There's less than two months to go before the inaugural season of the National Women's Soccer League kicks off, but Canada's two first-choice goalkeepers, Erin McLeod and Karina LeBlanc, aren't exactly resting on their laurels. At the tail end of a minor soccer coaches' convention in Calgary, I had a chance to talk to them about the upcoming season of the NWSL, and how that will fit into Canadian preparations heading into the 2015 World Cup, here at home.
From their initial reactions, the pair are ready for the season to begin. For one, both of them were able to secure their first choices for teams in the allocation process, with LeBlanc joining national team captain and talisman Christine Sinclair in Portland, while Alberta native McLeod heading to Chicago to join the Red Stars. For a west coast native like LeBlanc, the Rose City was a natural fit; and it definitely doesn't hurt to have a teammate and friend of over 12 years in Sinclair along for the ride, either.
"My family gets to see me play a lot more, and obviously getting to play with Sincy. It's awesome...it's one of those opportunities where you're like, "sweet", you know? [Portland's] a fun town, it's a great city, the team looks great [and] Cindy (Parlow Cone) our coach, I've played against for several years, and spoken to her on the phone and it's exciting. It's just like a perfect situation." LeBlanc said, clearly excited at the prospect.
And getting to play for passionate supporters is a fact not lost on her, either. "it just a great soccer city and as a soccer player it's so exciting to go into a town where you know they love the sport. They love the culture (and) they create a culture of their own...so to be around passionate people who love the game, it's exciting."
As for McLeod, while she will be farther away from home in Chicago, it's not dampening her enthusiasm. Having selected the Windy City as her first choice, she will be joined by Carmelina Moscato, of whom she describes her friendship as almost "like family". But mostly, it's all about the team that is coming together there. "I'm just excited about the coaching philosophy and the people there...they kinda match up with mine, so I'm excited to go there...I know Rory [Dames], the head coach really wants to win, well everyone wants to win...the players from the US and Mexican teams, they are all class players and I'm really looking forward to playing with them."
But friendships and family aside, the pair is excited to just be playing professionally again. Having seen the demise of the WPS, they are relieved to see a pro women's league return. McLeod, who played in Sweden with Dalsjöfors last year, sees the benefit of having the team playing in the same league. "I've played in the professional US league before...I think the great thing is that it will bring our team closer, because we have such a tight knit team, and competing and playing all the time it's been one of our dreams, to be in a professional setting. I think we're going to get better [with the NWSL]."
With a major event like a home World Cup in just over two and a half years' time, the Canadians will need to be prepared, and with a domestic league around, it will make getting playing time a whole lot easier, something that LeBlanc relishes. "I mean you're playing weekly, playing big games weekly, you get to play in front of a crowd. Games are what you look forward to, that's the reason you practice so hard. So you get to play games weekly, we get to play around North America...get the excitement of womens' soccer back."
Having major events at home definitely helps the sport in general -- and LeBlanc believes that the NWSL can help build some buzz. "It's just a great way for young kids, not just girls any more...and to see that we can hold a huge event here in Canada, we can support it, we can follow it...there's going to be some big games here for us. We want to come into cities where there is passion for the sport, and there are big games, and we know the crowd will be the 12th man for us."
But while hosting World Cups is nice, McLeod says that only proves that Canada is capable of hosting, and does nothing to develop talent, something she believes desperately needs attention. "We've got these players that are going to Europe at a very young age, getting dual citizenship and we're losing some of our best players so we need to have a reason to keep them in Canada...on the women's side ideally we'd like to keep them in (Canada) as well so that we're playing on home turf."
While McLeod does praise efforts by various levels of government in funding, she adds that Canadians still need to put in a lot more work promoting promising athletes -- and that is where we can learn from the US. "They televise, they really promote their athletes...and that's something we have to do. especially with the World Cup coming." And given the fact that last month's Four Nations Tournament forced many fans to resort to whatever small number of illegal feeds from China to see the games, it's hard to disagree. But as long as the team can get regular Canadian TV coverage (like for the upcoming Cyprus Cup, even if it is on tape delay) McLeod believes that will make a major difference.
And that difference will be crucial come 2015 -- and that is why the team has vowed to criss-cross the country, hosting as many camps and clinics with the youth as possible, in order to take an active part in developing the next generation of stars, as well as to drum up attention to get as many fans into the stadiums come World Cup time. But meanwhile, both McLeod and LeBlanc have their sights set on the Cyprus Cup in early March. From there, it will be off to their respective NWSL training camps. But given the level of comfort between their peers and their rivals from across the border, they're not expecting any awkward silences during introductions.
As for rivalries with other teams? LeBlanc believes Portland's Cascadian neighbours the Seattle Reign, despite their recent troubles with their American and Mexican content, will be the ones to beat...especially with their Canadian content in Emily Zurrer and Kaylyn Kyle. While McLeod agrees with LeBlanc on the Portland-Seattle axis, she cites Sky Blue FC and their supporters, as potential powerhouses. But given the parity they see in the league so far, it may not be so cut and dried right out of the gate. "I think there are going to be a lot of strong teams, everyone's kind of even in my opinion, which is great because you'd want it to be even, to be a fight to the end." McLeod added.
While the two draw their inspiration from their Olympic medals, their eyes are firmly planted towards the future, both near and distant. With them spearheading their teams in the NWSL and helping to develop the next generation, Canada's top two 'keepers will be busy for a while to come.