Beckie, Leon hopeful European venture aids Canada World Cup hopes

The Canadian women's national team played to a 0-0 draw against Sweden and talked about their good effort in defence and controlling play.

Like a lot of Canadian youngsters, Janine Beckie went to Europe to find herself, hoping the experience abroad would help her grow. But she’s not backpacking her way across the continent, nor is she sleeping in cheap hostels after spending an exhausting day of sightseeing.

Instead, the national team forward made the move last summer from North America to England where she signed with Manchester City of the FA Women’s Soccer League.

It was a bold move by Beckie, 24, who was the eighth overall pick in the 2016 National Women’s Soccer League College Draft, and scored five goals over three NWSL seasons with the Houston Dash and the New Jersey-based Sky Blue FC. But the talented goal-scorer felt she needed to leave the NWSL for Europe in order to continue her development on the pitch and improve as a player.

“It’s been very challenging – the training environment is the best I’ve been in. The technical level is the best that I’ve ever seen, so it’s really pushed me to work on some things on my game that I hadn’t been pushed to work on [in the NWSL]. You really have to be at the top of your game to get on the pitch and get game time in England because our roster from top to bottom is super competitive. We have a team of 23 to 25 players who could all be on the field,” Beckie told Sportsnet.

Beckie isn’t alone. She’s just one of a handful of high-profile Canadians over the years who have decided to try their hand at playing in Europe, a list that includes such national team standouts as defenders Kadeisha Buchanan (Olympique Lyon) and Ashley Lawrence (Paris Saint-Germain), and goalkeeper Erin McLeod (Vaxjo DFF in Sweden).

The list is growing, too. Forward Adriana Leon (West Ham United), goalkeeper Sabrina D’Angelo (Sweden’s Vittsjö GIK), midfielder Rebecca Quinn (Paris FC), and defenders Shannon Woeller (Eskilstuna United DFF of Sweden) and Jenna Hellstrom, (Vaxjo DFF of Sweden) have all opted for Europe in the past 12 months. Teenager Jordyn Huitema, considered Canada’s brightest prospect, recently decided to forego college in order to turn pro, and she is expected to sign with Paris Saint-Germain, one of the top clubs in France.

Of the 23 players who helped Canada finish third at this month’s Algarve Cup in Portugal, eight ply their trade with European clubs.

Canada is set to compete at this summer’s FIFA Women’s World Cup in France, and if the Reds have any hope of winning it, they’ll need all of their players to be in top form. That was one of the reasons why Beckie wanted to test herself at a higher level with Manchester City.

“I always had aspirations of coming to Europe at some point, just to play here and for lifestyle reasons, and experience a different style of play. The three years I had in Houston and last year [with Sky Blue FC], I realized I wanted to be an environment that puts me at the top of my game for France in June, and I didn’t feel like that was going to come in the NWLS at this moment in time,” explained Beckie, who has 24 goals in 52 appearances for Canada.

So far, Beckie has held her own with Manchester City, and it was her decisive penalty kick that allowed the Citizens to beat Arsenal in a shootout to win the FA Women’s Continental League Cup.

Buchanan and Lawrence decided to forego the NWSL after they played collegiate soccer at West Virginia University and signed with Lyon and PSG, respectively. Both have benefited from their time with French clubs, earning valuable experience competing in the UEFA Women’s Champions League. Buchanan, in particular, has flourished with Lyon, helping them win back-to-back Champions League titles. She was also named the Canadian women’s player of the year in 2017.

Beckie believes the national team has reaped the benefits of more and more Canadian players turning out for European clubs.

“Each training camp is better and better. Roster spots are very competitive and Canadians have done well in the NWSL, but with the style of play that we’re asking out of ourselves in the national team – we’re taking a step up in playing more possession-based soccer and controlling the ball – we all need to be better. Those of us who have made the move to Europe, they’ve been individual decisions, but it’s shown that we’re serious about taking our game to the next level and about being a serious threat to win the World Cup this summer,” Beckie offered.

Like Beckie, Leon, 26, recently ventured to England, signing with West Ham United, where she plays under Matt Beard, who coached her in the NWSL with the Boston Breakers. Leon said she lacked opportunities in the NWSL, and believed she would benefit from the European experience.

“Playing 90 minutes, that’s been something that’s been missing in my career the past couple of years. I haven’t got consistent playing time so that was the main reason why I made the move, especially in a World Cup year,” Leon told Sportsnet.

“I’m stepping into a team with more of a leadership role. It’s a new team, it’s the first year that West Ham is playing professionally in the first division in England, so they brought me in as an experienced player. I’m taking on a little bit of a different role, which is challenging but it’s something that’s good for me.”

Moving to Europe comes with challenges, though, including cultural differences, and sometimes having to learn a new language. Also, the NWSL offers a sense of security for some Canadian national team members. Each year, Soccer Canada allocates a certain number of Canadian players to compete in the NWSL, paying their salaries in the U.S.-based league. There is also the thought that Canadians who stay in the NWSL are less likely to be forgotten by national team coach Kenneth Heiner-Moller than if they played professionally in Europe.

But Leon, who has 14 goals in 55 appearances for Canada, maintains that Heiner-Moller was very supportive when she told him she was going to leave the NWSL’s Seattle Reign to play for West Ham in England.

“He’s a big fan of European football, just because he’s very familiar with it having coached in Europe. He’s been very supportive of my decision and felt it was good for me to make the move over there and get some playing time,” Leon said.

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