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Ahead of crucial Olympic qualifier, 'composed' Collins turning heads with CanWNT

Sydney Collins (right) Sydney Collins (right) - The Canadian Press

When defender Sydney Collins was told that she would be getting her first career start for Canada’s women’s national soccer team in a crucial Olympic qualifier, she admitted she was a bit surprised.

Her second reaction was to call her mom.

“I was mainly just really excited for the opportunity,” Collins told TSN after team training in Toronto on Monday. “I think the staff, the team, everyone was super supportive and made me feel really ready for when I stepped on the field.”

Collins, who grew up in Oregon, is a dual American-Canadian citizen. Her mother, Susan, was born in Scarborough, Ont., and played professional beach volleyball in Canada.

Even though Collins had just one senior international cap to her name, head coach Bev Priestman elected to start the 24-year-old last Friday in the first match of Canada’s two-game CONCACAF W Olympic Play-in series against Jamaica.

“It was really special to take the field with this team,” Collins said. “I was just grateful for the experience and the opportunity to take the field alongside some really great players that I've looked up to for years.”

Priestman said it was a “big call” to give the nod to Collins, who had played just 14 minutes for Canada prior to Friday. But the coach was impressed by what Collins had brought to training and decided to trust her gut.

The decision paid off, and Collins played the entire 90 minutes as Canada earned a 2-0 win over the Reggae Girlz.

“I thought she handled the occasion,” Priestman said following Friday’s game. “She's an athlete, first and foremost, good composure on the ball as well. I think to go into a game like that and put that level of performance out – I’m really proud.”

Collins’s performance also earned high praise from her teammates.

“You never know how someone’s going to do on their first start, but she looked like an experienced pro – composed, dangerous, very good defensively, did everything she was asked of and more, and helped us secure that first win,” forward Janine Beckie told TSN.

It’s been a year of transition for Collins. After playing for the University of California, Berkeley for five seasons, the defender was selected eighth overall by the North Carolina Courage in the 2023 NWSL Draft.

Collins had a standout collegiate career that led to her being a high draft pick. She played in 85 matches for the Bears, starting in 84, and was also named to the All-Pac-12 team twice. As team captain, she led California in minutes in her final year and helped anchor a backline that posted a 0.81 goal per game average.

But the professional game has brought a steep learning curve. She has appeared in just three games for the Courage this year while also making the transition to left back after mainly playing as a centre back with the Bears.

“I think the jump from college to professional is a lot more than I was expecting,” she said.

While Collins has fought for playing time, she feels the possession-focused style the Courage implement has helped her game.

“I feel like my soccer IQ has definitely needed to improve at this level,” she said. “I’ve definitely grown in terms of confidence on the ball… So, small spaces, technically, especially with the inverted role that I play for my club – I've had to really read the game.”

When it was announced that Collins would earn her first start for Canada, North Carolina’s head coach, Sean Nahas, was quick to congratulate his rookie, posting on X (formerly Twitter):

“Extremely proud of this one. So much growth this year for her. Well done @Sydthekid0180. I and we are proud of you!”

This year also marked Collins’s first venture with the Canadian national team program. She previously spent time in the U.S. youth system, including last year, when she started in three matches for the U.S. under-23 team at a Portland Thorns preseason tournament.

Collins said she enjoyed her experience with the U.S. youth teams, but when Priestman came calling and offered her that first camp opportunity with Canada, she couldn’t say no.

“When I got into the environment, I just felt a part of the team immediately,” she said. “Everybody really made me feel welcomed and supported. And from there on, I just knew that I had made the right decision.”

After joining the team as a training player at the SheBelieves Cup in February, Collins earned her first cap for Canada in April in a friendly against France.

While all of her new teammates have welcomed her to the fold, Collins singles out Beckie as someone who has gone above and beyond expectations. Beckie is also a dual citizen that grew up in the U.S. and spent time with the American youth teams before deciding to represent Canada.

“I've always looked up to her as a player,” Collins said. “She has been super helpful, has offered herself at off the field meetings – really anything, she's been there.”

“I don’t think anyone’s been surprised that Syd has come in and performed, based on what we’ve seen from her in previous camps,” Beckie said. “I think she’s just someone that fits this system really well. She’s super athletic, really fast, physical, a good technician… She’s just someone who has come in and made the environment better.”

Collins’s athleticism comes naturally. Along with her mom’s volleyball pedigree, her father, Brett, played in the NFL and CFL.

“It's been huge to have two parents that have lived it,” Collins said. “They know the experiences I've been through, the emotions, the highs, the lows… I just really value their experience and their wisdom.”

Collins now has the opportunity to play in front of her parents and extended family at a sold-out BMO Field in Toronto. Canada is hosting Jamaica in the second leg of their Olympic qualifier on Tuesday, with the winner on aggregate securing a berth in next year’s Paris Games.

Collins, who would travel to Toronto to visit relatives when she was growing up, said she’s expecting her extended family at Tuesday’s game, including her grandma, who’s turning 90 this week. It’s the first opportunity for many of her family members to watch her play live, a moment made even more special by her donning the Canadian red.

“I'm so honoured to be a part of this team and to be able to represent Canada proudly. It just means a lot to be able to wear this jersey,” she said.