By RON FANFAIR
Last week, star Canadian youth soccer player Kennedy Faulknor was cleared to start training.
That was good news for the teenager who suffered a concussion on March 7 in Canada’s opening game against Haiti in the Confederation of North, Central American & Caribbean Associations of Soccer (CONCACAF) Under 17 competition in Grenada.
Since that time, she has suffered frequent headaches.
Faulknor hopes to be ready to represent Canada at the International Soccer Federation (FIFA) Women’s Under-17 World Cup in Jordan from September 20 to October 21.
The talented young defender has enjoyed much success in the last six months.
Last November, Faulknor was looking forward to finishing her first semester in Grade 11 and enjoying the run up to the Christmas holidays with family and friends.
The teenager’s plans changed when she was invited to attend the national women’s soccer training camp in Vancouver. This was the first time that the squad was regrouping since finishing sixth at the Women’s World Cup in Canada last summer and she was among a new crop of young players that coach John Herdman was using the camp to assess.
Obviously impressed with her skills and talent, Faulknor made the squad that competed in a four-team tournament in Brazil last December.
At age 16 and the youngest team member, the Unionville-Milliken Soccer Club 99 centre back started three of the games and was on the field for 275 of the possible 360 minutes in regulation time in the four contests.
A member of the national youth EXCEL program conceived to provide a streamlined approach to develop young talent in Canada, Faulknor had an inkling that she might be on Herdman’s radar when she was briefly pulled from a youth camp training session in Burnaby last September.
“He attended a practice session and asked me if I could join him for a one-on-one session,” she said. “He wanted me to defend him as hard as I could which I did. The drill was very intense and it lasted for about 15 minutes with him coming at me very hard. I was the only player at the camp that he asked to work with.”
While flattered by the invitation to go through her paces with Herdman, Faulknor didn’t expect she would be on the national side a year later, playing with veterans like Christine Sinclair who made her debut while Faulknor was still a baby.
“These were players that I saw on TV and now here I was on the same team with them,” she said. “When I met these women for the first time on the first day of the camp, I was very nervous. They however all made me feel comfortable and at ease. Everyone was very nice and that really helped me integrate easily.”
Faulknor, who took part in the second annual United States National Training Centre Under-17 four-team tournament in California last February, said it didn’t take her long to realize there was a huge difference between playing at the youth and senior levels.
“The senior players are much bigger and stronger and they play at a faster pace,” she said.
Glen Faulknor, a Unionville-Milliken Soccer Club 99 assistant coach, wasn’t surprised his daughter made a flawless transition into the women’s program.
A striker converted to left back at the 2013 provincial tournament, Faulknor was moved to the centre back position in the final of the 2014 CONCACAF inaugural Girls Under-15 championship in the Cayman Islands that Canada won.
“It speaks to her willingness to do what she needs to do to stay on the field and play for Canada at the highest level,” said Faulknor’s father who migrated from Jamaica at age four and played for Magic in the local league before turning to coaching. “Her training wasn’t specific to any one position, she’s coachable and she’s always open to a challenge. That combination will take her a long way in the sport.”
At the tournament in Brazil, Faulknor played alongside Kadeisha Buchanan who was also converted from a striker to centre back.
“She’s a player I really admire and it was so satisfying to be playing with her,” said Faulknor who roomed with Deanne Rose – another 16-year-old – who made her senior team debut in Brazil. “I couldn’t have been happier.”
The year 2015 was memorable in many ways for Faulknor.
In addition to making the national senior team and history by being the youngest female centre back to make her full debut for Canada, she committed to the University of California, Los Angeles last May and was voted the top Under-17 female player in the country.
The Bill Crothers Secondary School student chose UCLA, which won its first national championship in December 2013 over West Virginia University, which teammates Buchanan and Ashley Lawrence attend; Notre Dame, which is the alma mater of national Under-15 and -17 technical assistant Candace Chapman and Penn State, which captured the women’s division one National Collegiate Athletic Association (NCAA) championship.
“UCLA was the last school I visited and I was very impressed with the coaches and the program,” said Faulknor. “I am just looking forward to playing for them, beginning in 2017.”
Selecting a university more than 4,000 kilometres away means that Faulknor’s parents will be forced to follow her progress by livestream broadcasts.
“It’s all about what Kennedy wants,” said her father. “UCLA has a winning tradition when it comes to sports and we will support her. It’s her journey.”
Paula Faulknor, whose parents are Jamaican immigrants, concurred.
“As soon as we arrived in Los Angles and she went on campus, we knew that would be Kennedy’s choice,” she said. “Ever since she started walking, she had a soccer ball at her feet and it’s satisfying to see all the hard work she has put in paying off. I am so proud of her and we will support her decisions.”