Meaghen Johnson: Vanessa Gilles feels at home in the NWSL

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For many players, there is an adjustment period when they join the National Women’s Soccer League. It’s a faster and more physical game than many usually do.

But not Canadian defender Vanessa Gilles, who immediately found herself in her comfort zone.

“I think coming into the NWSL I knew that was more my style of play, if I’m being honest,” Gilles said. “In terms of physicality, defense, playing plays – I think that’s something that’s in my DNA and my bread and butter when I play.”

Gilles is in his first season in the NWSL with Los Angeles-based expansion club Angel City FC. The Ottawa central defender made the move after playing four seasons with Bordeaux in France’s top league.

But making the jump from Europe to the NWSL wasn’t as big of a transition for Gilles as some might have expected.

She enjoyed immediate success, starting in the first seven games of the regular season before joining the Canadian national team for international duty late last month, and was named to the NWSL Best XI for May.

“The NWSL is a very transient game, and you’re more exposed than in any other league,” Gilles told TSN last month. “The speed of play, you’re pressed for 90 minutes by the other team, making decisions faster – that’s something that I think is going to help my game tremendously, and that’s also a reason why I decided to come here.”

Bev Priestman, head coach of Canada’s women’s team, believes Gilles made the right decision.

“I think it was a great move for her. I think she needed it,” Priestman told TSN. “I think the nature of this league actually lends itself to Vanessa, probably bringing her best attributes , which are emergency defense, putting his body on the line.”

Despite the expansion club’s tag, Angel City currently find themselves sixth in the table, retaining a playoff spot. The team already has a loyal fan base, with an average of around 18,000 attending Banc of California Stadium.

“They have a massive following, week in and week out, coping with the pressure, which for someone so, I guess you could say, new to his international career – that’s only going to help him in the long run. “, said Priestman.

Gilles, 26, is not only relatively new to his international career, with 19 appearances for Canada, but to sport in general. She only started playing football when she was 16, and despite her remarkable successes over the past decade, including her Olympic gold medal last summer, she acknowledges that there are still gaps in his game.

“I think I’m not a very technical player. I never said that outwardly. It’s definitely something I’ve been working on, day in and day out,” she said. “Having started football so late in my career, I obviously have a lot of catching up to do.”

Although the game in Europe is generally more focused on the technical game, Gilles admits that she thought she would be playing club football abroad for much longer.

“I think in terms of European football I will go back there at some point in my career for sure. I think the Champions League is the best tournament you can go to and play in,” he said. she declared. “But I think an opportunity like Angel City maybe only comes once in a lifetime, to be part of a club and be the first to do it.”

Speaking of firsts, Gilles quickly carved his name into the Angel City history books, scoring the first regular season goal in franchise history just over two minutes into the season. But Gilles is quick to ignore the feat.

“I think that’s just a statistic,” she said. “For me, that’s more the case at the end of the season, looking back and seeing the impact we’ve had on the community and the standard we’ve been able to set as an expansion team. , this is what will really do the most for me.

This standard is part of the reason Gilles was drawn to Angel City. She admits she had reservations about the NWSL, especially after the league was rocked by multiple allegations of abuse and misconduct from various coaches and others in power over the past year.

But she thought the new expansion club meant change. Angel City was founded by several prominent women, including actress and activist Natalie Portman, media and gaming entrepreneur Julie Uhrman, and Kara Nortman, managing partner at Upfront Ventures. Several more renowned women have joined the club as investors, including Serena Williams and former US national team star Abby Wambach.

“I think when Angel City came to me and presented this project to me, it was all about female empowerment, equal pay, a safe place to play, a safe place to talk, a safe place to be yourself and to represent something more than just football,” Gilles said.

“I think it was huge for me to come here. It wasn’t just about the football aspect. It was about standing up for what is right and being part of a project that wants to change the status quo.

Gilles also thanks head coach Freya Coombe for creating an inclusive and safe environment.

“She won’t yell at you for trying to pass. She won’t punish you for making a mistake. It’s something I respect,” she said. “One of her best qualities as a coach is the trust she places in the players. Bev with Canada has a similar attitude in terms of trusting the players to do their job and not try to micromanage.

Gilles and Canada are currently in Monterrey, Mexico for the CONCACAF W Championship, which serves as a qualifier for the 2023 FIFA Women’s World Cup and the 2024 Paris Olympics. Canada is kicking off the tournament Tuesday against Trinidad and Tobago.

As the team battles to qualify for two major tournaments on the pitch, outside of it the players are embroiled in negotiations with Canada Soccer for equal pay.

“It’s been a long road to get to where we are in the negotiations,” Gilles said. “I think Canada Soccer, the fact that they are ready to negotiate is already a good first step. I think we are going in the right direction. We are not there yet. But we know what we fought for and we know what we will accept.

Gilles mentions her Angel City teammate, Christen Press, as an invaluable resource as Canadian players fight for equality. Press, a longtime member of the US national team, has been a key figure in the US players’ fight for equal pay, a deal that was finally reached in May with US Soccer after years of disputes between the two parts.

“Having people like Christen Press kind of opened my eyes and let me know that we deserve the best,” she said. “I think Christen is an amazing women’s rights advocate. And I think every opportunity she can take to stand up for women, stand up for equal pay and stand up for equality – she will take it.

Gilles believes the conversations the two have had about current situations with their respective federations have been monumental in helping to shape his own views.

“She’s the first to gape and think, ‘You have to do something.’ To have that kind of push has been great,” she said.

“I think we can, as a team, as a country, get to the point that [the U.S. has] achieved. I just hope it won’t take so many years of struggle with the federation to get there.

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