EDMONTON — Two games into an unexpected stint as a fullback, Canada’s Josee Belanger looks right at home.
The converted forward has stepped up since being called on due to injuries to Rhian Wilkinson (hamstring) and Marie-Eve Nault (calf).
Belanger set up Sophie Schmidt’s goal in a 1-0 win over England in Canada’s final outing before the Women’s World Cup. And the 29-year-old from Coaticook, Que. rattled a shot off the crossbar in Canada’s 1-0 win over China in the tournament opener Saturday.
And like Allysha Chapman on the left side, the pacey Belanger has consistently charged up the flank. Both fullbacks played important roles against China as Herdman went to a more offensive 3-4-3 formation late in the game, pushing the fullbacks up high to press for the go-ahead goal.
As with most of his players on the day, Herdman saw positives and negatives in their play.
“Brilliant. It was great to watch Chapman and Belanger join in and bring that modern fullback to the game,” Herdman said. “But at the same time they were a little bit sloppy at times and we’re going to work on some of their decision-making. They’re the things we keep improving during the tournament.”
While Wilkinson and Nault are working their way back to full health, Belanger has been a welcome temporary fix. And she may be back on the right flank Thursday when eighth-ranked Canada plays No. 17 New Zealand at Commonwealth Stadium.
New Zealand, the team John Herdman left to coach Canada, lost its tournament opener 1-0 to the Netherlands on Saturday. The Football Ferns are 0-9-1 at the World Cup, with Herdman in charge for the lone point earned in 2011.
Herdman tried Belanger out at fullback during part of a pre-tournament training match with Nigeria at Toronto FC’s practice ground. Despite her lack of experience at the position, Belanger was quick to see ways to use her technique and pace operating at fullback.
“I can combine with the forwards,” said Belanger. “I know a little bit more (about) their runs because I’m a forward. So I know what they’re doing and I can join (in) with my speed.”
Belanger has an eye for an opening, be it a pass or a run. And supremely fit, she has the gas tank to get there.
“I think Josee’s doing amazing,” said Chapman. “She was always very hard-working when she was a striker. She would always track back and it would be very easy to play with her on my side because I’d know I would always have help.
“So I think that’s where John got the idea to maybe try her at fullback because she did have that defensive mindset also while attacking. It’s worked out great. And her change in speed in the attack is such an asset for us.”
Herdman talked to Belanger briefly about her new role, but then left her alone.
“I think he appreciated the fact that I’m actually not thinking too much and I’m playing on instinct. It actually feels good as a player to play with instinct. You’re more in a rhythm.”
Belanger does get in-game feedback from centre back Kadeisha Buchanan, the defender closest to her.
Wilkinson worked out on her own during Monday’s practice. Midfielders Diana Matheson, another long-term casualty working her way back, also was not part of the portion of the session that was open to media.
Same for Buchanan and midfielder Desiree Scott, who were nursing minor knocks suffered in the China game.
Belanger isn’t sure how long her new role will last. But she is ready to do what it takes.
“Whatever the team needs, I’ll be ready.”
She’s just happy to be here after a long-term ankle injury disrupted her career. Belanger was out of the national team picture from early 2011 to late 2013, missing out on the 2011 World Cup and 2012 Olympics.
Belanger has five goals in 31 appearances for Canada.
If needed, the five-foot-four Belanger is no stranger to playing in goal. She was a ‘keeper from ages seven to 12.
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Neil Davidson, The Canadian Press