PRUSINA: Fleming’s importance to CanWNT shows in World Cup group stage

Jessie Fleming has quietly become one of the most important players on the Canadian women’s national team.

Through two games at the FIFA Women’s World Cup in France, the midfielder has covered nearly 24 kilometres on the pitch and provided the game-winning goal versus New Zealand.

But what stands out beyond those numbers is her resiliency through 180 minutes. Fleming had some struggles in the first half of Canada’s 1-0 opening win over Cameroon. Perhaps it was being on the world’s biggest stage again, but the 21-year-old made uncharacteristic mistakes in terms of distribution and getting knocked off the ball easily.

She dusted herself off at the half and looked like a different player in the closing 45 minutes.

Versus New Zealand, Fleming’s vision drove the Canadian bus. It’s no wonder her favourite player is Kevin De Bruyne. She was able to spot teammates in positions to make something happen, whether it was an immediate shot on goal or the link to part of a continuous passing play.

We also need to draw attention to the space she created on her goal. As Nichelle Prince drove down the left side of the pitch, Fleming cruised through the middle, but a few paces behind Prince. With two New Zealand defenders worried about what Prince was going to do, Fleming slid into the 18-yard area unmarked. Prince, who was closing in on the byline, neatly tucked the ball to Fleming as she crept up on the six-yard box. By the time Fleming was noticed, it was too late: the ball had left her right foot and was in the back of the net behind goalkeeper Erin Naylor. While it seems like such a simple play, no doubt frequently practiced by coaches across the globe, it’s the smarts of Fleming that makes it successful. She times her run perfectly to make it work.

What’s most exciting about Fleming is the fact she’s only 21. We know the story of how she debuted with the senior squad at 15 and was anointed by some (this author, admittedly, included), as a possible heir apparent to Christine Sinclair. While it will be tough to fill the shoes of the Canadian legend, Fleming offers a combination of tactical awareness, sublime touches, and what’s emerging to be an excellent killer instinct to be a fundamental difference maker. And it has to be said that her ball handling is some of the best this team has seen in recent years.

As this tournament rolls on, Canada’s success will depend on a combination of a few things. First, relying on the defensive structure that’s led them to an undefeated record in 2019. Because the team has yet to be tested in its own third, the Canadians will have to remember what brought them to a ranking of fifth in the world. Second, players like Fleming will have to grab the reigns. It’s something she has shown she can do, especially with how she’s already stepped up her game in the group stage.