Canada coach Kenneth Heiner-Moller first noticed Olivia Smith last year when he travelled with the Canadian youth teams. Now the 15-year-old midfielder is going to get a closer look with his senior side.
Heiner-Moller has called up Smith for an invitational tournament next month in Yongchuan, China.
“She caught my eye,” Heiner-Moller said. “I guess she’s been catching a lot of eyes from coaches throughout her career.”
Born Aug. 5, 2004, Smith will become Canada’s youngest international footballer if she plays next month. That honour currently belongs to the retired Kara Lang, followed by Jessie Fleming and Jordyn Huitema, who were also 15 when they made their senior debut.
Captain Christine Sinclair, now 36, had played in 66 internationals – with 49 goals – before Smith was born.
The seventh-ranked Canadians face No. 11 Brazil on Nov. 7 while No. 16 China meets No. 23 New Zealand. The two winners will face off in the Nov. 10 final while the other two teams play for third place.
Heiner-Moller is using the China tournament to prepare for the CONCACAF Olympic Qualifying Tournament in January/February, 2020.
The Canadian women are coming off a 4-0 loss to No. 10 Japan in Shizuoka on Oct. 6.
“If you want to take something positive out of a 4-0 defeat, it’s the impact it does have on people,” Heiner-Moller told a media conference call Wednesday. “I can tell you we had a meeting just after the loss against Japan where we had a very hard conversation from me to them and inbetween players as well – like what it is to pull that [Canada] jersey over your head.”
The Dane said his squad was still suffering from the hangover of its early World Cup exit during the summer in France, where Canada was beaten 1-0 by Sweden in the round of 16.
He wanted more commitment to the cause.
“Canada is about a team – a team of very good individuals but the team’s more important than anything.”
The talk seemed to work. Canada played Japan to a 0-0 draw in a closed-door match the day after the 4-0 loss.
The trips to Asia are also a chance to test the local waters ahead of the Olympics in Tokyo.
Smith is one of six players on the team that are 21 or younger. The others are Huitema and Jayde Riviere (18), Julia Grosso (19), Deanne Rose (20) and Gabrielle Carle (21).
Smith started playing soccer at five in Whitby, Ont. She was 12 when she made her debut in the Canadian youth program in 2017 and represented Canada at the 2018 CONCACAF Girls’ Under-15 Championship. She has also attended four under-17 camps.
Excellent on the ball with good pace, she can beat defenders and feed teammates. Smith can also win the ball back.
In watching Smith, Heiner-Moller was drawn by how she kept on getting up and going after opponents after they had chopped her down.
Smith made another impression in May when she was one of several local players summoned to fill out the numbers at a camp in Toronto before a pre-World Cup friendly with Mexico.
“If she comes in and she looks as good as I hope she will then she could definitely see some game action,” Heiner-Moller said.
Veterans on the team include Sinclair (287 caps) and Sophie Schmidt (189 caps). With 182 international goals, Sinclair is two away from tying retired American striker Abby Wambach’s world record of 184.
Heiner-Moller says he hopes Tokyo will not mark Sinclair’s last Olympics, saying she continues to play at the highest level.
“Her movement, her attacking movements are just second to none,” he said.
“She impacts this group of people in a lot of ways. ... I cannot speak highly enough of her as both an athlete, as a footballer, and also as a person,” he added.
Heiner-Moller has elected to not to bring Desiree Scott or Fleming to China, saying he is well aware of their talents and wants to give others a chance to show their skills given limited game opportunities in advance of the Olympic qualifying tournament.
The goalkeepers include veteran Stephanie Labbé, who just won the NWSL title with The North Carlina Courage, and Kailen Sheridan of Sky Blue FC, a finalist for NWSL ‘keeper of the year. The third ’keeper is Sabrina D’Angelo, who plays for Vittsjo GIK in Sweden.
“What a problem to have as a coach – to actually have three ’keepers that are as good as we’ve got,” Heinern-Moller said.
The 23-woman Canadian roster also includes midfielder Maegan Kelly in her first call-up since March, 2018. Kelly plays for Florentia Sangimignano in Italy. The roster also includes players from leagues in England, France and Sweden.
Canada has played the four-nation China tournament twice before. Canada’s most recent participation was in 2013 when it beat China 1-0 and lost 3-1 to South Korea.
The Canadian women are 7-3-3 in 2019. Canada has a career 8-7-6 record against Brazil, winning the last three meetings including the bronze medal game at the 2016 Olympics.