By Mark Colley
Vanessa Gilles describes the CONCACAF women’s championship, which wrapped up last week, as “peculiar.”
Playing for the Canadian women’s national team, Gilles — from Ottawa — was stuck between celebration and disappointment.
After all, Canada made it to the final against the United States, qualifying for the 2023 World Cup in Australia and New Zealand in the process. But they lost the final 1-0 on a penalty kick in the 78th minute, failing to win an early bid for the 2024 Olympics in Paris.
The reigning Olympic champions haven’t lost their chance to defend their gold medals yet, though. Team Canada can still qualify for the 2024 Games with a CONCACAF playoff against Jamaica in September 2023.
“It’s a weird one. You’re happy but you’re also mad. Maybe, if you average it out, it’s an okay tournament,” Gilles said in an interview with Sports Pages. “That second objective is still lingering in our heads for next year.”
The disappointment also comes from being so close to winning the championship.
“I don’t think there’s any worse feeling than having that at the tip of your hands and just missing out by one goal, by one game,” Gilles said. “There’s obviously disappointment in that.”
In the tournament, Gilles started all but one of Canada’s games, holding down the back line with Kadeisha Buchanan of Toronto. The only goal Canada allowed all tournament was the winning shot to the US.
Gilles won gold with Canada at the Tokyo Olympics last year, where she made her Olympic debut at the age of 25. After playing with French D1 club FC Girondins de Bordeaux since 2018, Gilles signed with the Los Angeles-based Angel City FC of the National Women’s Soccer League in December.
Gilles said she always found Angel City intriguing, not just for its soccer. The team is led by a majority female ownership group, including Natalie Portman, Serena Williams and former members of the U.S. national team.
“From the get-go, this club has been very interesting to me,” Gilles said. “I didn’t think they’d be interested in me, especially pre-Olympics.”
But when Gilles’ standout play brought her attention during the Olympics, Angel City contacted her.
“An opportunity like this is really hard to say no to,” Gilles said. “It was at the right time, the right moment for me. I kind of needed a change, I wanted to be closer to home, I wanted a new challenge.”
Gilles said she was “retiscient” about the NWSL at first. The league had just emerged from an abuse scandal that rocked the soccer world, with five of the league’s 10 head coaches fired or forced to resign. The NWSL commissioner also resigned.
But what Gilles heard from Angel City leadership changed her mind.
“The first thing that … this club said was, that’s not going to happen here,” Gilles said. “We’re going to set the new standard and I wanted to be part of that.”
Gilles said the culture of Angel City is also what drew her to the club.
“Every single person and every single player in this club, whether that’s staff, coach or player, has a value in this club and you really do feel that value,” she explained. “Whether that’s for your ability on the field, or for your humour, or for what you bring to the club, I think everybody values you and your voice can always be heard.”
The biggest difference for Gilles in transitioning from playing in Europe to playing in the U.S. is the speed of the game. In other leagues, Gilles could get away with letting her guard down and not being focused for all 90 minutes.
That’s not the case in the NWSL. Gilles said it was a “huge eyeopener” when she first played in the Challenge Cup, the league’s pre-season tournament.
“You get punished for those mistakes and if you’re not focused, not tuned in at every single moment, then that’s a transition and that’s a chance that the opposition gets to score,” Gilles said.
Despite the steep learning curve, Gilles said that the change in style was “really fun” to learn.
Gilles is also enjoying life in Los Angeles. She said she’s meeting people from different industries in a way she wouldn’t in other cities.
She’s also surfing. Kind of.
Although she’s been nursing an injury for the past three months and is working on getting back to 100 per cent health, Gilles paddles out with friends and hangs out in the water.
“I like maybe pretend to be a surfer,” Gilles joked. “I never actually go for a wave.”