Talented youngsters offer hope for Canadian team in post-Sinclair era

Canadian coach Kenneth Heiner-Møller, goalkeeper Stephanie Labbe and forward Janine Beckie look ahead to the team's opener vs. Cameroon at the Women's World Coup. (Courtesy Soccer Canada)

The Canadian team set to compete at the FIFA Women’s World Cup is the third-youngest squad in the entire tournament, with an average age of 25.33 years.

Yet, the collective shadow of a group of era-defining veterans who have led this team to glory in the past, including consecutive Olympic bronze medals, continues to loom large over this Canadian side.

This is still very much the team of Christine Sinclair, Sophie Schmidt and Desiree Scott – all of them over the age of 30 and with 100 caps to their credit, and all of them expected to play starring roles for the Reds in France as they try to lead Canada to its first World Cup title. It is still the team of Diana Matheson and Erin McLeod (even though injuries prevented them from being named to the roster), who like the aforementioned trio, will forever be inextricably linked to this team, having helped to firmly embed women’s soccer in the Canadian sporting consciousness.

But time catches up with everybody at some point, including Sinclair and her cohorts, and a group of exciting and promising young players, many of whom already have a wealth of international experience under their belts, are poised to have the torch passed to them and be the new leaders.

Eventually, this will no longer be the team of Sinclair, Schmidt, Scott, Matheson and McLeod. Instead, it will become the team of Janine Beckie, Jessie Fleming, Deanne Rose, Kadeisha Buchanan, Ashley Lawrence and Jordyn Huitema. Maybe not immediately after the dust settles in France – you have to think the veterans will take one final kick at the can for Canada at next summer’s Olympic tournament in Tokyo. But at some point, in the not-so-distance future, the next generation will take over.

How good is this current crop of youngsters? Will Canada be left in good hands when Sinclair and her contemporaries decide to call it a day? Canadian coach Kenneth Heiner-Moller thinks the team is set up for success beyond this World Cup.

“There’ll naturally be some kind of change at some point, but if you look at the youth in this team, it’s a team for the future. … No one is selected because they are going to be good in four years. Everyone is selected because they are good now. … I’m pretty confident about the future with this women’s national team,” Heiner-Moller stated.

Veteran defender Allysha Chapman added: “We have a huge mix of youth and senior players in this team. I’m just happy to know that when the veteran players, when we all retire, that the program’s in great hands. We’ve got some great players coming up the pipeline. Once they get some experience under their belts, these kids are going to be unstoppable.”

Sinclair isn’t the least bit worried about the future, either.

“I think you’re seeing some of the best young talent in the world here in Canada. They’re only scratching the surface of what they’re cable of – I don’t they think they know what they’re capable of yet. When I’m done playing, I can’t wait to just sit back and watch where they take this team,” Sinclair said.

Canada’s iconic captain has every reason to be optimistic about the future of the women’s side in the post-Sinclair era. Beckie (age 24, 56 caps), Fleming (age 21, 65 caps), Buchanan (age 23, 88 caps), Lawrence (age 23, 76 caps) and Nichelle Prince (age 24, 50 caps) have all become national team mainstays since making their respective debuts years ago, and all have previously played at the World Cup and Olympics, the highest level in the international women’s game.

Beckie, who earned her first cap in 2015, is the second-highest scorer on the current World Cup roster, and her 25 goals already puts her sixth on Canada’s all-time scoring list. The Manchester City forward has established a great partnership with Sinclair, and had a hand in setting up both of the Canadian captain’s recent goals in a friendly against Mexico last month. Sinclair called Beckie a “world-class” player, who is easy to play off of on the pitch – high praise considering the source.

“The relationship between her and I has been something we’ve been building for four years. It just keeps getting better and better. Today, you saw it click. … If [Beckie] is not scoring goals, she usually has a hand in them one way or another,” Sinclair said after the Mexico match.

Voted the best young player at the 2015 World Cup, Buchanan is already one of the top central defenders in the women’s game, and played a major role in helping French club Lyon win back-to-back UEFA Champions League titles. Lawrence also plays in France, with Paris Saint-Germain, and the talented fullback offers Canada a great deal of versatility, as she can play in a number of positions. Both Buchanan and Lawrence haven’t even entered their respective primes, and if all goes to plan, they will serve as the backbone of Canada’s defence for the next decade and beyond.

