NEW YORK -- As Karina LeBlanc set herself up between the goal posts and looked into the stands before games, she often noticed the only fans present were family members and friends. From the very first day of her professional career, she was out to change that.
In less than a year, LeBlanc will ready herself between the goal posts in Edmonton's Commonwealth Stadium for the 2015 FIFA Women's World Cup. And when she looks into the stands next summer, she will see family and friends, but the rest of the world as well.
LeBlanc just wrapped up her second season in the NWSL but has been a fixture in women's professional soccer for more than a decade. And the 5-foot-9 goalkeeper, who had six shutouts this season for the Chicago Red Stars and has more than 100 caps with the Canadian women's national team, embraces the power of connecting with fans in person and on social media.
When LeBlanc signed her first autograph years ago, she thought to herself, "Wow, people actually care about me?" But that moment has impacted the way she interacts with fans, and it wasn't that long ago she was in their shoes.
"It's so powerful because you take those extra five seconds to ask, 'Do you want to be a professional athlete one day?' 'Do you play soccer?' 'Do you work hard?'" LeBlanc said. "It's these small conversations that matter, because I was that young girl wanting to know who I was."
Right before the World Cup kicked off earlier this summer, LeBlanc spoke on a panel at Yankee Stadium for "Beyond Sport" that brought together some of the biggest names in global soccer. They discussed the social responsibilities of athletes and corporations, and how the sport can transform communities.
LeBlanc is very aware of her power as a role model and is usually the last member of the Chicago Red Stars signing autographs after games.
"If you follow me on Twitter, all my pictures are me being goofy with the fans," LeBlanc, 34, said. "That's me showing them that I have a passion for the sport and I want everyone to believe in whatever it is they want to do in life."
LeBlanc making funny faces in selfies with fans are the norm when scrolling through @karinaleblanc. She is regularly described as a fan-favorite and she clearly has a dedicated following. One fan tweeted that she drove six hours to cheer on LeBlanc before her debut with the Chicago Red Stars last April. Another image on Twitter shows three fans in white shirts depicting LeBlanc's signature pink hairdo. Some autograph requests have gone as far as LeBlanc scribbling her name on a fan's forehead.
LeBlanc welcomes them all and enjoys that her fans are as diverse as her own background.
LeBlanc was born in Atlanta, Georgia, to a father from Dominica and a Jamaican mother, but the family soon immigrated to British Columbia. LeBlanc, who grew up in Maple Ridge, B.C., made her first Canadian national team appearance in 1998 while she was also in her sophomore season at the University of Nebraska. The Husker earned her business administration degree in 2000, the same year she was a finalist for the Hermann Trophy, presented annually to the top women's college soccer player.
"I can relate to a lot of different people," she said. "That's why when I travel the world, I'm so interested in the different types of cultures due to my upbringing. I was a lost child, and sport helped me along with the impact of other people."
Now, LeBlanc's own philanthropic work has taken her around the globe. She is the first female soccer player to be named an official ambassador with UNICEF Canada. Upon getting off the plane in Honduras for her first UNICEF trip, LeBlanc was debriefed on how San Pedro Sula was among the most dangerous cities in the world. The nights before she arrived, 44 people were allegedly killed in drug- and gang-related crimes. Yet, LeBlanc's schedule was filled with soccer clinics and a trip to a juvenile detention center to speak with troubled teens.
Among the first events on her agenda was a clinic on a gravel road for 200 girls. When she exited the car, LeBlanc was taken aback as five girls charged toward her wearing gray Canada jerseys.
"These five jerseys were the same jerseys that I owned as a child playing soccer. The coach said they were given to them from someone in Canada," LeBlanc said. "I had to catch myself. Almost 20 years later, the jerseys resurface and at that moment I realized I was aligning myself with my greater purpose."
One of LeBlanc's goals is to leave the sport in a better state than when she entered. Growing the popularity among the younger generations is key.
"Every player on our national team has a story where someone told them they couldn't do it," LeBlanc said. "It's on us to give hope and show people that we're out here having fun."
LeBlanc grew up idolizing men's soccer players, but once Mia Hamm burst on the scene, LeBlanc plastered her bedroom walls with posters of the U.S. soccer star. Years later, LeBlanc stood on the same field as her hero during a game in Portland.
"For me what Mia Hamm represented was hope, but a belief that my dreams could come true," LeBlanc said. "These ideas of becoming an Olympian from the age of four were actually going to become a reality."
But LeBlanc's journey had its share of setbacks, too. She has bounced around North America as women's pro leagues in the United States came and went. She played professionally in the Women's United Soccer Association and Women's Professional Soccer before they folded.
"For a second, it feels like your dreams have been ripped out of you," LeBlanc said. "But it's about understanding the process. If those leagues didn't fold, we would not have tried new things. The biggest thing is to stay connected to our fans and future Olympians and future World Cup soccer players. We need to give them the hope that they can live this dream and be difference makers."
Soccer in America is still in its early stages of development, but LeBlanc -- whose Portland Thorns FC squad routinely drew more than 15,000 fans on its run to the inaugural NWSL championship in 2013 -- believes soccer teaches so much more than what happens on the pitch.
"People can relate to our stories in so many different ways, because through soccer you learn so many lessons," she said. "It's not just about kicking a ball and scoring. It's about defeat. It's about success. It's about failure and getting up from it."
LeBlanc knows the experience firsthand. Canada finished last in the 2011 Women's World Cup but rallied to win a bronze medal eight months later at the 2012 Olympics.
In nine months, LeBlanc will be on the world's biggest stage again when Canada hosts the 2015 Women's World Cup. And LeBlanc, both on the pitch and in every autograph she signs between now and then, anticipates the event will have a far-reaching impact.
"You dream of playing in the World Cup. To be able to do it in front of friends and family, that's just powerful," LeBlanc said. "It will be life-changing for all of us and the sport of soccer."