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Fleming a natural successor to Sinclair

Christine Sinclair and Jessie Fleming Christine Sinclair and Jessie Fleming - Getty Images

The end of the Christine Sinclair era marks more than just the finality of the career of Canada’s best soccer player. It also signifies a turning point in the leadership of the women’s national team.

Sinclair has been Captain Canada since 2006, having led the team at five World Cups and four Olympics. But after she walks off the pitch for the last time on Tuesday in Vancouver, it will be time for someone else to take the mantle.

While head coach Bev Priestman has pointed to several different players who have grown into leadership roles, especially over this past year, Jessie Fleming may be the front-runner to be Sinclair’s successor.

The midfielder has worn the captain’s armband in several recent matches for Canada, including last Friday in Langford, B.C. against Australia, as well as the two Olympics qualifiers versus Jamaica in September and during the match against the Republic of Ireland at this summer’s FIFA Women’s World Cup.

Last month, Priestman said that the team will go through the process of naming a captain and that a more official announcement will be forthcoming.

But she is cautious of what it means for the player who steps into the role vacated by Sinclair.

“I think that's a big flag of mine because it's massive shoes to fill. It'll be like the player that wears No. 12. I think that's a huge amount of pressure,” Priestman told TSN.

Last month, several Canadian players spoke about the leaders they have on the team, such as Kadeisha Buchanan and Kailen Sheridan. Priestman is keeping the focus on the collective.

“Even with Christine, it was never just one voice. All I want from a group of players, more than a player, is to speak up when they see something or they feel something needs to change,” she said. “That's the one thing I'm trying to avoid is putting that shoe on someone's foot that feels like they need to fill it, because it's going to be many shoes.”

But if Fleming does become the team’s next captain, it’s a role she will take in stride.

“It's not like a job that I'm actively applying for,” Fleming told TSN. “I don't want to change too much in the way that I operate in the environment. And I do think that we have a lot of strong leaders on the team right now. I think the armband is just an emblem.”

Even though she’s just 25, Fleming has already amassed a lot of experience since making her senior team debut as a 15-year-old in 2013. She has 122 caps for her country, including 107 starts, and has played in three World Cups and two Olympics. At the Tokyo Games, she helped the team win gold after converting four crucial penalties in the knockout round, including the lone goal in Canada’s 1-0 win over the U.S. in the semifinals.

Fleming has shared the field with many veterans over the past decade, naming Sinclair, Diana Matheson, Sophie Schmidt, Desiree Scott, Erin McLeod, and Karina LeBlanc as leadership role models.

“They’ve shown me what it means to be a good teammate and be a good leader. I take a lot of what I try to do from them,” she said.

In many ways, Fleming is a natural successor to Sinclair. Both are quiet individuals who would much rather talk about their teammates than themselves.

“I know Jessie would absolutely hate me talking about her like this, but I'm really proud of the leader that she's grown into,” forward Janine Beckie told TSN. “Jessie's very humble to a fault. I think she doesn't give herself enough credit.”

Comparisons to Sinclair are nothing new for Fleming. As a teenager, she was being labelled “The Next Sinclair” by some in the Canadian media. While Beckie is hesitant to compare anyone to Sinclair, she does see similarities in their dedication to their craft.

“She has such high standards for herself, and she holds herself to those standards,” Beckie said. “And what I think she's learned as a leader is how to bring people along with her and hold others to that same standard so that our team standard can be that high.

“I think that that's something that Christine did very well, with very little effort, and I see Jessie as the same.”

Fleming said she hasn’t had any conversations with Sinclair about captaincy, but she nonetheless has gained valuable wisdom from the Canadian icon, including understanding the power her voice can carry.

“If there's anything I learned from Sinc, it’s that sometimes fewer words carry more weight than always being the person speaking,” Fleming said. “For me, it's recognizing that there's a lot of different leadership styles and just leaning in on my strengths, which I think means showing the team my work ethic and trying to build up my teammates.”

Fleming has previous captaincy experience, wearing the armband for both UCLA and the Canadian under-17 team. While she said she learned a lot from those experiences, her approach remains the same.

“I just want to lean on my non-negotiables, which is my work ethic, it’s how I speak to other players and staff in our environment. I think for me, it's that simple,” she said.

Fleming may be quiet by nature, but those closest to her have noticed how she has grown more confident on the pitch and in the locker room.

“I think what's been really cool for me as a friend is to see her step into that role and step into a place that she probably would have been uncomfortable being for a long time, but absolutely fits it so well,” Beckie said. “She's so highly respected. Our team is different without her on the field. Her presence is so important. And that's kind of Christine Sinclair-esque.”