Goalkeeper Stephanie Labbe still vividly remembers the last time the Canadian women’s soccer team played at B.C. Place in Vancouver.
It was November 2017 and the squad battled the No. 1 Americans to a 1-1 draw in a friendly that proved to be a turning point for the Canadians.
“That was, I think, one of the biggest moments,” Labbe said. “Our team came away from that game with that firm belief of we can hang with the top teams and put in performances that actually dominate top teams and can actually get results against them. … I think we really built a solid foundation of belief and confidence from that game.”
Now the team is returning to Vancouver as Olympic champions after beating Sweden on penalties in the gold-medal game in August’s Tokyo Games.
Canada is set to face Nigeria in a two-series match as part of it’s celebration tour next month. The first game will be played at B.C. Place on April 8 and the second will go on April 11 at Starlight Stadium in Langford, B.C.
The games will be an opportunity to finally celebrate the gold medal with fans, Labbe said.
“As a soccer player, what’s really difficult about the Olympics is after you might have a few days rest but you have to get right back in with your pro team. So the ability to really come home and celebrate with Canada is tough,” she said. “We come home to different cities, we maybe have a little thing in our own hometowns, but really as a team to feel that love and that connection with our country hasn’t really been there.”
Canada, ranked sixth in the world, played a pair of games against New Zealand in October as part of the celebration tour. They beat the visitors 5-1 in Ottawa and 1-0 in Montreal.
Putting together friendlies during a global pandemic hasn’t been easy, said Bev Priestman, Canada’s head coach. Before lining up games with Nigeria, a series with another country fell through, she said.
“It’s been really challenging. I think it’s been unique to where we’re at in the world. But I was over the moon to get Nigeria over the line,” Priestman said, adding that Canada is also trying to line up another stop on the celebration tour in the June international window.
The games will also be crucial tune ups as the team prepares for July’s CONCACAF W Championship in Mexico. The tournament is a qualifier for both the 2023 World Cup and the 2024 Paris Olympics.
Facing No. 41 Nigeria will help the group get ready, Priestman said.
“We haven’t got a lot of experience against African nations so for me, playing Nigeria, we haven’t played them a lot but we know they’re an unbelievable team and it’ll be a great experience for us to keep pushing forward on our new journey,” she said.
Many of Canada’s key players were on hand when the country finished third at the Arnold Clark Cup in England last month. Others, including Labbe and star forward Christine Sinclair, missed the tournament.
The team is now 10-4-6 with Priestman as head coach.
Being back in Canada gives the team to both connect with fans and get into the right mindset as they push forward, Priestman said.
“I think we’re all eager to get to work,” she said. “And for me as a coach, I wanted to make sure we don’t just stand still. We can’t just stand at the top of the mountain and look down at the people who are climbing.”
Next month’s game in Vancouver will include a hometown celebration for Sinclair, who broke the international goal scoring record when she put away her 185th goal in January 2020.
The match in Langford will mark the last for Labbe, 35, who announced her pending retirement in January.
“It’s a surreal moment, one that I kind of saw coming but it always felt so distant,” the ‘keeper said. “To know that it’s right around the corner now, to be honest, the biggest word I can find is exciting. I’m at a point in my life where I’m so excited for what’s next and how I can continue to impact the game in a different position. I think it’s just an exciting moment.”
Being able to play in front of loved ones one more time is huge, Labbe added, especially because her friends and family weren’t able to come to her final pro games for Paris Saint-Germain in France.
“They didn’t get the chance to say goodbye to me there, in a sense,” she said. “So I think for me to be able to get this moment with my family and friends and with my second family, the team, I think that’s really exciting and important to me.”
—Gemma Karstens-Smith, The Canadian Press