Player of the year watch: UCLA's Jessie Fleming and Hailie Mace are gone but not forgotten
FRISCO, Texas -- If only all international relations went this smoothly.
Even as their respective teams reached the final of the CONCACAF Women's Championship, American Hailie Mace and Canadian Jessie Fleming continued exchanging text messages on a regular basis. When both teams ended up in Frisco in later rounds, the players met for coffee.
They even scheduled additional summits.
"I think we might do some homework together," Mace said as Wednesday's title game approached.
The harmony is, of course, because Mace and Fleming were teammates before they were on opposite sides of this hemisphere's biggest rivalry in women's soccer. And because they will be teammates again when the tournament concludes. It's that last part that excites UCLA (9-3-1). And it's that last part that should leave the rest of NCAA soccer at least a little skittish.
College soccer is about to be reintroduced to two of its best players.
To acknowledge up front, neither Fleming nor Mace will win any of college soccer's national player of the year awards. Both have missed too much of UCLA's season, Mace available for just five of the team's first 13 games -- still two more than Fleming. But it's equally impossible to talk about such awards without the caveats as to why Fleming and Mace aren't part of the discussion. Their absences are their credentials.
None of this is new for the 20-year-old Fleming, who won Olympic bronze with Canada in 2016 before she ever played for the Bruins. She is one of the best young midfielders in the world, college, pro or otherwise. She started three of Canada's first four games in the CONCACAF tournament, left on the bench at the beginning for only the easiest group game against Cuba.
"Jessie just makes everyone around her better," UCLA coach Amanda Cromwell said recently in talking about why there wouldn't be a long adjustment process to Fleming's reintroduction. "She incorporates them into what she's doing and the rhythm that we're trying to play."
When Canada played the U.S. to a 1-1 draw last year in Vancouver, it wasn't a stretch to say Fleming was the most impressive player on the field. Roughly a month older than Mallory Pugh, the American wunderkind who almost joined forces with her at UCLA before turning pro instead, Fleming already has more international appearances than her peer.
"She's just really smart," Mace said. "She reads the games really well and knows where to be at the right time."
Mace was the more surprising loss for UCLA this fall. And that speaks to the speed of her ascent in the soccer world. Most everyone saw Fleming coming. But only a few years after she sent a video to UCLA coaches to get on their recruiting radar, the 21-year-old Mace found herself part of the world's top-ranked team as an injury replacement for fellow collegian Tierna Davidson of Stanford. Mace made her first appearance for the U.S. only in April, but the versatility that allowed her to excel as both a defender and a forward for the Bruins caught the eye of U.S. coach Jill Ellis to such a degree that she made the 20-player qualifying roster months later.
"Getting to play at this level has taught me a lot. It's a pretty humbling experience," Mace said before the final. "It was a little rough at first, getting in the chemistry with the team and stuff, but I think after this tournament I've definitely gotten a lot closer to the girls, I understand the systems more. I think I feel a lot more comfortable."
Whether or not she's part of the roster that goes to France next summer, Mace has at the very least made herself among the biggest prizes in the upcoming NWSL draft and a prospect for the 2020 Olympics and beyond.
Yet as suggested by the history homework she planned to churn through while Fleming worked on engineering, there is still a college season to finish. After back-to-back September losses at Washington State and Stanford, when they were without not just Fleming and Mace but standout goalkeeper Teagan Micah because of injury, the Bruins have won four in a row and are scoring goals and ranked in the top 10 again.
Now they should have at least three games, including a rivalry game against USC, to reincorporate two players who won't have time to win awards but could still win a national title.
"I think they've grown a lot as a team since I've been gone, so it's going to be a little difficult to get back in the groove of things and get back into my starting position," Mace said. "It will be rough at first, but I think it will be fine."