Budding Canadian soccer talent Julia Grosso using Olympic postponement to refine game
20-year-old Vancouver native vying for place on national team squad in Tokyo
For any other young Canadian midfielder trying to make an impact on the national team, hearing they might need 'seasoning' could induce some eye rolls.
Julia Grosso, however, accepts that challenge and has found an opportunity to gain experience in the strange year that is 2020. Now, she's eyeing a spot on the Olympic squad for Tokyo next summer.
The 20-year-old Vancouver native just wrapped up the first half of her junior season at the University of Texas at Austin. Due to varying pandemic restrictions in the U.S., she was one of Canada's few college-aged national team players able to play meaningful games in the NCAA this fall.
"It's been different," she said recently by phone before heading home until her season resumes again in January. "I miss having two games a week. Covid has definitely taken its toll, but I'm still very grateful I have the opportunity to play and train, whatever it looks like."
While she may not have played as many games and there isn't a Canadian national team camp anytime soon, Grosso has been focusing on what she can control — working on her strength and conditioning, watching footage and working on the little things to help boost her chances of being named to the 18-player roster for Tokyo.
"The Olympics are an amazing opportunity, but a part of me is a little bit glad," she said of the Games' delay.
"Obviously I wanted to go, but development-wise, it just gives me another year, especially being one of the younger players. Even a year can help you a lot."
Navigating a strange year
The 2020 calendar year started off well for Grosso.
At the CONCACAF Olympic qualifiers in January and February in Texas, of Canada's five matches, Grosso started one game and was a substitute in another as they booked their ticket to Tokyo.
In March, there was more progress for Grosso at the Tournoi de France, seeing more playing time against top 10 countries. She was a second-half substitute in a 1-0 loss to the hosts and a 0-0 draw against the Netherlands. She picked up her eighth start in a 2-2 result against Brazil.
Then came the pandemic. The Tokyo Olympics were postponed. Kenneth Heiner-Moller stepped down as coach. Bev Priestman was only named his replacement in late October.
The Canadian women's team haven't been together for eight months. Planned camps and friendlies for October and November were cancelled on advice from federal health authorities.
Guiding Grosso's day-to-day development is Texas Longhorns coach Angela Kelly. The native of Brantford, Ont., played a decade as a midfielder for the national team in the 1990s and is a member of the Canada Soccer Hall of Fame.
Kelly was excited about Grosso after one of her first recruiting trips to the Vancouver Whitecaps Academy about five years ago.
"She was talented on the ball. She had a lot of gifts," said Kelly, who also has two other Canadian youth internationals and Whitecaps alumni in Emma Regan (Vancouver) and Teni Akindoju (Halifax) on the Longhorns roster. Another, Holly Ward (Vancouver), will join next year.
"She's figuring out all the little nuances that are really going to help her when her time comes in the Canadian uniform to be one of the go-to players. You don't just automatically come into age and you're the go-to player, you have to train for it."
Grosso has been in the national fold since 2014 when she suited up for Canada's under-15 team, coached by Priestman. From there, she represented Canada at the FIFA U-17 Women's World Cup in Jordan. Her biggest accomplishment to date was being named to the 2019 World Cup team.
She was just 18 in France and though she didn't get to play, she soaked up the experience.
"I got to be on the bench, watch every game, warm up and still be part of the team. It was an opportunity to see how the older players carried themselves game after game and how professionals do it," she said. "And I created bonds."
'She plays with no fear'
One of those bonds has been with veteran midfielder, Desiree Scott. Nicknamed 'The Destroyer,' Scott is considered one of the top holding midfielders in the world, the same position Grosso plays when she sees time with the national team.
"[Scott] always gives me positive feedback or if I need constructive criticism on the field. She'll start the game and play a lot, so if I happen to go in toward the end of the game, she really motivates me and she's my No. 1 supporter on the sideline," Grosso said.
Scott, like many of the veterans on the Canadian side, has tried to take the younger players under her wing and was flattered that Grosso considers her a mentor.
"Julia is such a technical player, she plays with no fear, the way she gets involved in the attack as a holding midfielder is exciting," Scott said. "She's just an incredible player, such a bright future for her."
The dynamic duo strikes! <a href="https://twitter.com/haley_berg23?ref_src=twsrc%5Etfw">@haley_berg23</a> to <a href="https://twitter.com/GrossoJulia?ref_src=twsrc%5Etfw">@GrossoJulia</a>!<a href="https://twitter.com/hashtag/RunWithTexas?src=hash&ref_src=twsrc%5Etfw">#RunWithTexas</a> | <a href="https://twitter.com/hashtag/RAMPED?src=hash&ref_src=twsrc%5Etfw">#RAMPED</a> <a href="https://t.co/9XDuEKACNB">pic.twitter.com/9XDuEKACNB</a>—@TexasSoccer
In terms of positions, Canada's midfield is the most experienced and perhaps the hardest to crack.
Diana Matheson is the most-tenured national team member outside Christine Sinclair with 206 appearances for Canada. Then there's fellow two-time Olympic bronze medallists Sophie Schmidt (199) and Desiree Scott (157), who are also in their 30s.
The "younger" midfielders on the squad, 22-year-old Jessie Fleming and 25-year-old Ashley Lawrence are closing in on 100 appearances, with 77 and 91 caps respectively.
In Grosso's 21 caps with the national team, she's mostly played as a substitute in that holding midfield/defensive midfield role, but Kelly says she also has versatility in the middle of the pitch.
"I like her in that supporting midfield role. She has an explosive first step, she's deceivingly fast and her technical speed — when she has the ball at her feet — she almost looks faster. That's unusual. Players like Mia Hamm have that ability," said Kelly, who played with the American legend at North Carolina.
Kelly knows from her days on the national team that as a central player, you need to cover a large range. It's not just about going box-to-box, it's also going touchline-to-touchline.
Now on a break from her sports management studies, Grosso is eager to get back together with her Canadian teammates, whenever that might be.
She's also looking forward to a reunion with her old youth coach, Priestman.
"She loves keeping the ball. My type of style," Grosso said. "Technique, keeping the ball well, switching the point of play, which is totally what I love to do, so I'm excited to see that again and get to play with that. I loved her as a coach."
It's expected the Canadian team will see some turnover after Tokyo with a few of the veterans stepping away.
But does that mean Grosso will become a go-to player?
"I think Julia is going to step into that holding midfielder role. Now, I'm not announcing my retirement yet," laughed Scott. "But I think she's going to hold that position down, allow it to grow into something and make it her own in the centre of the pitch."
The Olympic women's football tournament is scheduled to begin July 22.