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HomeSportsSoccerHidden gems: How 3 Canadian players took non-traditional roads to Women's World...

Hidden gems: How 3 Canadian players took non-traditional roads to Women’s World Cup

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Canadian national soccer team forward Cloé Lacasse’s words said it all. 

After making the 23-player roster for the upcoming FIFA Women’s World Cup roster in Australia and New Zealand, the 30-year-old native of Sudbury, Ont., summed up the moment as a player who had been often overlooked for most of her career.

“Hard work. Determination. Resilience. My family and friends’ relentless support throughout the years. It’s all paid off for this moment,” wrote Lacasse on her social media channels after being named to the Canadian team, which kicks off its tournament with a match against Nigeria on Thursday, July 20.

While Lacasse has enjoyed a rewarding professional career playing abroad (the reigning Portuguese league’s player of the year with Benfica recently signed with Arsenal of the Women’s Super League), she is one of many Canadian examples of players getting their national team opportunity later in their career. 

Aside from an under-20 camp back in 2012 when she was 19, Lacasse didn’t get a call back into the national system again until she was 27. That’s when coach Bev Priestman called her into an international series in the UK in April of 2021 against Wales and England.

Since then, Lacasse has made 19 appearances for Canada (starting in four matches) and scored her first and only goal – so far – in October of 2022 against Argentina.

WATCH | Soccer North goes 1-on-1 with Bev Priestman:

1-on-1 with CanWNT head coach Bev Priestman ahead of FIFA Women’s World Cup

Host Andi Petrillo sits down with Canadian women’s national team head coach Bev Priestman, with less than a week away to the start of the FIFA Women’s World Cup.

Player development

Not every player’s arc of development happens the same way. There are those that climb the ranks through the often traditional path of the national team’s youth system. And there are those that are overlooked in their early years, only to bloom later or get their chance thanks to a coach’s fresh set of eyes.

Vanessa Gilles is another. 

“I think what Bev did for this country, obviously winning an Olympic gold medal, but not only that, she gave everybody a chance. I think that’s something that a lot of people, including myself will be forever grateful for,” said Gilles at a recent practice session in Toronto before leaving for Australia.

“She’s brought that to this team in terms of looking outside of the bubble that we already had, looking outside of just Canada and the U.S., getting players that haven’t got called in the past, whether that’s Mimi Alidou, Clarissa Larisey, Cloé Lacasse, all these players who have been overlooked, giving them a chance to show what they can bring. I think Bev has done an incredible job of that.”

It’s hard to believe the 2023 edition of the World Cup will be Gilles’ first with the team.

A late cut from Canada’s 2019 FIFA Women’s World Cup team, it’s been nothing but a dramatic trajectory since, both professionally and with the national team. 

After making her presence known at the SheBelieves Cup, playing 90 minutes at centre back in a 1-0 loss to the United States, Gilles has been a fixture of Canada’s fierce backline, not to mention one of the most sought-after defenders in the world. 

A competitive tennis player into her teens, the now 27-year-old Ottawa native was never part of the Canadian youth setup, but did earn a NCAA scholarship to the University of Cincinnati. From there, a European passport through her French father, allowed her to pursue a career overseas, first in Cyprus, then with FC Girondins de Bordeaux of Division 1 Feminin where she first caught the eye of the national program. 

From there, she played for Angel City FC of the NWSL, scoring the team’s first goal in history, and now with Olympique Lyonnais, the 14-time Division 1 Feminin champions and eight-time Champions League titlists.

Again, this is a player who scrambled out of college to find a place to play professionally and didn’t get her first real shot with Canada until she was 24.

Gilles now has 25 caps for Canada, 22 of those starts, more often than not playing a full 90 minutes against the top strikers in the world. 

WATCH | Teenager Olivia Smith gets a surprise of a lifetime:

18-year-old Olivia Smith’s emotional reaction to being named to Canada’s Women’s World Cup team

Canadian women’s soccer coach Bev Priestman delivers the life-changing news to the stunned teenager.

Lacasse take game to new level

Soccer North host Andi Petrillo recently asked Priestman which players had grown the most since the Olympic gold medal and she didn’t hesitate to highlight Lacasse.

“There’s quite a few [players],” Priestman said. “Cloé Lacasse, I would say, has really started to grow in confidence in this environment. I find anybody who hasn’t grown in our youth system, it takes them a while to get used to the tactics and the way that we work. With Chloe you can’t take away from what she’s done.”

What she’s done includes scoring 102 goals in 131 games during her four years at Benfica (five in Champions League) plus a scoring title, and winning major trophies like Portuguese league titles and cups. 

She’ll be counted upon to fill the large void left by Janine Beckie, who was ruled out of the tournament with anterior cruciate ligament (ACL) tear in her right knee.

So too will fellow national team striker, Evelyne Viens. She wasn’t part of the national youth program, either. In fact, she didn’t even compete on Quebec provincial teams growing up because it meant leaving her family in L’Ancienne-Lorette, Que., a suburb of Quebec City, to move to Montreal. 

Despite scoring 73 goals in 77 games and setting school records at the University of South Florida, she was never invited to a national team camp, until Priestman came along. Viens has since scored four goals in 18 appearances and was part of the Olympic-winning team. Currently, the 26-year-old has been lighting up Sweden’s Damallsvenskan with Kristianstads DFF where she’s scored 12 goals in 17 matches, good for third-most in the league. 

WATCH | Breaking down Canada’s World Cup:

Canada Women’s World Cup preview, Christine Sinclair & Gold Cup reaction

Host Andi Petrillo previews Canada at the FIFA 2023 Women’s World Cup, sit downs with Christine Sinclair, and reacts to Canada’s performance so far at the CONCACAF Gold Cup.

There could be hundreds of other hidden gems like Gilles or Lacasse or Viens in Canada. That’s one reason why some believe a domestic professional league is vital to keep women in the game and help them unearth their potential.

In future years, when the professional ecosystem broadens with Project 8’s league beginning in 2025, players will be able to develop and be seen right here at home.

Perhaps a common theme among these three players is patience, a passion to pursue their sport at a high level and not giving up even if it meant taking the path less travelled. They’ve also benefited from a coach who understands that not all athletes develop at the same rate or take the traditional route to get to the end goal.

“A lot of us have to be thankful [to Bev],” said Gilles. “She’s brought in these different styles of players and made this player pool a lot bigger than it was for sure.”

WATCH | Full episode of Soccer North:

Canada out of Gold Cup, Bev Priestman & FIFA Women’s World Cup roster reaction

Host Andi Petrillo reacts to Canada getting knocked out of the Gold Cup in the quarterfinals, sits down with Bev Priestman, and looks at Canada’s roster for the Women’s World Cup.

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