London 2012: Small midfielder comes up big
As the script was drawn up, the ball would find the back of the net and Matheson would add yet another assist to her record while her teammate got the goal and glory. But not this time. Instead, French goalie Sarah Bouhaddi blocked the shot, which ricocheted to her left — directly into the path of an attacking Matheson, who instinctively volleyed it into the open net.
“I was in the zone. I don’t remember thinking anything; I just saw the ball and the empty net,” the 28-year-old midfielder said of her first career Olympic goal. “I was celebrating even before it was in the back of the net. After that, I completely forgot how the goal happened until I saw the video later.”
Coming in the 92nd minute, Matheson’s goal broke a 0-0 tie and clinched the bronze medal for Canada, which had never before won an Olympic medal in women’s soccer. After finishing in last place just a year ago at the World Cup, the Canadians weren’t considered heavy medal contenders, but they gave the strong Americans a scare in the semifinals before losing in extra time, then prevailed in the consolation match after having been out-shot 25-4 by the French.
“We had a tough game against the U.S. It was hard to come back from, but we felt like we deserved a medal and we were really happy to get that goal at the end of the game,” Matheson said. “We saved it for so long so that the other team wouldn’t have time to score like the U.S. team, which just kept coming back and scoring, so we left it as late as possible.”
Canada’s persistence through heartbreak at this year’s Olympics was a situation all too familiar for Matheson, who had to battle adversity and prove herself worthy at the beginning of her soccer career to be where she is now. At 13, Matheson was cut from the Ontario provincial team at her first tryout. Over the next several years, she watched as most of her friends were called up to play on a youth national team while she continued to wait in the wings.
“It was disappointing when a lot of my friends were playing for the national team and I hadn’t made it yet, but I was still planning on playing soccer at a university, and I was still enjoying it, so I kept playing,” she said.
Matheson’s chance came at age 18, when she was invited to attend a national training camp. Her spot on the team was less than assured, though, as the coach at the time focused on long balls and aerial play, which better suited the strengths of taller players. Standing just over five feet, Matheson was at a disadvantage, so she changed her strategy, focusing on pressuring opponents and making stops instead. In the end, her defensive work helped solidify her spot, and she has been one of the team’s mainstays ever since. In almost 10 years with the national team, Matheson has played in three World Cups and two Olympics among 141 total appearances, making her the second most-capped Canadian of all time.
In between stints with the national team, Matheson pursued her goal of playing soccer at the collegiate level when she decided to join fellow Canadian players Janine Willis ’05 and Rochelle Willis ’05 at Princeton. Despite being just a freshman on a 2004 Tigers team that was already loaded with talented players, Matheson still enjoyed success, as her seven goals and assists were both among the team’s top three. That year, she would go on to capture the Ivy League Rookie of the Year award while helping her team to a Final Four appearance at NCAAs.
“It was a really great experience. That whole run was fantastic,” she said. “We’ve been the only Ivy League team to make it to a Final Four in a 64-team tournament, so it was pretty special, and we made a little bit of history. All the girls on that team deserved it so much, and the school got behind us so much. It was just a really fun journey.”
Though the team didn’t quite have the same success over the next few years, Matheson continued her high level of play, finishing her career as Princeton’s all-time assists leader (26) and being named the 2007 Ivy League Player of the Year. Since graduating from Princeton in 2008 with an economics degree, she has split her time playing professionally in Norway and with the Canadian national team.
Matheson said she plans on staying on the pitch for another four years with the intention of competing in the next World Cup, which Canada will host in 2015. The Canadians will be looking to build upon their third-place performance in London and prove that it was no fluke.