Jessie Fleming wasted little time introducing herself to NCAA soccer.
In her UCLA debut on Aug. 28, the 19-year-old from London, Ont., scored a pair of goals in a 4-3 overtime loss to Florida. 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, the Canadian international tapped the ball around one side of the defender and went round the other, collecting the ball behind the flailing Gator.
The move is so slick you have to watch it several times to figure out how she did it. The Florida defender is probably still wondering.
The world had seen Fleming dip into her bag of tricks nine days earlier in the bronze medal match at the Rio Olympics.
With Canada leading 1-0, Fleming pickpocketed a Brazilian early in the second half and danced her way around several defenders on the right flank. She found Deanne Rose in the penalty box who, in turn, fed Christine Sinclair for what proved to be the winning goal.
“Mostly it’s spur of the moment,” Fleming said of such trickery.
Spur of the moment perhaps, but honed from hours of practice.
Fleming and the Canadian women find themselves back in the deep end this week as they take on Rio runner-up Sweden and champion Germany in a rare three-day meeting of Olympic medallists.
It promises to be a stiff test of Canada’s Tier 1 credentials. The fifth-ranked Canadian women play No. 6 Sweden on Thursday in Trelleborg and No. 1 Germany in Erfurt on Sunday.
While the matches are friendlies, both opponents will mean business as they gear up for the European Championship in July. Canada has just five wins in 33 meetings with the two, although its recent record against them has been far more competitive.
Coach John Herdman has seven teenagers in his 22-woman squad, with arguably none more important than Fleming, who already has 41 caps to her credit.
Fleming routinely shows her technical wizardry in practice, pivoting on a dime or pulling down a high ball with her boot as if it was drenched in glue. Dsepite her age, she is already a key cog in the Canadian machine.
Fleming opened her collegiate career with a four-game goal-scoring streak and scored important goals all season, including two overtime winners.
The Bruins’ campaign ended in a loss to West Virginia in the third round of the NCAA tournament. Fleming scored with 1:52 remaining to force a penalty shootout that saw four Canadians, including fellow internationals Ashley Lawrence and Kadeisha Buchanan, score from the spot.
Fleming led the Bruins in scoring with 11 goals and five assists in 19 games, earning NSCAA third-team All-American honours. Only three other UCLA freshmen have won NSCAA All-America honours.
“I enjoyed it a lot,” she said of her first season in Los Angeles, “It was really good team, a good group of people. It was just a lot of fun.”
With a striker injured for part of the season, UCLA pushed Fleming higher in attack. She responded with a flurry of goals, ranging from headers to long-range rockets.
School demands aside, the teenager found time to suit up for Canada in a February win over Mexico in Vancouver and at the Algarve Cup in Portugal in March.
“It’s a lot but I think over the last couple of years I’ve gotten a bit better at time management and planning,” she said of juggling school and her international duties. “I’ve kind of gotten used to being away from school but it’s still a challenge.
“There’s quite a few of us on the team now dealing with that so it’s kind of nice to have other people in the same situation. We help each other out and study together while in camp and try to keep each other on track.”
The Canadian women are 4-12-3 against Swedes but have gone 1-1-2 in their last four meetings.
Canada is 1-13-0 against the Germans with the lone win coming in group play at the Rio games. Germany had the last laugh, defeating Canada in the semifinals.
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Neil Davidson, The Canadian Press