The Canadian women's soccer team has been retooled since last summer's World Cup. It's younger, quicker, more creative.
And seemingly happier.
When the 18-woman Olympic roster was named in late June, it had five players 30 or over and nine who were 23 or younger, including 17-year-old Deanne Rose and 18-year-old Jessie Fleming. The average age at the start of the Rio Games will be 25.4 years.
The roster had a combined 1,295 caps with 978 of those belonging to captain Christine Sinclair (243), Diana Matheson (183), Rhian Wilkinson (175), Melissa Tancredi (118), Sophie Schmidt (149) and Desiree Scott (110).
The rest are young and brimming with a joie de vivre, revitalizing a team that exited the World Cup at the quarter-final stage on home soil.
"The team feels lively and fresh and new," said 29-year-old goal keeper Stephanie Labbé. "They're bringing in this positive energy that is so radiating. As senior players, we can just feel it. … They've really changed the atmosphere of the team."
Sinclair, the team's 33-year-old captain and talisman, says the change is hard to miss.
"For sure, it's every day in practice, even in our hotels, there's just a different energy, a different excitement," she said. "These kids have no baggage, they're just there to play and have fun and express themselves. It's incredible to see.
"But I'm glad I'm not doing high school homework like they're having to do."
Wilkinson, who walked a stretch of the famed Camino de Santiago trail in Spain with her mother after the World Cup, is also a fan. "I think when you're an older player, a senior player, you always worry a little bit when you have a ton of young ones coming in," the 33-year-old fullback said. "But they've been nothing but a pleasure to work with. Not only great players but really really good people."
The 10th-ranked Canadians open in Sao Paulo on Aug. 3 against No. 5 Australia and Aug. 6 against No. 93 Zimbabwe before wrapping up pool play Aug. 9 in Brasilia against No. 2 Germany.
Four years after an exciting roller-coaster ride to Olympic bronze in London, this team has high hopes. Another podium is the goal, although these Games may be coming too soon for a squad still blossoming.
Coach John Herdman likes what he sees. He is smart enough to play down expectations, but clearly sees a bright future for his revamped side.
Change has been coming since the 2012 Olympics. Back then, the Canadian women were ultraconnected – a bond that allowed them to rebound from the pain of a marathon semi-final loss to the United States to dispatch favoured France in stoppage time to win bronze.
Coming out of the tournament, Herdman looked at his roster and knew "they'd be past their peak, many of them." But Herdman, who took over the program in September, 2011, after a disastrous World Cup under Carolina Morace, soon realized that the youth pipeline was producing spotty results. So he refocused on developing youth, knowing it would take several years to see results.
In the meantime, there was a World Cup to play.
Injuries, the pressure of playing at home and imperfect chemistry that led to some discord within the camp did not help the Canadian cause. The team met one goal of inspiring a country, filling stadiums across Canada, but felt it could have done better on the field.
"We talked about the pressure of the World Cup and what it was going to be like but it was hard to prepare for what it was really like," Wilkinson said. "We tried to play it cool like everything was all right but it was a heavy heavy – you don't want to call it a burden because you're at home and it's a privilege to play like that but we didn't handle it, looking back, properly.
"It's hard to know how or why but you can feel the vibe on the team has changed now and a lot of it, I think, is that pressure is different. The country still expects a lot from us but we're doing it our way now."
Herdman has kept 12 players from that World Cup squad while opening the door to a new generation.
"This might be their best ever tournament because they're playing with no fear and bring that sort of youthful energy to matches," he said. "I think there's a long way to go for these players and you wish they were older and closer to their peak. But the reality is I think they're ready to give their best."
With veteran Erin McLeod injured, Labbé has taken over in goal behind a robust centre-back pairing of 20-year-old Kadeisha Buchanan and 23-year-old Shelina Zadorsky. Herdman has options at fullback but 21-year-old Ashley Lawrence, who can play on the left or right, will be one of the first names on the team sheet.CNE
Lawrence epitomizes Herdman's vision. She can take on opponents, disrupt defences and bring teammates into play. A converted midfielder, she is also versatile. Wilkinson, Chapman and Josée Bélanger are other fullback options. Bélanger, a converted forward, offers the most going forward.
Scott, a tenacious tackler, anchors the midfield with Fleming and Schmidt, providing offensive flair. Fleming, who has great technique, has been a revelation of late.
Up front, Sinclair has been playing with Matheson and 21-year-old Janine Beckie, who has scored important goals for the team.
Sinclair remains an icon with 162 goals and a soccer brain unlike few others. Nagging injuries have frustrated her since the World Cup, however, and Herdman acknowledges that while Sinclair is still special, she needs help to excel.
"She just brings Christine every game. The key is the players around her," he said. "And when they step up to new levels of performance and achieve their personal best, they take Christine to a new level. And that's the key to Christine's success with this Canadian team. She has to have players around her that are stepping up to new levels to give her the opportunities to do what she does, which is score goals."
Rose, Nichelle Prince and Gabrielle Carle, who is returning from a high ankle sprain, add pace and offence off the bench.
Veterans have been generous in sharing their experience with the new breed.
"One thing John wanted to do with this team was to build a pipeline and I think he's done that," Sinclair said. "With the roster you see now it's starting and the future of soccer in this country is very bright and it's only going to get better."
The present could spark a few surprises, too.
"We really believe we can leave a mark in soccer at the Olympics," Wilkinson said. "And part of the disappointment from the World Cup is feeling that we weren't quite able to show everything we had and knowing that's something we need to bring to this Olympic Games. And the young ones feel that disappointment even though they may not a part of it, they know there's unfinished business for this team."