Canadian keeper readies for Great Britain

VANCOUVER, British Columbia — In the morning and again each night, Erin McLeod recites Buddhist quotes with Canadian teammate Robyn Gayle and then takes a moment to meditate.

It’s all part of her new approach as goalkeeper for the host nation in the Women’s World Cup.

“I have a tendency to take on too much, so for me a big part of being calm is I do a lot of meditation,” McLeod said. “You kind of like to step away from the actual anxiety and pressure.”

At 32, McLeod is playing in her third World Cup, and the last one was far from memorable as Canada finished dead last in the 16-nation field. She experienced the heartbreak of losing 4-3 to the U.S. in the Olympic semifinal at the 2012 London Games before the Canadians earned bronze.

Now, eighth-ranked Canada — led by McLeod’s booming voice in goal — heads into a quarterfinal Saturday against No. 6 England at BC Place. The Canadians want much more.

“We’ve been preparing for this moment for years,” McLeod said.

Soccer is hardly her lone love. She sings, draws and paints on wood. She serves as an ambassador for Vancouver-based clothing company Peau De Loup — and as team fashion consultant.

She’s also openly gay, describing herself as an LGBT activist on her Twitter page. McLeod, who grew up in St. Albert, Alberta, outside Edmonton, considers it her role to help support and inspire young girls while promoting inclusion.

“As I get older I realize how important it is to be true to exactly who you are — and to have the courage to be just that — so that all young people can grow up in a world that is accepting of all people — lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgendered, or heterosexual,” she writes on her Web site. “No matter what I do — when I feel I can be free to be me, I know I can do anything.”

She hopes that is winning a World Cup title.

These days, she is happy to say she strikes a better balance between soccer and her wide range of other interests.

“Now I have art and fashion,” she said. “It’s about being selective and making sure things aren’t a distraction.”

A member of the national team since 2007, McLeod is someone coach John Herdman has counted on as he developed a program that includes mental training with sports psychologists.

“She’s one of those players running the off-field leadership group, and I mean running it,” Herdman said. “She’s connecting this group behind the scenes at an emotional level. She’s trying to build those deeper layers of connection where it’s not superficial and players genuinely, genuinely care about each other. She’s pushing that, so she takes a lot of time and pride in a strong Canadian group.”

McLeod only had to make six saves in Canada’s three group-stage matches, then two more late in a 1-0 victory against Switzerland in the round of 16.

Aside from all the sure-handed saves and leaping punches, she motivates her teammates in little ways that make a big difference.

“We’ve been great friends for 12 to 13 years and that was one of the areas of the game that she wanted to master,” backup goalkeeper Karina LeBlanc said. “It was more about her wanting to be present and trusting in her ability and she’s done that to a whole different level. She’s one of the best, if not the best, goalkeepers in the world.”

McLeod looks back to the London Olympics as paving the way for Canada’s run in the World Cup now.

The Canadians lost 4-3 to the United States in a thrilling semifinal, with Alex Morgan scoring the winning goal in the 123rd minute after Canada led three times on goals by Christine Sinclair.

“Specifically the U.S. game really just changed the way Canadians followed sport,” McLeod said. “Everybody was totally heartbroken with us after that game. Because of that, people rallied behind us and since that moment we’ve had some pretty hardcore fans. Our goal throughout this tournament is that it’s not just a one-time thing. I think we’ve already proved it’s not a one-time thing, and we want to continue to grow the love of the game in Canada. …

“The amount of change there has been in this sport in my lifetime in this sport has been pretty unbelievable and I’m just proud that it’s happening in Canada.”

Whatever the result Saturday, McLeod is comfortable with all of her various accomplishments.

“At the end of the day it’s about being a good person and being proud of who you are,” McLeod said. “Once you have that kind of sorted out and you’re at peace with yourself, you can basically do anything on the field. It’s been a long search.”

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