Modern day fullback: Ashley Lawrence's evolution key to Canada's World Cup journey

·5 min read
Ashley Lawrence, left, seen at the Tokyo 2020 Games, was a key member of the gold-medal winning squad last summer, starting all six games and logging 591 minutes out of a possible 600 of playing time. (Andre Penner/The Associated Press - image credit)
Ashley Lawrence, left, seen at the Tokyo 2020 Games, was a key member of the gold-medal winning squad last summer, starting all six games and logging 591 minutes out of a possible 600 of playing time. (Andre Penner/The Associated Press - image credit)

The term "modern day fullback" is so liberally tossed around in the soccer world that it's easy to lose sight of what it actually means.

The duties of a fullback have changed as the sport has evolved. Previously, fullbacks were merely defenders who focused on closing down opposing wingers, and supporting their centre backs while maintaining a solid defensive shape.

Today, fullbacks are expected to do this while also contributing to the attack and build-up play, and making probing runs down the flanks.

There are few better examples of a "modern day fullback" in women's soccer than Canada's Ashley Lawrence, a key member of the gold-medal winning side from last summer's Tokyo Olympics.

But it hasn't come easy for Lawrence, who is a midfielder by trade. She had to go through extensive on-the-job training while playing for her pro club Paris Saint-Germain and the Canadian national team.

"It took about a year to really learn the position as a whole. But the more and more I played it, the more I enjoyed it, and I was able to bring my personality to [it]. Now I can't imagine playing anywhere else," Lawrence said.

Lawrence, a 27-year-old Toronto native, will be front and centre for Canada when it hosts South Korea this Sunday at Toronto's BMO Field. The Canadians are using that international friendly to prepare for next month's CONCACAF W Championship in Mexico, which serves as the qualifiers for the 2023 FIFA World Cup co-hosted by Australia and New Zealand.

The CONCACAF tournament is doubly important because the winner will also directly qualify for the 2024 Paris Olympics, while the second- and third-place nations will square off in a playoff in September for the region's other Olympic berth.

Canada will compete in a first-round group at the CONCACAF W Championship with Costa Rica, Panama and Trinidad. Beyond that, there is the potential for tricky knockout matches against Mexico and the United States. The Mexicans went undefeated against Canada in a two-match series last November, while the Canadians' win over the Americans in Tokyo was their first against their neighbours in 38 games, a winless streak that dated back to 2001.

If Canada is to go all the way in the tournament and automatically qualify for the Paris Olympics, Lawrence is one of the players who'll have to be at her very best for Canada.

"Ashley is so dangerous when going forward as a fullback, and she brings an attacking threat to what we do. But she also does the dirty work in defence. She can deliver a world-class cross into the box, but she's also known for winning 1v1 battles and stopping opposing wingers and fullbacks from delivering dangerous crosses into our box," Canadian coach Bev Priestman told CBC Sports.

Oli Scarff/AFP via Getty Images
Oli Scarff/AFP via Getty Images

Multi-faceted and heavily relied upon

With 105 caps to her credit since her international debut in 2013, Lawrence has become a vital piston in the Canadian women's team's engine. She possesses both speed and technical skills, and combines those attributes with a high soccer IQ that allows her to effectively read the game and make plays both on the defensive and attacking ends.

As a fullback, she doesn't cover the same amount of ground on the pitch compared to a central midfielder. But the pressures and workload are just as intense.

"When I was first asked to play the position, I was very reluctant, especially coming from midfield. It's very different, just in terms of the spaces. [As a fullback], I'm more on the side … but in midfield, you have more of a free role, you can run pretty much everywhere. It's so different in terms of tactics and physicality," Lawrence explained.

"As a fullback, we're really asked to add to the attack, to go forward, to put in crosses. We're even judged, maybe not as much as forwards, in terms of statistics, like passes and assists and goals."

Lawrence was one of Canada's most important players at last year's Olympics, starting all six games and logging 591 minutes out of a possible 600 of playing time. She also proved to be a versatile option, as she was deployed both as a fullback and midfielder in Tokyo.

Her outstanding performances in Japan won her international acclaim, including being named a finalist for the 2021 Ballon d'Or, the prestigious annual award presented to the world's top player.

Lawrence has also been a major contributor for a PSG side that won its first French league championship last season (after finishing runners-up eight times), and reached the semifinals of the UEFA Women's Champions League for the third year in a row in 2022.

While spirited debates still rage on to this day among Canadian fans and pundits about Lawrence's best position — midfielder or fullback — Priestman leaves no doubt as to where she comes down on the issue.

"For me, she's a world-class fullback. She doesn't get the credit she deserves but when you're on the sidelines and you see how she intercepts balls and stops attacks dead in their tracks, there are moments like that every game from Ashley. And she still doesn't lose that attacking threat. She's a massive asset for us," Priestman stated.

"Do I think she can play other positions? Yes. She can play in central midfield, but her crossing ability, particularly from the right, is world class, so you do lose that. She's outstanding, and I think any player who plays in front of her or on the opposite side of the pitch, you're just waiting for an Ashley Lawrence cross to come in."

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