Jessie Fleming enters World Cup as key component in Canadian midfield

The world really is Jessie Fleming’s oyster.

Just 21, she already has won 65 caps and scored eight goals for Canada. And the cerebral midfielder from London, Ont., is expected to play a key role for Canada in the Women’s World Cup, which kicks off Friday in France.

Fleming goes into her senior year at UCLA this fall with some of the biggest women’s clubs in Europe likely waiting on her services.

They have had to bide their time. Fleming, meanwhile, has been making the most of her time at UCLA on and off the field.

“I’ve enjoyed it a lot,” said Fleming. “I’ve made lifelong friends. I really like my teammates and just the vibe around the team. Academically it’s been challenging but good. Getting to spend time on that campus is pretty special.”

Fleming was studying materials engineering, but is mulling over a change of major to environmental science.

While the constant California weather is a plus, Fleming says she misses fall and winter although she gets a ”little bit of the cold” when she goes home for Christmas.

She may have her choice of climate after she graduates. Europe beckons.

“I think it’s been cool to see people like Ash (Ashley Lawrence) and Janine (Beckie) and Keesh (Kadeisha Buchanan) go play overseas and have success at some of the bigger clubs,” Fleming said in an interview. “So yeah I think I’d definitely look into options overseas, for sure.”

Lawrence and Buchanan play in France, with Paris Saint-Germain and Olympique Lyonnais, respectively. Beckie is with England’s Manchester City.

In all, nine members of Canada’s 23-woman World Cup roster currently ply their trade in Europe.

Fleming is a technically gifted player who can turn on a dime or corral a high ball as if her boot was covered in glue. She makes difficult manoeuvres look easy.

A three-year starter at UCLA, she has already collected 22 goals and 18 assists despite missing games while on international duty. A 2017 finalist for the MAC Hermann Trophy that goes to the top NCAA player, she is a two-time all-American and three-time first-team All-Pac-12 honouree.

“We just knew she was super-special right away,” UCLA coach Amanda Cromwell said in 2016. “You could just tell her movement, her skill on the ball, her ability to read the game at such a young age, it’s very unique.”

Fleming showed her skills at the 2016 Rio Olympics with her hockey assist on Canada’s second goal in the bronze-medal game win over Brazil as a prime example. Swarming a Brazilian, she won the ball, nutmegged the Brazilian she had just pilfered and then dragged the ball back with her right foot to send another opponent flying past her.

She then used her left foot to thread a pass past a defender into Deanne Rose’s path in the penalty box. Rose sent the ball over to Christine Sinclair to knock in what proved to be the winning goal.

Days later, Fleming scored twice in her Bruins debut, including a goal from a free kick. But it was a moment of sublime ball-handling skill that stood out.

Running diagonally towards the sideline with a Florida defender blocking her path forward, Fleming backheeled the ball with her right foot to her left. Still going at top speed, she tapped the ball around one side of the defender and went around the other, collecting the ball behind the flailing Gator.

The move was so slick, you had to watch it several times to figure out how she did it.

“It comes with a lot of time and practice and repetition,” she said of such moves. “And I think part of it is just the decision-making.

“Something I’ve worked on a lot over the last couple of years is vision and awareness. And making sure I’m getting my spacing right — and I know I can turn if I want to take my touch in a certain direction.”

At times, UCLA has moved Fleming further up the field and she has scored some highlight-reel goals. With Canada, she is more of a playmaker.

Fleming was 15 when she made her national team debut on Dec. 15, 2013, against Chile, becoming the second-youngest (after Kara Lang) to play for Canada. She scored her first goal for the senior side on March 4, 2015, against Scotland at the Cyprus Cup.

She was Canada’s youngest player (17) at the 2015 World Cup, where she had one start, playing 61 minutes against the Netherlands.

Four years later, she is far more comfortable going into the tournament.

“I think last World Cup I was still a bit wide-eyed still being in the (international) environment,” she said. “And maybe didn’t have the depth in my relationships on and off the field that I would have today on the team. And I think that makes a difference, just knowing my teammates and having played with them for four more years.”

Fleming was honoured as Canada’s U-20 Female Player of the Year in 2015, 2016 and 2017.

While she savours her time with the national team, she also enjoys life at UCLA.

“It’s nice in that way in that the two worlds are kind of separate to some extent. I think I have to put in a little bit more extra effort if I’m trying to work on something in the field. It’s still up to me to do extra work if I want to maintain my fitness away from (the Canadian) camp. So I still think there’s a little bit of accountability there.

“But I do like it that I get the opportunity to maybe relax a little bit and spend time with friends and focus on studying. And then when I’m in with the national team, I can kind of just really hone in on being here, being with these players and staff. So I definitely think there’s a happy medium and it’s been good for me over the last couple of years to kind of have a little bit of separation between the two.”

Fifth-ranked Canada opens its World Cup campaign on Monday against No. 46 Cameroon in Montpellier.

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