Door open for Canada newcomers to shine at SheBelieves Cup

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FILE PHOTO: Women's World Cup - Round of 16 - England Training

(Reuters) - Canada's women's soccer team must rely on a patchwork roster for the SheBelieves Cup due to injuries and COVID-19 restrictions but that has opened the door for players to make their case for spots on the Olympic squad, coach Bev Priestman said on Tuesday.

Some stalwarts of the national team including Christine Sinclair, the all-time top scorer in international soccer with 186 goals, and centre back Kadeisha Buchanan will be missing when Canada, eighth in the world rankings, open the four-team event in Orlando on Thursday against top-ranked United States.

Brazil, joint eighth with Canada in the FIFA rankings and 31st-ranked Argentina, a late replacement for 10th-ranked Japan who withdrew over COVID-19 pandemic concerns, make up the tournament field.

Sinclair, veteran midfielder Diana Matheson and goalkeeper Erin McLeod were all ruled out through injury, while Buchanan of Olympique Lyonnais plus forward Jordyn Huitema and full back Ashley Lawrence of Paris Saint-Germain were denied releases by their French clubs due to COVID-19 quarantine protocols.

Assembling her first squad since taking over from Kenneth Heiner-Moller last November, Priestman has had to turn some newcomers for the Feb. 18-24 tournament, bringing in five players who could make their national team debuts in Florida.

"Obviously coming into this tournament it is not how I had originally imagined my first tournament would be particularly playing the number one in the world," said Briton Priestman, who spent two years as England Women's assistant coach.

"But it is a great opportunity for anybody to step up and try and get their name on that Olympic roster. It gives me a great chance to assess any new players, the current crop of players that maybe wouldn't see as much game time."

While winning is always the goal, Priestman is also focused on the big picture that is dominated by this year's Tokyo Olympics where Canada will try to improve on bronze medal results at the 2012 London and 2016 Rio Olympics.

"Not having Sinc (Sinclair), not having Kadeisha it is big shoes to fill but there is a group that has been on the cusp," added Priestman.

"There is a group that will get exposure... for those players it is up to them to step up and show what they can do and not only push themselves into an Olympic roster but try and make the starting 11."

(Reporting by Steve Keating in Toronto; Editing by Ken Ferris)