Jordyn Huitema was 14 years old when she found herself face-to-face with her favourite player, a moment she remembers like it was yesterday. Having recently graduated Grade 8, Huitema was making her debut alongside Canada’s senior national team at a training camp in Vancouver — basically an extra body, is how she tells it. The women she’d watched on TV for years all introduced themselves, and that included Huitema’s idol, the player she’d watched score a boatload of clutch goals. Christine Sinclair walked up and said, “Hi, I’m Christine.”
“I was thinking, ‘I definitely know who you are,’” Huitema says, laughing at the memory after a recent Team Canada practice at BMO Training Ground. In the moment, she played it as cool as she could and introduced herself right back, all quivery-voiced. “I was a little bit shaky,” she says. “The whole experience was mind-blowing.”
Huitema has come a heck of a long way since then. She has graduated high school, for starters. She and Sinclair are now friends. She has a senior-level World Cup tournament under her belt. And, as veteran Canadian midfielder Sophie Schmidt can attest, Huitema is no longer shy around her teammates. “No, no way,” Schmidt says. “She’s outgoing. She’s definitely fully herself now, which is great to see.”
That Huitema is so comfortable is especially great to see given she faces the most daunting task in Canadian soccer history: Following in Sinclair’s incredible footsteps. The 18-year-old happens to play the same position as her favourite player — they’re both B.C. born strikers with a penchant for goal-scoring. But once Sinclair calls it a career, how can Huitema hope to follow the greatest ever for Canada? The five-foot-11 product of Chilliwack has it figured out. She’s going her own way and blazing a new trail for soccer players in this country.
There wasn’t much inside time at the Huitema home when Jordyn, the youngest of the family’s three kids, was little. She describes outside play with her older brothers, Trent and Brody, as “basically all we did, 24-7.” Breaks came only to attend swimming practices and meets, or hockey and soccer practices and games.
Huitema started playing soccer at four, and was never the kid who picked dandelions or stared at clouds. “I wouldn’t be able to stand that,” she says, her long brown hair tied back in a high ponytail, her hands resting on her hips. “Anything I do, I need to be good and competitive.” Don’t take her on in UNO unless you’re ready for a battle, she warns.
The family had a soccer net in their yard and Trent and Huitema spent hours hammering shots on Brody. Huitema credits Trent for her shooting technique, but wonders, when it comes to the power behind it, “maybe it’s more genetic.”
At 14, still playing both soccer and hockey, Huitema was “pretty torn” about which sport to focus on until she attended that senior-level national team camp where she first met Sinclair. “I fell in love with the environment, fell in love with the players, everything about it,” she says. “I realized that’s really where I wanted to be. This is the environment I wanted to live in for the rest of my life. That’s when I started diving head first into soccer.”
Former Team Canada defender and striker Rhian Wilkinson saw Huitema for the first time at that Vancouver training camp. She noticed the kid had “great feet for someone so tall,” but Wilkinson was careful not to get too excited. She’d seen a number of promising youngsters come through over the years, and plenty never returned. “What I’ve really enjoyed with Jordyn is she hasn’t relied on that potential [alone], she’s actually gone out and worked on it and become a top player,” says Wilkinson, who was recently named head coach of Canada’s women’s youth teams.
That development — and the confidence that came along with it — can be credited, at least in part, to Huitema’s coaches and teammates. “Even when I was 15, I knew that I belonged because they saw something that maybe I didn’t see at the time,” she explains. “When you’re young, you’re not at that mature level where you’re able to see your whole 360-degree play. Other people who have the experience look down and they say, ‘I see your potential. It’s something you might not see yet, but I’ll show you.’”
Huitema has been showing that skill to ever-larger audiences on the world stage in recent years, distinguishing herself as the best young goal-scorer in Canada’s arsenal. Having coached Huitema with Whitecaps FC in Vancouver and also with Canada’s U-17 team, Wilkinson has seen that on-field improvement — and the lofty and even unfair expectations that come along with it. “It’s a scary thing to put on someone’s shoulders so young that they are meant to be the next icon for Canada Soccer,” Wilkinson says, with a laugh.
“I think at first everybody was saying to her, ‘Oh, the next Christine Sinclair,’” Schmidt adds. “And she’s trying to make her own role. She’s doing that, and just being able to play without any restraints. She’s physical, she’s fast, she’s clinical.
“There’s a bright future ahead of her and she’s starting to shine now already, which is just amazing.”
Canada is up 4–0 over Costa Rica in 67th minute when Sinclair jogs off the field. She smiles and throws up both hands to give Huitema a high-ten. “Let’s go,” Sinclair says. Huitema nods and runs onto the pitch.
It’s June of 2017. Huitema turned 16 a few weeks ago and this is her fourth cap for Canada at the senior level, a friendly in Toronto. In her senior team debut in the Algarve Cup final against Spain a few months ago, she became the third-youngest to play for Canada’s women at the top level, at 15 years and eight months. She started and nearly scored in the first minute.
Six minutes after Huitema steps onto the pitch today, she’s in the thick of the action. A cross in front of Costa Rica’s net sees four players — two from each side — bumping each other in the box. Huitema holds off a defender and just as the ball cuts in front of the goal line, she connects with her right knee to knock it in.
Just like that, it’s 5–0 Canada, and Huitema has become the second-youngest goal scorer in Canadian women’s national team history. But she doesn’t celebrate like it’s a big deal. It wasn’t exactly a highlight-reel goal, after all. She collects some hugs and runs back to the centre circle.
