These are very interesting times for the Canadian women’s soccer team.
The journey began for a number of youngsters when they received their first taste of practising with the senior team back in November in Vancouver. Coach John Herdman referred to the group as “mavericks,” issuing them a challenge during training camp to push veterans such as Christine Sinclair, Erin McLeod and Diana Matheson.
Many of the prospects answered the call. Last week, Herdman announced his 20-woman roster for this month’s CONCACAF Olympic qualifying tournament in Texas. Thirteen players who were on Canada’s Women’s World Cup team last year have been recalled. But Herdman also drafted in a number of those “mavericks,” including 16-year-old midfielder Deanne Rose, the youngest player on the roster. As a result, 10 players on the 2015 World Cup side are not on this squad.
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McLeod, Canada’s 32-year-old starting goalkeeper, is one the team’s pillars, having earned 112 caps since making her debut for the Reds in 2002. She admits that Canada is in a transition period, with Herdman looking towards these youngsters to breathe a bit of new life into the team following its quarterfinal exit during last summer’s World Cup on home soil.
But McLeod also welcomes the infusion of new blood, and feels the young prospects can impart something valuable to the veterans—a bit of fearlessness.
“We have a wonderful mix of experience balanced with youth, but I think what the youngsters are teaching us is that freedom they play with—they have nothing holding them back, they just go out and enjoy it. They have this swagger about them and that is something the vets need a bit more of,” McLeod told Sporsnet in a one-on-one chat this week.
Veterans learning from youngsters? You shouldn’t be too surprised to hear that.
“A lot of people think it’s one sided and that we teach them everything, but it hasn’t been like that at all. It’s great to have them here to push us because we have had some familiar faces here for a long time, and you never want a team to become complacent. I’m excited to work with them,” McLeod offered.
One player McLeod has been working with is goalkeeper Sabrina D’Angelo. The 22-year-old plays professionally with the Western New York Flash in the National Women’s Soccer League. She’s appeared for both the Canadian under-17 and under-20 team, but has yet to earn her first cap with the senior side.
McLeod was with the Houston Dash in the NWSL in 2015, and she raved to Canadian women’s team goalkeeping coach Simon Eaddy about D’Angelo after playing against her.
“I texted Simon and asked him how come Sabrina’s not in camp with Canada? I see a lot of potential in her. I know Simon thinks I’ll be playing until I’m 40 but that’s necessarily my plan,” McLeod quipped.
“I do believe Canada can develop great goalkeepers, and Sabrina is eager to learn. It’s a gift for me to be able to work with someone who I think will be the future of the team.”
In working with and mentoring D’Angelo, McLeod is simply paying it forward—she received the exact same help from Karina LeBlanc when she first joined the senior team. Canada’s former No. 1 goalkeeper, LeBlanc earned 110 caps since debuting in 1998, before retiring from the international game after last summer’s World Cup.
This month’s CONCACAF competition in Texas marks the team’s first major tournament without LeBlanc, making McLeod the side’s oldest and most experienced goalkeeper.
“It’s been bizarre in this camp without Karina thus far. I played with her for almost 14 years and to not have that voice or the jokes or that confidence she instills in others, it’s different and weird. Karina is a good friend and kept me humble and sane while on the road. I miss her for that, but I also feel fortunate that I can be that for someone as well,” McLeod said.
McLeod has also taken a keen interest in helping out Stephanie Labbe, who with 23 caps to her credit has graduated from third-string to backup.
“Steph has really grown as a leader from a tactical standpoint with the team. So as much as Karina is missed, I think we all feel lucky to have worked with her, and now we start anew and start new bonds, and that’s exciting,” McLeod stated.
McLeod enters the Olympic qualifiers as Canada’s undisputed No. 1 goalkeeper after enduring an injury scare. She clattered into Brazilian star Marta during an exhibition game in Brazil just before Christmas and suffered a bone bruise in her right leg.
“Physically I’m exactly where I was before the incident, so there’s no reason for me to worry,” she explained.
McLeod is also still glowing after tying the knot last summer when she married Ella Masar, who was her teammate with the Dash at the time. Massar has since signed with a club in Sweden, so she won’t be in Houston where Canada will coincidentally play all of its Olympic qualifying matches.
“It’s still weird for me to say ‘my wife’ to people. I still give myself a double take when I do. [laughs] Honestly, I feel like a kid—I’m 32 and playing my dream sport, so in some ways I don’t feel grown up. But Ella has been incredibly supportive … she knows the game and I feel very fortunate to have her in my life,” McLeod said.