Matheson healthy and raring to go for Canada

Sportsnet talks to John Herdman, coach of the Canadian women’s soccer team, about his roster and the competition ahead of their Rio Olympic qualifying tournament in February.

With an injury-riddled year behind her, Diana Matheson is healthy and ready for another run at the Olympics.

The veteran midfielder had a see-saw 2015 campaign when it came to her health due to rehabilitation of a torn ACL and an ill-timed broken foot that kept her on the bench for all but one of Canada’s FIFA Women’s World Cup matches.

As the second most capped player on the Canadian women’s team (171), she not only has plenty to offer in terms of experience, but also provides skill, playmaking and dependability.

Matheson, 31, recently spoke to Sportsnet about how she coped with her injury troubles and the challenge ahead at the upcoming Olympic qualifiers in Texas.

It must be a relief going into this tournament fully healthy. What's the last year been like for you?
It was a little up and down, to say the least. The knee recovery went so smoothly. I lucked out with everything that had to do with the rehab for that. I really had great people around me. The broken foot right before the World Cup was obviously a big blow physically and also mentally. It really was so great to be a part of the team for the World Cup and unfortunately, a few setbacks meant I couldn’t get on the field as much as I wanted. I was still pretty excited to be a part of it and see the Canadian fans at the games, cheering for our team.

I was able to get pretty healthy soon after the World Cup. Time just wasn’t on my side before that. Then, I got to play some soccer with the Washington Spirit in the NWSL at the end of the year and just got to be a soccer player again. I’ve just been enjoying soccer for the past few months. We got back together with Canada in the fall and we’re right back at it. It kind of feels like I never left. Like you said, knock on wood, I’m healthy and done with any surgeries and I’m ready.

Was there ever a moment during your rehab where you thought about throwing in the towel?
With the knee, I never doubted. I knew I would be back from that and really, no problem. I knew I had enough time. When I broke my foot, that was really a tough time. Honestly, there was a period where I wasn’t sure if I could do it or not. That’s when the team and staff really circled around me. They got me in for surgery right away, started a new plan and then started to focus on the next step.

For sure, the first few weeks when you’re in a cast and couldn’t put any weight on your foot is not where you want to be. There were definitely some tough times in there.

There’s a mix of veterans and youth on the team now. What’s it like for you as one of the most experienced players?
It’s a little surreal. We’ve all been in the shoes when we were the young ones and we had players around us like Charmaine Hooper and Andrea Neil. It just feels like everything has come full circle. It makes us appreciate the older players we had when we were in the program even more.

It’s something. We’re talking about mortgages at lunch and the 17-year-old kids are looking at us with blank faces [laughs]. It’s been fun! It’s been a good experience and I think it’s a role us older players on the team are embracing and all the young players bring such energy. They have just such excitement to be here. It freshens up the environment. It’s really been great.

As someone who has been with the program for over a decade, do you think the younger players are having an easier transition to the senior program than your generation did?
It’s a totally different playing field. The fact that they’ve seen us on TV more is totally different. The women’s national team was rarely ever in the spotlight when we were coming through and we had these players to look up to as much, until we made the team. So there’s that. They actually know us and are excited to meet us.

Then, tactically, these kids have the benefit of being through our youth programs, which are already doing the technical work that we’re doing with the full women’s team. They’re coming through on that level already. And absolutely, tactically, they come in and they’ve got great skill already. Then they start learning some of John [Herdman]’s tricks, which he loves to show [laughs]. They pick up things pretty quick. They’re going to be miles ahead of where we are in five to 10 years. It’s going to be pretty exciting, I think.

Do you think your role on the pitch has changed in terms of being one of those veterans?
I think I’ve been a leader on the field for a few years now. I’m definitely always trying to be vocal and want to have things organized out there. I’m just like anyone out there though. We’re just trying to get better with what we’re doing. That means I need to be even more of a vocal leader, making my presence felt on the field. We’re all trying to grow and improve at what we’re doing. I don’t see major, major changes at this point, but it’s just about the little things for helping the team be better.

What do you think has changed in the women's game since the team played qualifiers four years ago?
Every four years, every World Cup and every Olympics, women’s soccer seems to be improving. It’s not just at the top level, but the middle teams, those tier-two teams, who are really closing the gap. You don’t really see those blow outs as much. If you look back at the World Cup, there were some huge upsets by teams that would’ve been blown out even four years ago.

The game is evolving, both technically and tactically. All of these teams are getting better and better.

And that can be said for the other teams (Guatemala, Trinidad and Tobago and Guyana) in your Olympic qualifying group. You don’t see them often and you don’t always know what to expect.
Exactly. Much of the time, these teams are unknown. I mean, we have a sense of what we can expect, but the preparation is more about us at this point. We have to make sure that we execute what we need to do. The focus is not only on winning these games, but that we’re winning them comfortably, as we should be doing.

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