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Fleming embracing a season of change

Canada Jessie Fleming - Getty Images

Canadian midfielder Jessie Fleming is ready to venture into new territory for both club and country this year.

Late January, Fleming announced she would be moving on from Chelsea FC to join the Portland Thorns in the National Women’s Soccer League (NWSL).

Three weeks later, she was officially named captain of the Canadian women’s soccer team, as the post-Christine Sinclair era begins.

“I think for me, I just want to continue to develop as an individual and challenge myself as a leader, and get the best out of my teammates on this team,” Fleming told TSN.

The captaincy announcement doesn’t come as a surprise. Before the start of this year, Fleming had made 11 starts wearing the armband over the past two years, including Canada’s win against the Republic of Ireland at the 2023 FIFA Women’s World Cup, as well as the two Olympic qualifying matches against Jamaica last September.

Head coach Bev Priestman highlighted several of Fleming’s attributes that make her an ideal fit for the role: respect, humility, and leading by example. She doesn’t expect any of that to change now that Fleming has the official title.

“I would say Jessie has done an outstanding job of doing nothing different, and we don't need anything different from Jessie,” Priestman told the media last week. “She leads in the way she leads – very authentically, and it's very well received by the group.”

Although the seeds have been planted for Fleming to be the team’s new captain for some time, Priestman has always been careful not to draw any direct parallels to Sinclair, who led the team for more than 15 years before retiring from international soccer in December.

The coach has repeatedly stressed that, while Fleming may be the one wearing the armband, the team will be led by committee.

“The captain isn't going to fill Christine’s shoes,” Priestman said earlier in the month. “I want to take any pressure away from filling Christine’s shoes and more put attention on a group of players with very good experiences, medals around their neck, unique qualities. They’re all going to contribute to help lead moving forward.”

Fleming is currently in Houston with her Canadian teammates at the CONCACAF W Gold Cup. Canada sits in first place in Group C after a 4-0 win against Paraguay on Sunday, securing the team’s spot in the knockout round. Canada will wrap up the group stage against Costa Rica on Wednesday, with their quarter-final opponent to be determined afterwards.

The final is set to be played on Mar. 10 in San Diego. After the tournament, Fleming, who made her 125th appearance and 110th start for Canada on Sunday, will join her new teammates in Portland.

It’s been a hectic transition for the 25-year-old, who didn’t have a lot of time to spend in her new city before joining her national teammates. Nevertheless, she is looking forward to a fresh start in a new league.

“I've heard great things about the city and the fans, and so I'm definitely excited for that aspect,” Fleming said. “More than anything, it was just a good opportunity to play for a club closer to home.”

Fleming, a native of native of London, Ont., spent just over three years with Chelsea in the Women’s Super League (WSL), signing her first professional contract with the Blues in July 2020.

She said she chose the London club partly for the challenge of being with a team where she “knew [she] wasn’t going to be one of the best players,” and her tenure with the Blues reflected that.

After some growing pains in her first season, making three starts in 14 WSL appearances, Fleming seemed to find her groove at club level, perhaps bolstered by her performance at the Tokyo Games, where she converted four crucial penalties to help her country claim gold.

In the 2021/22 season, she totalled 36 appearances in all competitions and scored some crucial goals, including the game-winner in a 3-1 victory over Manchester United in the semifinal of the FA Women’s League Cup and her first Champions League goal.

But Fleming’s time on the pitch diminished this past season on a roster laden with world-class talent like Sam Kerr, Lauren James and Guro Reiten (not to mention other Canadians Ashley Lawrence and Kadeisha Buchanan). Fleming made 10 appearances in league play this season, mostly off the bench, before transferring to Portland.

“It's difficult. I really enjoyed my time at Chelsea, and I made a lot of close friends. I really liked the training environment there,” she said. “But I wanted to play a more consistent role for a club. I was curious about what else was out there and a good opportunity came up, so I decided to take it.”

A consistent role for Fleming means not only regular minutes, but a more fixed position. While Fleming says she recognizes the need to be fluid depending on a team’s needs, she ideally sees herself in the No. 8 role, a box-to-box hybrid midfielder who can link play from back to front. Chelsea deployed her in numerous positions over the years, including as a winger.

Her national team coach agrees that a change was needed.

“I think it was time for her,” Priestman told TSN. “I think for her, playing in one solid position and really owning minutes, and playing for a team that really relies on her, a little bit like what you see with the national team. Jessie is a bit of the heartbeat of the team, and I think she can be that for Portland.”

Fleming remains positive about her time with Chelsea, offering nothing but praise for the club where she won three WSL titles, three FA Cups, one League Cup, and a Community Shield.

And even though Fleming had her ups-and-downs with the Blues, Priestman understands why she was drawn to an environment like Chelsea.

“The top club gives you the level of pressure and scrutiny… every week, you're expected to win. And I think there's something about how that develops your mentality that winning is the only way, and I see that in Jessie,” Priestman said.

With the Thorns, Fleming is reunited with not only Sinclair, who continues to play for Portland after retiring from national team duties, but fellow Canadian international Janine Beckie.

Beckie had a similar journey after leaving Manchester City in 2022 to join the Thorns following an uneven tenure in the WSL. Fleming has a close friendship with Beckie and said she was an “important resource” while she was contemplating switching clubs.

Fleming is also set to be a bridesmaid for Beckie’s upcoming wedding and said that being in Portland to be part of the lead-up to the big day is “a nice little bonus.”

On the pitch, Fleming views Portland as a different challenge than the WSL and sees similarities between the style of play in the NWSL and the international game.

“I think in some cases, it's a bit more transitional, definitely still very physical and very fast,” she said. “I think within the NWSL, Portland's definitely one of the teams that tries to play more of a possession style, and I'm really excited to play with the other midfielders there. I think that kind of suits me.”

Priestman believes Fleming’s strengths as a player can flourish with Portland.

“I think she'll help the team in terms of connect play, front to back. I think her physicality – she covers so much distance, she can get around the pitch – that's going to thrive,” Priestman said. “If I'm an NWSL coach signing Jessie, I know that that is absolutely what I need. We lose the ball – she's going to absolutely do everything she can to win it back.”

The NWSL has seen a lot of growth in recent years, not only in terms of expansion, with two new teams (Bay FC and Utah Royals) joining this season, but also in attracting top talent. International stars like Nigerian forward Asisat Oshoala, Korean midfielder Ji So-yun (a former teammate of Fleming at Chelsea), and Venezuela’s Deyna Castellanos all made the move to the NWSL this past off-season.

While European leagues like the WSL, Spain’s Liga F, and Division 1 Féminine in France may continue to capture many of the headlines worldwide, the NWSL is becoming known among players as one of the best leagues for parity.

“I do think the style of play in the league is evolving,” Fleming said. “You see a couple of Spanish coaches [Gotham’s Juan Carlos Amorós, Houston’s Fran Alonso, Washington’s Jonatan Giráldez] coming into the league and players moving from overseas.”

Fleming hopes joining the NWSL will pay dividends with the national team, as Canada looks to defend its Olympic gold medal this summer at the Paris Games. The newly named captain, who has 19 goals and six assists for her country, will once again look to play a key role. Along with her crucial penalties in Tokyo, Fleming played every minute of the knockout round.

“I feel very motivated, especially changing environments and getting a bit of a new start with club,” Fleming said. “And I think the team is always very motivated, going into big tournaments. Historically, this has kind of been our tournament.

“We didn't have the World Cup that we wanted. But I think we've seen positive changes since the World Cup, and the team is in a good place.”