2003, she scored her first World Cup four minutes into her first tournament -- against eventual champion Germany no less. The rest of that game didn't go so well for Sinclair or the Canadians, but she has been the player to watch ever since. If she has slowed down, it's hard to tell. She's still a clinical finisher whose stellar playmaking is overshadowed by her goal tally.

Key game

At least symbolically, the key game for Canada is against New Zealand on June 15 in Grenoble. The finale against the Netherlands is the obvious headliner in Group E, but there might not be that much strategic difference between finishing first and second in this particular group. If form holds, the winner would face a path through Sweden and Australia in the first two knockout rounds, while the runner-up would follow a similarly arduous route through Japan and Germany.

So while the finale might settle the group, the preceding game against New Zealand might tell as much about Canada's chances. The second group game has been a stumbling block for Canada in recent years. A 4-0 loss against France in 2011 sealed a disastrous campaign that ended without a win. A 1-1 draw against New Zealand four years ago hinted at a less-than-storybook ending for the tournament host. New Zealand is a good opponent but one a team with fresh legs and serious championship aspirations should dispatch.

Local feedback

"The connection this team has got within the group, the connection this team has got with the country, I think that's a big thing. To not be in this team for these guys would be like not being in a family. It's a very tight bond." -- Kenneth Heiner-Moller

"I think [the goals record is] something I thought about more last year and earlier this year. It's not my focus now. It's all about prepping for the World Cup and helping this team reach its goals. And if the record happens to break, it happens. If it doesn't, we'll do it later." -- Christine Sinclair

Prediction

Unlike the pressure of playing as hosts four years ago, Canada seems to enter this tournament somewhat overlooked -- or at least overshadowed by other contenders. That's a familiar and comfortable role for a team that has a lot of young talent waiting for a big stage. Win the group and they make the semifinals without facing England, France, Germany or the United States.

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