A WORLD CUP VETERAN AT JUST 17 YEARS OLD, JESSIE FLEMING ISN’T TRYING TO REPLACE THE BEST CANADIAN SOCCER PLAYER EVER. SHE’S OUT TO BE THE BEST SOCCER PLAYER IN THE WORLD. PERIOD.
Jessie Fleming stepped onto a soccer field more than 7,000 km from home, in a stadium that seats 68,009 fans. She was supposed to be in Grade 10 English class.
A few days earlier, Fleming had told her teachers at London Central Secondary School that, sorry, she would be missing a week or so. A couple of days later, the freckle-faced 15-year-old with long brown hair and eyes to match boarded a plane with Canada’s senior women’s national soccer team, players she’d looked up to for years but had met only hours before, and they all flew to Brazil, a country she’d never been to before. “It was a bit scary,” Fleming says.
There, at the 2013 International Tournament of Brasilia, Team Canada coach John Herdman started Fleming in midfield. She played with noticeable speed, made solid passes and supported her teammates. But in the last few minutes of the first half, as she tired, Fleming gave the ball away. She came off the pitch with tears in her eyes. “Most 15-year-olds would have come off happy that they got some game time,” says Herdman. Not this 15-year-old.
Fleming, now 17, makes no bones about it: She has set her bar extremely high. “If you throw me into an environment like that, automatically I expect to be at the same level as those guys,” she says. “If I don’t think I’ve played a good game, no person in the world is going to convince me I have.” It doesn’t matter if she’s playing against women with five inches, 15 years and 40 lb. on her. Fleming, at just five-foot-three and 119 lb., expects to thrive.
Fleming’s name should be familiar by now. She became the second youngest ever—after Kara Lang—to debut for the women’s senior national team, at 15 years and 278 days. She has a Women’s World Cup under her belt, and she’s being touted as the future of soccer in this country. She’s even being compared to Christine Sinclair.
The comparison doesn’t really fit: Sinclair is the most prolific goal-scorer Canada has ever produced, and she plays forward, while Fleming plays midfield. Herdman does see similarities in approach, though. “When I say she’s the next Sinclair, what I’ve seen from Jessie is this: She is the closest I’ve seen to Sinclair as far as that absolute focus on the game,” he says. “It’s not easy to find players like that, particularly at her age.”
For all the talk of Fleming’s age, you forget she’s a teenager about two minutes into a conversation with her. Ahead of the World Cup, she’s sitting on a bench after a practice saying things like, “Now we’re in the final phase of perfecting and getting the little things right.” She sounds like the team’s spokesperson, not some kid who’s just happy to be there.
Her life away from the team, though, is full of reminders that she’s a teenager. Days after Canada finished fourth at the Pan American Games, Fleming mentions she just got home from six straight hours of Grade 11 physics, which she’s catching up on after missing a semester of school while living and training with the team. During the Pan Am Games, her parents drove her back and forth from Hamilton to her family’s home in London so she could both play in the tournament and go to school. A straight-A student who hopes to study science or engineering at UCLA, she still has to finish online courses in history and biology in addition to wrapping up physics this summer.
Fleming does nothing badly, it seems. She started playing soccer at age three, played competitive boys’ hockey until recently and is a three-time provincial high school champion in the 1,500-m and 3,000-m. Her goal was to compete for Canada in track and soccer, but running has taken a back seat. After Fleming watched Canada win bronze at the 2012 Olympics, she decided to focus on soccer. “It flicked the switch in me,” she says. “I said, ‘You know what? I need to really commit to this.’” Her dad, himself a runner, used to coach her in soccer and even trained with her, but recently had to stop. “You can’t match that work rate,” John Fleming says. “After a while, you just have to surrender.”
It would be tough to keep up with his daughter’s schedule. In a 16-month span, she played in three FIFA World Cups: the senior women’s, the under-20 and the under-17, at which she captained Canada. All ended with Canada ousted in the quarterfinal. Fleming isn’t satisfied with that, or with her own output so far. She scored her first goal for the senior team at age 16 at the 2015 Cyprus Cup against Scotland, but it remains her only goal through 18 senior appearances. She wants more. “It’s been an incredible journey, but that’s just the start,” Fleming says. “My goals have turned into my expectations.”
And they’re sky-high. Fleming wants to be FIFA’s World Player of the Year; the best women’s player on the planet. It’s an honour even Christine Sinclair hasn’t won. “We’ve had that conversation,” Herdman says. “It blows you away. It’s crazy having conversations with a 17-year-old that you’re having with senior players—but she’s ready to have that dialogue.”
Herdman stresses the need to give Fleming time, however. She’s often the smallest player on the pitch, and she’s still learning how to play against big, strong women, in part by studying some of the world’s best small players. Herdman plays her in specific situations. At the World Cup, she played against China because the game was open and less physical. Fleming also started against the Netherlands to help Canada out of the group stage. “What she’s consistently showed,” he says, “is at the right time, when the game’s in the right stage, at this age and this stage in her career, she can have an impact.”
Fleming has come a long way since that first start for Canada, the tears in her eyes despite a good performance. She admits she was once star-struck by the women on the senior team, but now they’re her teammates. “I’ll never forget that moment I first stepped on the field,” Fleming says. “Now it’s about getting better and better.”