Shelina Zadorsky shone among the brightest at Starlight Stadium on Monday night.
The centre back for Canada’s women’s soccer team scored the tying goal in the 88th minute to salvage a 2-2 draw for her team in a friendly against Nigeria in Victoria, B.C.
Zadorsky connected on a header on a cross from Janine Beckie, just after a Canadian corner kick. It was her third international goal in her 80th appearance for Canada.
“I think Shelina had a great game. Set play goals are what she wants to be known for, and for her to deliver that – it was a great header,” head coach Bev Priestman told the media after the game.
Zadorsky not only delivered on offence but was also a steadying presence on the Canadian backline, shutting down numerous Nigerian opportunities.
“I've just been training really hard, working on set pieces and really set goals for myself to be a game-changing centre back,” she said postgame.
It’s this positive attitude that has been Zadorsky’s guiding light for the past year as she adjusts to a new role with the national team.
Monday was just her third start and fifth total appearance in the past 12 games for Canada. The native of London, Ont., was a mainstay on the Canadian backline for many years, playing every minute for her country at the 2019 FIFA Women’s World Cup.
But that changed at the start of the knockout round of the Tokyo Olympics, when Priestman opted to start Vanessa Gilles (who at that point had seven caps to her name) alongside Zadorsky’s long-time partner at centre back, Kadeisha Buchanan.
Gilles ended up becoming a breakout star for Canada at the tournament, and she and Buchanan have now become Priestman’s go-to pairing to anchor the team’s backline.
After the tournament, Canada’s coach said the decision not to start Zadorsky was a difficult one, calling the 29-year-old “one of the most consistent players” for the team.
“Every player has challenges in their career,” Zadorsky told TSN before Monday’s game. “I think it's a privilege to be on a team with so many – first and foremost, great centre backs – but also just great players who are fighting to be on the pitch.”
It’s an adjustment no player at the top level wants to endure, especially one who was playing key minutes on the international stage for many years.
“It's absolutely a grind,” she said. “But I think that's where I've really challenged myself – to look at my stats, look at where I can get better, where are the growths I can make. I'm the craziest critic of myself, so, I'm always pushing to get better.”
Priestman said she and Zadorsky have had a lot of frank conversations about how to get the defender to the best level on the pitch. After February’s Arnold Clark Cup, Priestman sat down with all her players for in-depth evaluations.
“She's not going to accept not being a starter, and I love that,” Priestman told TSN last week. “I'm incredibly lucky. I think we've got some top, top centre backs. It's a great problem to have.”
For Zadorsky’s detailed assessment, Priestman compared her to some of the best centre backs in the world and outlined what she believes the Canadian defender needs to target on both ends of the pitch.
“I think the most important thing for me is I'll always be honest, and I think that's my philosophy. When I tell a player that they're not starting… I just feel like my job is to be completely honest,” Priestman said.
“Bev and I have a great relationship,” Zadorsky said. “I'm a mature player in the sense that I've had a lot of experience. I always speak my mind, and I'm always honest with my own performances and whatnot. Bev's pushing me in a way that is good and positive.”
Even though Zadorsky is fighting to reclaim a role as a starer, she believes the Canadian team is never about the individuals, but the collective.
“We have so many good characters. It's not a team where anyone wants someone to do poorly. We all want to get the best out of each other, and I think that's what got us on the podium – being a team,” she said.
Part of Zadorsky’s character is being a leader for her teammates, whether she’s on or off the pitch. Photos of Canada’s gold-medal run in Tokyo show Zadorsky being among the most vocal cheerleaders for her team, especially during penalties against Brazil and Sweden.
“That's how I like to go about life – just trying my best to bring the best out of other people,” she said. “Ultimately, I love playing football because I love being in a team. So, I always try and bring the good energy and really just help people perform to their best.”
Zadorsky has carried that leadership to her club at Tottenham, where she has captained the team for the past year. She made the move to the Women’s Super League in England in 2020 after playing four seasons in the National Women’s Soccer League.
“To be able to play in one of the best leagues in the world is incredible,” she said. “I think it's challenged me in new ways, against incredible international forwards, week in and week out.”
Zadorsky said the coaches at Tottenham have a close relationship with Priestman and her staff at Canada, and the two sides have been working together to push her to new heights.
“It's just being ready for the opportunities,” she said. “And when they do come, being able to absolutely put your best foot forward.”
Just like she did on Monday night.
By Meaghen Johnson