By Brendan Shykora
Vanessa Gilles wasn’t fortunate enough to crack Team Canada for this February’s Concacaf women’s Olympic qualifying tournament. Instead, she was helping her French Division 1 club achieve its best season in team history.
The 23-year-old soccer player from Ottawa was a call-up away from the FIFA Women’s World Cup last summer, but didn’t crack Canada Soccer’s training camp roster ahead of this year’s qualifiers.
Without Gilles, the national team succumbed to the U.S. 3-0 in the final of the qualifiers – a match that felt like a practice run for the Tokyo Games, which Canada punched its ticket to with its placing.
In typical Gilles fashion, she took the qualifier snub in stride, something that’s easier to do when her professional team, Girondins De Bordeaux, is playing such high-level soccer.
“It’s been night and day since last year,” Gilles says, now in her second year with Bordeaux.
Led by new recruits from the French national team including Vivian Asseyi, Bordeaux advanced the furthest it ever has in the Women’s French Cup this year and with six matches remaining were 3rd in the league’s standings. The lone Canadian on the team, Gilles plays a pivotal role. As of the Sportspage’s publishing date, Gilles was the team’s leader in minutes played, with seven minutes more than Asseyi (the only other player on the team to play in all 16 games), and with almost 170 more minutes than any of her other fellow defenders.
It’s notable that Gilles has been on the field as much as Bordeaux’s best player, and a testament to the way she channels disappointments – like being left off the Canadian national team – into added focus on the things she can control.
“If you don’t get chosen for a starting line up or a squad or a camp, it stings a little bit,” she said in an interview during the Olympic qualifiers. “But as a player you obviously have to use that as motivation and as incentive to keep pushing.
“I think it’s also a good indication as to where Canada is going and how far it’s come as a group, as a team.”
As Gilles says, having to play her way up the depth chart is a sign that Canadian soccer is trending in the right direction.
The last international match Gilles played in with Team Canada was its last game of 2019, a 3-0 win over New Zealand. She told the Sportspage that she knew there was plenty of time to further endear herself in the eyes of the national team’s coaches, a prediction that came to fruition perhaps sooner than even she had thought. On Feb. 25, Canada Soccer announced that Gilles would be one of 22 players for Tournoi de France in early March, which “will help Canada to launch its preparation for the Tokyo Olympic Games,” according to the national soccer body.
READ MORE: Vanessa Gilles: From rackets to footy riches
Joining Team Canada will mean taking her first break from the Bordeaux team she’s helped lead into uncharted territory this season.
Gilles says she’s seen her team’s shift in competitiveness reflected throughout the city – even hearing it in the voices of the fans who come out in growing numbers to watch the women’s side. She’s mentioned in the past how big women’s soccer is in France, how it’s one of the few women’s leagues in the world that gets regular TV time.
In Bordeaux’s rise this year, the attendance at games and even practices has gone up noticeably. Against Lyon – the best women’s team in the world according to many – fan support reached a new peak.
“We sold out our stadium, and actually before even the players (arrived) to the stadium there was a huge line-up just to get tickets,” recalled Gilles. “I felt like the whole city was invested into that game.”
“I really do feel like the city is buying into women’s football, which is a really cool thing to be able to be a part of.”
Twenty-year-old Theo Bair made his international debut early in 2020. Five minutes after subbing into his first ever match for Team Canada, Bair netted a 76th-minute goal against Barbados. Canada beat Barbados by a score of 4-1 in the friendly held in Irvine, Calif. on Jan. 7. Bair substituted for Canada in the 90th minute against Iceland in a 1-0 loss just over a week later in another friendly in Irvine. Bair played for the Ottawa Royals, Capital United FC and West Ottawa prior to joining the Whitecaps FC residency program.
Bair and fellow Ottawa-raised pro player Kris Twardek were also named to the Canadian under-23 team that will try as a longshot to qualify for the Olympics on the men’s side.
The obligations to his professional team of KAA Gent kept Canadian national star Jonathan David (who also calls Ottawa his home town) from participating in the camp that’s ahead of the qualifying tournament in Mexico starting in late March.
Ottawa’s Kayza Massey, 19, held Guatemala scoreless for a tie in a match on Feb. 24 to help Canada remain unbeaten and advance to the knockout round in the Concacaf women’s under-20 championship. Massey’s local soccer roots go back to her days with the Ottawa Gloucester Dragons, when she was only four.