Canadian star Jessie Fleming balancing soccer and school

Jessie-Fleming

Jessie Fleming, left, in action for Canada. (Dave Chidley/CP)

WINNIPEG – Not only is Canadian women’s soccer team midfielder Jessie Fleming getting ready for a pair of home friendlies with Costa Rica, she’s also having to navigate end-of-term exams at UCLA.

She didn’t join her Canadian teammates in Winnipeg for Thursday’s game against Costa Rica until Tuesday morning as she wrapped up what’s known as “10th Week,” which is the final week of the quarter before her exams.

As a Materials Engineering major, Fleming has a lot on her plate.

“It kind of has to do with the manufacturing process and different materials,” Fleming told Sportsnet of her studies after Canada wrapped up training at Investors Group Field on Wednesday.

“It has a greater focus on chemistry. For example, the materials that go into a solar panel and making that more efficient or the materials that go into buildings and making them more environmentally friendly. It’s a pretty broad spectrum and engineering stretches to a lot of things.”

A 19-year-old native of London, Ont., Fleming is a dynamo on the field with an international resume that already features an Olympic bronze medal, and appearances at the FIFA Women’s World Cup and a number of youth World Cups. She is also as much a shining light off the field as she is on it, posting a 3.8 GPA during her freshman year in university.

The traditional path through the women’s game in North America to the professional ranks has gone through the U.S. college system, but that foundation may have changed in April when American forward Mallory Pugh left UCLA to turn pro with the Washington Spirit.

Far being from it being an anomaly, it could be a new course forward for bright prospects such as Fleming.

“It’s such a traditional route for the mindset of parents and players,” Canadian coach John Herdman said

Herdman also pointed out that U.S. college soccer has a very short system that could fall behind with the continued development of the women’s game and club structures around the world.

“You’ve got to break tradition. Pugh’s leading the way. That kid’s earning an absolute fortune at 19. She could be probably retired by the time she [turns] 30 and then find out what she wants to do academically after that. Once you start to see these stories being tangible, then it changes the culture and the mindset of those that are influencing our players,” Herdman explained

Given her obvious talent that’s been evident from her early forays into the international game, Fleming is also a player who could consider making that step.

But while she’s glad that the option of turning professionally at a younger age is more feasible then it’s been in the past, she’s perfectly happy with her current status as student-athlete.

“It depends on the person. For me, I got to school and I really like my program and some people might struggle a bit more in university or find it harder,” said Fleming who pointed out that she’s excited to see how Pugh fares with the Spirit.

“I still feel like I’m developing in the NCAA and hopefully improving technically and hopefully transferring into [the international game].”

Financially, a large gulf remains between the men’s and women’s games. Herdman envisions a future where Canada sees some entrants into the professional National Women’s Soccer League from Canada that would change the way Canadian players are developed.

While there still would be a place for education if the players chose to follow, the focus would be on soccer first and see a professional environment that’s a full-time job, but is also flexible enough to accommodate studies.

“I think the way that the women’s game is and the fact that the financial rewards aren’t the same as the men’s game, I think we’ll be working hard to align academic establishments alongside pro clubs here in Canada,” Herdman offered. “So players can do their degrees or their masters as they’re continuing a professional career.”

In addition to Thursday night’s match against Costa Rica, Fleming and the Canadian team returns to Toronto for another game against Costa Rica on Sunday afternoon.

It will be Fleming’s first game back in her home province since heading off to school. For now, she’s enjoying life as a west-coaster and all the weather-related benefits that go with that.

“I’ve liked it a lot. I’ve gotten the opportunity to explore the city and there are lots of great museums,” Fleming said of life in Los Angeles. “We’re pretty lucky with that and, of course, the weather and being able to train outdoors all year is pretty cool. And going home is that much more special.”

She won’t be able to enjoy that taste of home for long, though. She has to get back to Los Angeles when the women’s game ends. She has exams to take.

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