The soccer ball arced up and curled back, the corner kick floating down towards the top of the goal area. Kadeisha Buchanan had her eyes right on it, her left hand out to hold her space against the defender from the United States, and the young Canadian leapt, a terrific jump as she headed the ball, snapping her head leftwards to deftly direct the ball towards the undefended back post and the corner of the net.
As Buchanan returned to earth, landing on her knees, she had her eyes right on the ball again, watching it bounce in as the American goalkeeper, Hope Solo, could do nothing but helplessly dive after it. Buchanan, scoring her first international goal for her country at 18, tried to rise to her feet, but was tackled by teammate Christine Sinclair in celebration amid the delirious cheers from a crowd of almost 30,000 in Winnipeg in early May in a friendly match between the two arch-rivals.
After the match – which ended in 1-1 draw – Buchanan turned to a teammate and friend since childhood in Toronto in elation and shock: “Wow – I just scored on Hope Solo.”
This is the beginning of what could become one of the storied athletic careers in Canadian soccer and Buchanan will be a pillar of Canada’s chances next year as the country hosts the women’s World Cup, seeking to surpass the team’s stirring performance at the London 2012 Summer Olympics.
Sinclair was the star then and remains the star, the brand name of Canadian women’s soccer – but Buchanan, a defender in the essential role of centre back, and a surge of teenage talent have the potential to be the new heroes. The road to World Cup success begins this week in Vancouver, a Wednesday night friendly against No. 2 ranked Germany at BC Place, a test for No. 7 Canada whether it can play with the best, after gained the draw against No. 1 U.S. in May.
A teenager who has finished one year of university, Buchanan has already started for the national team 18 times, making her first appearance in early 2013 – and while her header in Winnipeg was the stuff of highlight reels, her real work was in Canada’s end. Her intuitive sense for the game and physical play helped her shut down U.S. striker Abby Wambach, the American star scorer.
Buchanan has in fact stymied Wambach three times, including a year ago in Toronto when Buchanan was named, at 17, Canada’s player of the match in a loss to the U.S.
Buchanan, growing up poor in a large family with a single mother in tough neighbourhoods of the Toronto area, was herself a striker until five years ago. All the hours admiring and watching the likes of Lionel Messi and Sinclair were study that underpinned the instincts to not only defend the likes of Wambach but anticipate her movements to keep her from getting the ball at all.
She may only turn 19 in November but the accolades are already piled high: national team coach John Herdman calls her the “Christine Sinclair of defenders” and an opposing college coach, North Carolina’s Anson Dorrance, last fall wondered about the freshman, “Who is that kid?” – declaring Buchanan to be one of the best collegiate defenders he’d ever seen.
Buchanan’s own college coach is effusive with praise. “She’s just very, very intuitive and that makes her super special, let alone everything else,” said Nikki Izzo-Brown of the No. 12-ranked Division I University of West Virginia women’s team.
“When you’re mentally quick and physically quick: oh my – and that’s where Keisha is oh my.”
Buchanan arrives as a near-star in international women’s soccer after a challenging upbringing. Her mother, Melsaide Tate, grew up in Jamaica before moving to Edmonton in the early 1980s, in her late teens, where she met Howard Buchanan. The couple moved to the hardscrabble Jane and Finch area of northwest Toronto. Tate had two previous children and the couple had five together, Kadeisha being the youngest, and they separated when Kadeisha was one, leaving Melsaide to raise seven children, all girls, alone.
“It was a lot of work, a lot of work,” said Melsaide. “I just had faith, and prayed to God every day, and read my Bible to get through it. I don’t know how I did it sometimes.”
When Kadeisha was six, Melsaide managed to move her girls westwards to Brampton, away from the nexus of crime and poverty. Life remained tough. Kadeisha was quiet, an observer. Soccer was her salve.
“Soccer took me away from all what was happening in the area,” said Buchanan in an interview in Vancouver last week. “Every time I step out on the pitch I don’t worry about anything. It just brings you to a totally different place.”
Herdman saw the zen immediately when he first worked with Buchanan at a training camp in late 2011. Her years growing up, the youngest kid, quietly observing, served her well as a defender: a preternatural poise was obvious. “Nothing looked hard for her,” said Herdman earlier this month, before invoking a metaphor of relaxed calm: “She just had a cigar.”
Most Canadians will remember London 2012 and the controversial semifinals defeat against the U.S. before Canada claimed bronze. The result punched above Canada’s No. 7 international ranking – where it remains two years later. Herdman has worked to overhaul his team’s game into a Spain-like possession style but the trick has been replenishing the roster as the best-known players such Sinclair age.
Buchanan is a leader of the youth movement: there’s 17-year-old Sura Yekka, 18-year-old defender Rebecca Quinn, and Buchanan’s friend from childhood, 19-year-old Ashley Lawrence. All four will star for Canada at the U-20 Women’s World Cup in August, hosted by Canada in Edmonton, Moncton, Montreal and Toronto.
In the big show next year – the World Cup kicks off June 6, 2015 in Edmonton – the core of Canada’s 2012 team remains in place but a repeat of success in London demands veteran-like play from teenagers.
“When I was that age,” said Sinclair, “Even Pellerud was the head coach, he did the same thing John’s doing now, Evan just threw us in. I’m the player playing today because of that, because of that experience at such a young age.”
Sinclair turned 31 last Thursday. Germany on Wednesday will present a different challenge than the U.S., an offence with precise and tremendous ball movement, a new riddle for the teenagers on the last line of defence.
Back in Brampton, a mom radiates.
“My girls have been through a lot,” said Tate. “It was tough on Keisha and she pulled through it all. She brings joy to my soul.”