A great deal of credit for the ascent of Buchanan, Lawrence and other youngsters on this team must be given to former women’s coach John Herdman, now in charge of the men’s side. Herdman firmly put his faith in young prospects, and lived by the mantra, “If you’re good enough, you’re old enough.” The results? A Canadian side brimming with 20-somethings who already have a wealth of international experience.

“Over the past years, there’s been a lot of young players coming through. This environment has allowed myself, Kadeisha, Jesse and others to really flourish. We’ve been given the freedom on the field to play our game and make an impact. I think we see that in the games, that it’s added a new dynamic to the team, and it’s a great balance between experience and some fresh faces. It’s not brand new, it’s taken some time, but with the transition slowly taking place, we’ve really seen how this team has grown,” Lawrence told Sportsnet.

Fleming is still in school – she’ll start her senior year at UCLA in the fall – but she plays with a maturity, sophistication and elegance that belies her age. A three-time Canadian under-20 player of the year, Fleming is a technically gifted midfielder who possesses a deft touch on the ball and who can create scoring opportunities for teammates with her ability to make great plays. She’ll not only be the key figure for Canada in France, but she’s expected to be the main cog in the Canadian midfield for years to come. Once she finishes school, top European teams will be queuing up to sign her, and playing abroad at the highest club level will only take her game to the next level.

“I feel like this [core group of youngster] has been building for a while now. When you talk about the youth core, I think of the group from the 2014 U-20 World Cup, with Janine, Keisha, Ashley, Nichelle, Rebecca [Quinn] and me. That group of players has been playing together for a while now and that cohesion is there,” Fleming told Sportsnet.

“You also started to see players making their mark at big European clubs. Even that’s an indicator of the young talent we have here. … There’s a lot to be optimistic about. The sky is the limit for this group.”

Of all the Canadian youngsters on this team, the one with the biggest potential could be Huitema. Still only 18, the five foot-11 forward has six goals and 21 caps (including five starts), and recently signed with French club Paris Saint-Germain.

In 2017, she became the first player to score for Canada’s under-17, under-20 and senior team in the same calendar year. In 2018, she scored a team-high three goals in helping Canada to a fourth-place finish at the FIFA U-17 Women’s World Cup in Uruguay.

Incredibly, she was just 15 years old when she made her debut for Canada’s senior team two years ago. Sinclair has seen a lot of growth in Huitema during that time, and believes she has a bright future.

“I’ve definitely tried to take her under my wing. Obviously, we play the exact same position, [we’re] both from B.C. I spend as much time with her as possible. What impresses me the most about her – I actually just think how much she’s improved over the last two years. When she first came into the team, I remember she just seemed so awkward, even just striking the ball. 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. Yeah, she’s going to be a good one,” Sinclair said.

Part of the reason why there’s great optimism about the future of the Canadian team is tied to how the women’s game has drastically changed over time.

“No sport has evolved more in the past two decades than women’s soccer. Period. Full stop. Canada didn’t even have a women’s national team until 1986, and if you looked back to the transformative 1999 World Cup (think Brandi Chastain), you’d see a brand of football that was direct and vertical, that relied on strength and speed and fitness far more than the ball skills, passing and finesse that are the hallmarks of the modern women’s game,” Stephen Brunt recently wrote for Sportsnet.

As the sport changed, so did the Canadian team. Whereas the Reds once relied almost exclusively on their athleticism and grit, now the hallmark of this Canadian side is its technical ability, with a lot of the youngsters helping to usher in a new playing style.

“I think Jordyn, Jesse, Ash, Kadeisha, that younger generation, they’re the future of Canada soccer. … They’re more skilled than I ever was when I was younger, and so just to see that development, even coaches and the environments they’re in, it’s changed. And it’s going to keep changing for the better and we’re going to keep getting more and more technical when it comes to soccer in Canada,” Schmidt offered.

The faces will soon change, and eventually there’ll be new leaders on the Canadian national team, with the younger generation taking over. The side is more tactically and technically astute, and it will continue to build upon that, while maintaining the signature qualities of the team under Sinclair’s leadership.

“We’ll have the same foundation and Canadian DNA of putting our bodies on the line. But I do think there’ll be a transformation of what Canadian soccer was from 15 years ago. We play really good football, and that’s something Canadians are excited about in seeing on the world stage. When I look down the road, this team is going to look a bit different, and I see us contending for World Cups for years to come,” Beckie offered.

When submitting content, please abide by our submission guidelines, and avoid posting profanity, personal attacks or harassment. Should you violate our submissions guidelines, we reserve the right to remove your comments and block your account. Sportsnet reserves the right to close a story’s comment section at any time.