Elite Amateur Sport Soccer

Ottawa strikers Larisey, Chukwu take varied paths to Canadian senior women’s soccer team

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By Mark Colley

The pinch-me moments speak for themselves:

Clarissa Larisey, on the phone with her grandmother in August, ignoring a call from an unknown number before she got a text from Bev Priestman, head coach of the Canada women’s national soccer team, asking her to join the squad.

Annabelle Chukwu, all of 15 years old, meeting Christine Sinclair on a flight to Brazil earlier this month to join the national team for a pair of exhibition matches. “She was like, ‘Hi, I’m Christine.’ And I’m like, ‘You don’t have to introduce yourself,’” Chukwu recalled.

The paths of Larisey and Chukwu — both starting in Ottawa but diverging so dramatically — reconverged this month, when the pair of local strikers joined Team Canada for its international series in Brazil.

Larisey, currently playing with Celtic FC Women near Glasgow, Scotland, was first called up to the national team in early September for a pair of exhibition matches in Australia.

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Locally, she played at West Ottawa Soccer Club before moving to Ottawa South United. She then played Division 1 in the NCAA with the University of Memphis. 

But at the age of 23, she had never played for Canada at any level before September – much like Tokyo Olympic champion Vanessa Gilles, who sat out the series shortly after returning from injury in club play. Defender Gilles is a virtual lock to play for Canada at next summer’s FIFA Women’s World Cup, while Larisey and Chukwu wouldn’t be expected to make that roster as newcomers, though they’ve now taken the massive first step in their quest to reach the sport’s biggest stages.

“I’ve been wanting this my whole life and not being able to play in the youth [teams] was tough,” signalled Larisey, who won four consecutive provincial league scoring titles from 2013-2016. “The moment [Priestman] texted me … there was just so much emotion and I can’t explain it.”

But Larisey had carved out her own path to the national team, learning at each step along the way. At the University of Memphis, Larisey learned the physicality exhibited by players at that level. Making her first pro stop in Iceland before moving to Scotland, she adapted to the speed of the game.

Clarissa Larisey celebrates her first international goal with teammate Simi Awujo in a friendly with Morocco on Oct. 10 in Spain. Photo: Daniela Porcelli / Canada Soccer

“Every time I go to a new team, I feel like I’m growing as a player and that’s all I can really ask for,” Larisey highlighted.

Now, with Celtic, Larisey has scored 11 goals in seven games after scoring nine goals in eight games last season.

“They focus, again, a lot on details and stuff like that, but they really give you the opportunity to grow as a player,” Larisey said. “I’m not at my top potential yet — not even close — and I feel like Celtic’s helping me get more and more to my full potential.”

With the national team, Larisey has logged 65 minutes across four games since September, including a goal in Canada’s 4-0 win over Morocco in October.

She appeared near the end of Canada’s second road friendly with Brazil on Tuesday. The Canadians lost that contest 2-1 following their 2-1 victory on Nov. 11.

Larisey’s path to the highest level of soccer in Canada differs dramatically from that of Chukwu, who still remains with OSU until January, when she will move to Canada Soccer’s national development centre in Toronto.

Chukwu grew up outside London, England, sometimes watching soccer but never playing. At age nine, her family moved to Canada for her dad’s work.

A year after moving, Chukwu was playing in a school soccer tournament with Ottawa Christian School. Her coach — who was also her best friend’s dad — urged Chukwu and her twin sister Isabelle to try out for OSU.

Recently, Chukwu won silver with Canada at the CONCACAF U15 Women’s Championship and played in the FIFA U17 Women’s World Cup, scoring her team’s first goal of the tournament as Canada placed 13th overall. Now, she’s making waves at the highest possible level in Canada.

Annabelle Chukwu celebrates Canada’s first goal of the FIFA U17 Women’s World Cup in India. Photo: Canada Soccer

“Everything’s just been, like, crazy and really exciting at the same time,” Chukwu said. “It’s just like, wow. I don’t even know how to describe it, to be honest.”

OSU president Bill Michalopulos, who coached Chukwu in her early days with the club, said she stood out immediately.

Annabelle Chukwu has won back-to-back Ontario Player Development League scoring races. File photo

“I remember when she was 11 years old, I’d tell people, ‘I’ve never seen a player like that,’” Michalopulos said. “She was just so calm any time she was inside the box or had an opportunity. She’d just make the right decision in a calm way. I never saw that before coaching boys or girls all my life — a little kid who was doing all that already.”

Michalopulos said the wildly different pathways Larisey and Chukwu have taken is a testament to the multiple ways players can get to the same spot.

“There’s not a single stream of development. You can develop here, or you can develop a few years later,” Michalopulos said. “The key thing is to have that passion, that proper coaching and being in the proper environment where you’re challenged and you’re having fun.”

Larisey and Chukwu got to know each other in Brazil, sharing each other’s wildly different journey to the national team and their common background.

“[Chukwu] is absolutely amazing. She is so cute, so sweet,” Larisey said. “It’s just something you bond over when you come from the same city. She can tell me where she lives or goes to school and I can be like, ‘Oh, yeah, I know there.’ It was really nice to be able to talk to someone from Ottawa and even from OSU.”

Clarissa Larisey and Annabelle Chukwu trained with fellow striker Christine Sinclair in Santos, Brazil at Team Canada’s November camp. Photo: Daniela Porcelli / Canada Soccer

For both Larisey and Chukwu, being able to train and play alongside some of the best in the world — including Christine Sinclair, the all-time international goal leader in both men’s and women’s soccer — is a dream come true.

“Going in, I think I was the most nervous to meet her,” Larisey said. “She’s been my idol for a very, very long time, so being able to play by her side or just training with her has been amazing … Sometimes I’ll be training and I’ll look over and I’ll see her there and I’ll be like, wow. No way.”

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