VANCOUVER - And now another long journey begins for Canada's women's soccer team.
Veterans and young hopefuls arrived in Vancouver on Wednesday for an evaluation camp that will serve as an early signpost on the road to the 2015 Women’s World Cup and 2016 Summer Olympics.
In other words, after winning an historic bronze medal at the 2012 Summer Games, Canada will begin the development process all over again – without knowing for years who will be on the squad during the big events.
"It's exciting," said veteran goalkeeper Karina LeBlanc in an interview. “We’ve been talking about us wanting to take that next step (up in ability) as a group and as a country and as a program – and now it’s started.”
Beginning Thursday, a total of 27 players are slated to take part in on-field and off-field workouts at various Vancouver-area locales until Dec. 20. LeBlanc is among 12 veterans, including captain Christine Sinclair, who will take part in the camp after garnering the Olympic bronze.
Other participants include nine younger players who have made their marks with Canada’s under-20 and under-17 teams and are attempting to elevate their competition level, as well as six national program holdovers who did not make the Olympic grade.
LeBlanc, 32, and other veterans enter camp knowing that change is likely in Vancouver's cold, wet wind. Coach John Herdman has stated he is looking to identify and develop younger talent that can help advance the national women's program into the World Cup, which Canada will host, the Rio Games in Brazil and the years beyond.
LeBlanc chalked up Herdman's mission as an attempt to find balance within the team that lost to the U.S. in the 2012 Olympic semifinals before beating France for bronze.
"It's going to push us, and it’s going to make us all bette," LeBlanc said.
The Maple Ridge, B.C., product said she and Erin McLeod, who saw most of the action at the Olympics, have been able to challenge each other at the goalkeeping spot. Now, there will be competition "across the board."
With the World Cup and Olympics a long way off, the more immediate goal will be to prepare for the Four Nations Cup in China in January. Sinclair will not be able to play, because she is scheduled to serve three games of a four-game suspension handed out by FIFA for making critical comments towards an official in the Olympic semifinal loss.
Her absence will also help push the team to get better, said LeBlanc.
"It'll be great for the team. We'll play for her. She's our captain. She'll make us great."
On a lighter note, the Burnaby, B.C., native's teammates, friends and fans declared Wednesday as Christine Sinclair Day on Twitter, offering praise for the striker who has served as the face of the Canadian women’s program for more than a decade.
"I just tweeted it," said LeBlanc. "I think it's awesome."
LeBlanc said the unofficial honour is a once-in-a-lifetime thing because the date — 12/12/12, chosen in tribute to Sinclair’s No. 12 jersey. Christine Sinclair Day, which came after she received the Lou Marsh Award as Canada’s athlete of the year, also demonstrated how the Canadian captain has transcended the game and become a star in the same manner as icons like Wayne Gretzky, Sidney Crosby and others.
"Social media is a great way of seeing what people are thinking," LeBlanc said. "It's great that so many people are thinking of women’s soccer"
Notes: Six players from the under-20 and under-17 teams have received their first national team call-ups. … Diana Matheson, who scored the lone goal in Canada’s 1-0 win over France in the 2012 Olympic bronze-medal game, will not take part in the camp. She and Rhian Wilkinson are receiving time off after helping Lillestrøm SK Kvinner win a Norwegian League title in November. … Herdman also bypassed players who have been toiling with their university teams. … Sinclair is slated to serve the final game of her suspension at the Cyprus Cup in February.
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- Karina LeBlanc