Karina LeBlanc spent nearly two decades representing Canada at the international level. Her mom is from Jamaica and so she wouldn’t mind seeing the Jamaicans steal a result against Canada in Friday’s opener of the Concacaf Women’s Championship. But the 38-year-old has a more important reason to be neutral. On August 3, LeBlanc took over the newly created role of Head of Concacaf Women’s Football.
“Wow. Every day has been different,” LeBlanc said when asked to describe her role in a recent phone interview.
To highlight the point, LeBlanc began last week in London at the FIFA Best awards, where she had an opportunity to get the ear of FIFA president Gianni Infantino. From there she went to Zurich, and then to the United States, where she stopped first in North Carolina and then Edinburg, Texas, to meet with the teams competing in the World Cup qualifying event. With no time to sit idly by, the next stop was Argentina. Oh, and LeBlanc is based in Miami.
“The goal is trying to understand our region,” she said. “All of our difficulties, where we can grow, where we can have wins, where we can make the women’s game better other than just participation, how to get more women in the game. There are so many things.”
Thursday night’s opening matches in the region’s quadrennial tournament did more to highlight disparities among the programs than parity or a competitive qualifying event. But LeBlanc chooses to look at how far things have come since she first became a player for Canada in the mid-1990s.
“In Canada, we had eight people to a game,” she recalled. “By the time I retired we had our games sold out at a home World Cup. It was a World Cup that was the best ever. So I’ve seen the game grow. There is still a ways that we can go, but we’ve come far from when I first started.”
Concacaf is hardly a straightforward region of the globe. The United States has what may as well be unlimited resources to pour into the women’s game. Canada and Mexico are not far behind. The same cannot be said for some of the other 38 (yes 38; there are 41 nations in Concacaf!).
“The challenges vary from all 41,” LeBlanc said.
LeBlanc believes that despite the still top-heavy nature of Concacaf, the matches are becoming more competitive. At the same time the United States never lets a FIFA window pass without playing a match. Not even Canada nor Mexico can boast that record. And compare that to Panama, a team that has not played a single friendly this cycle, and it is no wonder that the same countries are constantly in the World Cup and Olympics.
“That’s the beautiful challenge,” she said, “is to get all 41 of those teams playing more games. When you play more games and you have these competitions, these players have something they’re working towards.
“This is one of the things we’re talking about. How do we get more games? Is it a different format for the tournament? Is it us creating more competitions? Is it having more leagues within each country so that they can be at the level…so that when we do put these tournaments together, that teams can go to them and they’re not getting blown out.”
One Concacaf issue that goes beyond soccer is travel. Countries are small, and many of them are their own islands. As LeBlanc put is: “Sometimes you have to go to another country to go to another country, to go to a country that’s right next to you,” adding “that is a problem for the men’s game too.”
The travel issue could also stymie the idea of having multiple nations combine forces for domestic leagues rather than trying to get independent leagues operating in all 41 countries. (Note that Canada has three Division I men’s teams all playing in Major League Soccer, and that NWSL has had discussions with multiple Canadian expansion candidates.)
“That’s the exciting part of my job, is how to we solve that exact problem that you brought up. We want all 41 of these teams to be growing their women’s games,” LeBlanc said, adding that any and all options are pretty much on the table.
One thing is for certain, though. The creation of LeBlanc’s job and their commitment of resources that is allowing her to do it, is a sure sign that Concacaf is more invested than ever in the women’s side of the sport.
“From the meetings I’ve been in, I’ve only felt support. Concacaf from the top down said, ‘we want to make our women’s game better. We want to compete against the best in the world.’ We do have some of the top teams in the world already, but now it’s about making the teams better so that all of our teams are making the top better.”
[Editor’s note: LeBlanc will speak at Soccerex in Miami in November on a panel dubbed, “How can women’s soccer realize its commercial potential?” Jeff Kassouf, founder of The Equalizer, will host the panel, which will also feature NWSL managing director Amanda Duffy. Click here for more information on the event.]
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