TORONTO — The timing was right for Karina LeBlanc. After 17 years in goal for Canada, the chance to call it quits on home soil just seemed to make sense.

The 35-year-old from Maple Ridge, B.C., who has made 110 appearances for her country, is retiring from international soccer after Canada’s last match at the Women’s World Cup.

“The ability to have it end in Vancouver, (at) B.C. Place where our team hopes to win the World Cup, and wave my last goodbye on home soil to Canadians who have inspired me every single day,” she said Tuesday.

“It would just be something special, to look out in the stands and see people who have been there since the beginning of this journey of mine 17 years ago until the end, and be with my best friends. It’s just a moment that I don’t think could be topped … Saying goodbye to Canadians on home soil is something that just triggered my heart.

“To me, within my heart, it just seemed right.”

Canada opens the World Cup on June 6 in Edmonton against China. The tournament final is set for July 5 at B.C. Place Stadium.

Victor Montagliani, president of the Canadian Soccer Association, called LeBlanc an “incredible ambassador” for Canada and Canadian soccer.

LeBlanc plans to continue playing club soccer for the NWSL Chicago Red Stars after the World Cup but has yet to finalize her plans after this season.

“Hopefully we win a championship there too and I’ll have an easy decision after that,” she said.

LeBlanc will leave world soccer on its biggest showcase.

“As a child, you dream of playing in the Olympic Games or World Cup but you never really dream of it being in your home country, so it’s something that we’re embracing,” LeBlanc said in an earlier interview. “People talk of pressure, but to us it’s an opportunity to really make this country see the women’s game, see the sport that we love and have a passion for. For us, it’s an honour.”

LeBlanc planned to announce her retirement via Twitter. Coach John Herdman wouldn’t hear of it, arranging for LeBlanc to release the news on national TV with teammates via “Canada AM.”

The veteran ‘keeper is the senior member of the Canadian team. She calls 17-year-old midfielder Jessie Fleming “daughter.”

A larger than-life-character with an infectious laugh and no shortage of creative hairstyles, LeBlanc sees endless possibilities.

“I just think every day’s an exciting opportunity to be a better version of myself … That’s exciting because you get to continue to push the envelope, push yourself,” she said.

LeBlanc was 18 when she debuted for Canada in July 1998, coming in at halftime of a friendly in Montreal against China. She has since represented Canada in three Pan American Games, two Olympic Games and is now on the verge of a fifth World Cup.

“When I first joined the team, it was just a cool thing to be in a stadium that had a lot of people in it,” she recalled.

“The game was just so much different back then,” she added. “Women’s soccer was just coming onto the map and people were just starting to recognize it.”

“Now there’s expectations, we’re year-round working hard. There’s more popularity. Little kids now recognize you when go places — it’s not even little kids any more, it’s adults, parents.”

At a February Ottawa Senators game, LeBlanc got a standing ovation when she was introduced on the big screen.

“It was one of those ‘Are you kidding me (moments),” she recalled. “But the game has just evolved.”

LeBlanc is one of three goalies on the Canadian World Cup roster. Starter Erin McLeod and Stephanie Labbe are the other two.

“Karina has brought so much to this program and this team,” said McLeod.

In March 2012, LeBlanc became the 10th women’s footballer to make her 100th appearance for Canada.

She has already tried her hand at coaching, working with goalies at a Canadian women’s youth camp in 2004 and was an assistant coach at Rutgers University from 2005 to 2010. She has also done some sideline commentary work for Fox TV, something she hopes to do more of post-soccer.

“To me it’s fun,” she said of TV work, “because I’ve spent so many years being interviewed. And now I guess I know as an athlete what that they want to be asked and what they don’t want to be asked.”

She is also a proud ambassador for UNICEF Canada.


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Neil Davidson, The Canadian Press