Her real celebration comes one minute later. A pass from Nichelle Prince from the right wing deflects off a Costa Rican player and lands at Huitema’s feet just inside the penalty box. She uses her right leg to one-time it over the outstretched hand of the goalie, then jumps and pumps her fist and yells while her teammates cover her in hugs again. She grins, towering over them.
The two-goal performance makes Huitema the first player to score for Canada at the U-17, U-20 and senior levels in the same calendar year. Her 2018 is just as big: In January, she scores five goals in five games and wins the Golden Boot at the Concacaf U-20 Women’s Championship in Trinidad and Tobago, where Canada places fourth. And in November, she captains Canada to a best-ever fourth-place finish at the U-17 World Cup, where her three goals are third-most in the tournament.
“As we started doing well [at the U-17 World Cup], people started putting pressure on her and she was able to rise above and play her style,” says Wilkinson, who coached that team. “You saw her just say, ‘Let’s go with it. Why not?’ And she brought her teammates with her and they sort of fed off her confidence. She played in different positions and worked hard to get on the ball. Seeing her confidence and seeing her maturity under pressure and how she handled it all, it’s a culmination of so many years of hard work.”
Huitema’s 23 goals at the international youth level are the second-most in Canadian soccer history, behind only Sinclair, who had 27.
At the senior level, she now has six goals, but that second in Toronto was particularly sweet. After the game, the score standing at 6–0 over Costa Rica, Sinclair and Schmidt ran up behind Huitema and dumped water over her head. She laughed, running a hand across her soaked hair. She had officially arrived.
As she stands here on the BMO training ground, still sweaty from practice with Team Canada, Huitema is fresh off making history. This morning in May, Paris Saint-Germain signed her to a four-year deal. She turned 18 a little more than a week ago, and the signing makes her the first-ever female Canadian soccer player to turn pro right out of high school, instead of opting for the NCAA.
Huitema hopes she’s the first of many to go this route. “That’s my whole goal,” she explains. “It’s creating this new normal for Canadian players, for young kids to look and say, ‘I don’t have to go to university. I can go pro. I can do that, too.’ I’m trying to be that one who sets the pavement down so it makes it that much clearer for young kids coming up. You have more than one option.”
School is important to her, and Huitema won’t rule out post-secondary education down the road. “But going to university, that would be me following paths that I thought I would need to go down. If people were setting paths for me, that would be the one they would set,” she says. “I didn’t see the purpose of me going down those because at the end of the day, I don’t want to be an architect, I don’t want to be a doctor — I don’t want to be any of those things. It doesn’t excite me like soccer excites me. I just thought, ‘What better way than just start my career now and go until I can’t anymore, really taking advantage of any moment I can get on the field?’”
Huitema made the decision to turn pro in January. In PSG, she joins a team that placed second in the French women’s league last season and lost in the Champions League quarter-final. PSG’s league play begins Aug. 25, but she made her pro debut earlier this month in the French Cup tournament and struck just 14 minutes in, heading home what stood as the winner in a 2–1 victory over Bayern Munich.
Team Canada head coach Kenneth Heiner-Moller says Huitema is a very mature player at 18, and time with PSG will only accelerate her growth. “I don’t think she can expect to step right into that first team, but the environment is awesome,” he says. “Her development will just rocket.”
Speaking of rockets, that’s part of what makes Huitema’s skill set unique. Heiner-Moller notices her speed on short spurts and longer ones, and her ability to “turn very quickly.” National team defender Allysha Chapman didn’t expect her tallest teammate to be so quick. “I’m not sure how she gets her quick acceleration, or where she gets it from,” Chapman says. “She’s kind of like Usain Bolt, but with soccer cleats on.”
“When you see tall players, you think, ‘Ok, they’re not as mobile,’ but she breaks the rules in that sense,” Schmidt adds. “If you hit a ball behind a defender, she catches them off-guard. It’s pretty cool.” And once she’s away, there’s a good chance Huitema will strike. “She’s really technical, and she reminds me of ‘Sinc’ in terms of her ease in front of the net, just finishing, and her composure in being able to find the net,” Schmidt says.
The similarities aren’t lost on Sinclair, who has become Huitema’s mentor. Sinclair spends a lot of time studying video, and Huitema often joins her during national team camps and asks questions, something Wilkinson has encouraged, since you won’t find a better student of the game than No. 12. “I’ve definitely tried to take her under my wing,” Sinclair says. “Obviously, we play the exact same position. We’re [both] from B.C. I spend as much time with her as possible.”
Huitema felt at ease in Sinclair’s presence the very first time the pair were on the field together. “She was very composed, so it made me more composed,” Huitema explains. “It felt like I was more comfortable because I had someone beside me who really was very comfortable. She made it very easy.”
Hiener-Moller has noticed Huitema and Sinclair’s relationship grow, one generation instructing and impacting the next. It’s tough to imagine a better situation to help prepare Huitema for what’s ahead. “Jordyn has a big player ahead of her at that position,” the coach says. “But at some point she’ll definitely be ready to take that centre spot. She’s a now player. She’s also a player for the future. It’s pretty impressive.”
Yes, there’s been a lot of progress since that first training camp Huitema shakily attended four years ago. Sinclair remembers how awkward the kid seemed with those long limbs, “even just striking the ball,” she says. “She hadn’t fully grown into her six-foot frame yet. For me, just seeing her progression from camp to camp – you’re seeing a different soccer player, a well-rounded soccer player, not just an athlete.
“She’s going to be a good one.”
Not the Next Christine Sinclair, no. But Jordyn Huitema’s future is looking awfully bright as she forges her own path. Just ask her favourite player.
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