Canada's Matheson flourishes under Morace
Veteran transformed from defensive midfielder to attacking force
Diana Matheson has come a very long way in a short period of time.
As an 18-year-old, Matheson made her debut for the Canadian women's side in 2003 and over the years was used primarily as a defensive midfielder by former coach Even Pellerud, charged with doing the team's dirty work on the field.
But since Carolina Morace took over the coaching reins two years ago, Matheson has become one of Canada's more creative players, given the freedom by the Italian to follow her attacking instincts. Matheson, a native of Oakville, Ont., has taken to her new role with aplomb, and will be central to Canada's chances for success at this summer's FIFA Women's World Cup in Germany.
Freed from the shackles of Pellerud's rigid tactics, Matheson, 27, is now enjoying her soccer more than any other time in her career, and for that she credits Morace. Her only regret is that she didn't meet the Italian sooner.
"When I first made the team with Even I was a very defensive player and my role on the team was to win balls and play the ball back to [teammates]," Matheson told CBC Sports. "Now with Carolina I have a lot more freedom, as well on the ball, and distributing the ball around the field and also going forward more and attacking.
"I think if Carolina had been around seven or eight years ago I probably wouldn't have been able to do that role because I was a much-less developed player. But I think the years with the national team have really paid off and now that Carolina's here I get to attack and enjoy this style of play."
That's not to say Pellerud didn't play a positive role in her development. Matheson insists he did and that the Norwegian impressed upon her the need to improve her distributions skills when she started out with the national team. Matheson took Pellerud's advice to heart and now Morace is reaping the benefits of her sublime passing ability.
"Even stressed that my passing at the time was not good enough, it wasn't at the national team level. So that's something I really had to work on my own time and I went home in between camps and I would always work on hitting long balls and passing," Matheson said.
"I would drag my sister out to the field or I would go by myself with a bag of balls and just practice all the time and I've gotten a lot better at just hitting a ball and it's something that's one of my strengths now."
Indeed, the hard work has paid off. Matheson's name is among the first that Morace writes down on the team sheet on game days, her silky smooth skills helping her to become one of the pillars of the national team.
"When I was 17 or 18 I didn't think that I would play for Canada so much," Matheson admitted. "But as I stayed on the team longer it was definitely something I started to think of, and as I got closer to 100 [appearances] it was something that I was really excited about.
"And it was one of my proudest moments on the team, to play 100 times for Canada. So, it was very exciting. And playing at home in Toronto for my 101st cap and scoring a goal was a highlight for me."
While Matheson supplies the skill in midfield, youngster Kaylyn Kyle provides the steel, running herself ragged as she chases down countless balls and winning back possession for Canada.
Matheson and Kyle have formed an effective duo in the heart of Canada's midfield, demonstrating a strong tactical understanding of the game, and that they are on the same positional wavelength.
"It just works," Kyle said of the partnership. "I know Diana likes to get forward, and she knows I like to get forward … so when she goes up I stay back and play a holding role, and vice versa. It's been working well so far."
For Kyle, 22, Matheson has been the perfect midfield mentor.
"If I miss a tackle or if I'm out of position, she lets me know," said Kyle. "And if I'm playing well, she's the first to say, 'Hey, great job.' I really look up to her as a person and a player, and I've learned a lot from her."
Matheson's metamorphosis from defensive bulwark to inventive creator mirrors that of Canada's under Morace from route-one merchants to a passing and possession-based team,
"The brand of soccer that we're playing right now I think is better than it's ever been before, which has a lot to do with us developing as players but also Carolina bringing in a new style which has been really fun to play," opined Matheson.
The new style has also resulted in a new level on self-belief among Matheson and her teammates ahead of this year's World Cup.
"I think we've got more confidence now than ever and it shows in the results we've been getting … once you get that winning mentality it's so important and it kind of just keeps going and it snowballs and we've been lucky to have that. So hopefully we carry it into the World Cup, as well," Matheson said.