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The View from the North: Fleming the wunderkind

Jessie Fleming (left) is 15 years old and looks set to earn her first senior national team cap with Canada this week. (Photo: Canada Soccer)

By its nature, Canadian soccer sees the negative in things. There have just been too many setbacks and disappointments over the years for those involved in the game to allow themselves to be excited by the future.

Expect the worst and you can’t be disappointed.

Which is why the excitement that surrounds 15-year-old Jessie Fleming is so jarring. Normally-cynical observers are using terms like “world class” and “future superstar” to describe the London, Ontario, teenager.

Wednesday, John Herdman confirmed that Fleming will receive her first senior cap this week against either Scotland or Chile during the 2013 Torneio Internacional Cidade de Sao Paolo.

“She will get playing time,” he told reporters by phone from Brazil. “If not (against Scotland) she will against Chile.”

Despite the insider chatter, so far the CSA has done a good job trying to shield Fleming from the pressure. It’s possible that the Association is drawing lessons from the last time they had a wunderkind on their hands.

Kara Lang also made her senior debut at 15 and possessed much of the same explosive offensive skill that Fleming has. There is little doubt Fleming will be compared to Lang, especially with the juxtaposition of Lang trying to make a comeback at same time Fleming is making her debut.

There is also little doubt that the pressures placed on Lang in the late ’90s were unfair to a teenager. She was asked to be the face of Canadian soccer, both genders. It was a lot to ask of a kid in grade 10.

We can’t know for sure whether that early pressure contributed to Lang’s body breaking down and preventing her from fulfilling the promise that was hoped of her. Regardless, Herdman plans to be protective of Fleming, a player he said has the potential to be “world class.”

“It’s something you have to be cognizant of,” Herdman said, referring to reality that her emotional development is at a different stage than a woman in her late 20s or early 30s. “The coaching staff adjusts how they work with her, we’re aware of different needs.”

Don’t expect Fleming to be a regular starter in near future. Herdman wants to bring her into the squad in games where she can be successful. He says her physical development is still a long way from done. Her long-term health will not be sacrificed for the sake of slightly better results now.

“We put the right people in the right places –world class trainers, world class sports science — to give all players best chance.

“Kara didn’t have that.”

Herdman said his senior players have a role to play in Fleming’s development as well. He described a session the coaches had with the players earlier this year where they talked about generational differences between them and teenagers. Players were taught about emotional development so as to be better mentors to young players.

“I honestly don’t think you are going to find a better group of (senior) players that are going to work and mentor her,” he said.

However, for all the talk of caution, Herdman is a coach with a player of seemingly unlimited potential. He cannot fully hide his excitement about Fleming.

“She’s been a bright light in this environment,” he said of her first senior camp. “She’s come in as a 15-year-old and she’s hanging with the (senior players).

“She doesn’t look out of place.”

Suggesting that her “football age” was much older than her chronological age, he continued.

“In terms of her cognitive ability, what she sees on the pitch, her perception, her skill set, her footwork, she’s got all the things.

“She’s no different from the senior players.”

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