Soccer's Woeller an 'unsung hero'

A Friday win guarantees Canada's spot in London

When Shannon Woeller is at the top of her game-and that's almost all the time-she never seems to run at full speed. She doesn't have to.

Her instinct, vision and smart positional play as a left centre back with the national women's soccer team means she's habitually on the move, surveying the offense and putting herself where she needs to be to stop an attack.

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"She has a sixth sense about her, a natural gift about understanding where to play in the field and she has the ability to support the ball, too," said Jesse Symons, newly appointed head coach of the women's Whitecaps who directed the girls prospects team for four years. He met Woeller as a 16-year-old as she advanced through the developmental program. She then played three seasons with the Whitecaps.

Symons quickly noticed her versatility, consistency and power to influence every game. "Once she gets on the field, it's really difficult to take her off because she does so many things well," he said.

The only born-and-raised Vancouverite playing for Canada at the regional Olympic qualifying tournament this week at B.C. Place, Woeller, who turns 22 on Jan. 31, has started all three opening-round matches and played a full 90 minutes each night.

Get used to it. In Monday's 5-1 win against Costa Rica in the last game of the opening round, Woeller notched her ninth national appearance with the women's team, and Canadians can expect to see a lot more of her. If Canada triumphs on Friday, she'll play at the London Summer Games.

Praised as a "quiet achiever" and an "unsung hero" who is mature beyond her years, Woeller on Monday was also acclaimed as a potential future captain of the women's national soccer team.

"I'm hoping one day she'll pick the captain's armband up and lead the team. She is that good," said national team coach John Herdman.

Woeller, modestly, hadn't thought about it. "I do feel like I'm growing up with this team. Maybe at some time in the future that would be a great honour but I'm just working my way."

Her composure can set a calming tone. "I'm calm on the ball and I think, defensively, I go with my instincts and cover the spaces that are the most dangerous," she said.

Woeller fits into the back line beside Candace Chapman, a 28-year-old veteran with appearances at the 2007 and 2011 FIFA World Cup as well as the 2008 Beijing Games. "I think we've got a lovely little balance there," said Herdman. "We've got a little bit of edge and a bit of youth. There's something about the chemistry of that partnership."

Woeller knows it's special to play at home in front of a Vancouver audience and she's drawing a crowd. Dozens of friends and family have been scattered through the stands during the Olympic qualifying tournament, peppering the air with shouts of, "Go Shannon!"

Alex Buckley was among them this week. She went to Prince of Wales high school with Woeller and remembers her as athletic, studious and friendly. School sports teams pined for her. "We kind of missed her a lot. You always knew you could look to Shannon because she was very focused on the goal and the task at hand. She played everything but stopped and began concentrating on soccer," said Buckley, noting the Olympics went synonymous with Woeller. "Everyone is so excited and proud of her."

Woeller, who studies and plays at Rutgers University in New Jersey, started playing soccer at Douglas Park and played on a boys team until she was 12 and entered the Whitecaps youth program.

An all-around athlete who skied and played basketball, the running joke among her friends and family is that Woeller declared as young child she would compete at the Olympics. The question was which sport.

Now, the London 2012 Games are calling with the answer.

Twitter: @MHStewart

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