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Vanessa Gilles’ unique journey to the top of soccer in Canada

Vanessa Gilles battles for the ball during Canada’s friendly against New Zealand on Saturday. (Sean Burges/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images)

Olympic gold medalist Vanessa Gilles was 20 years old when she watched the Canadian women’s national soccer team play Brazil at TD Place in her hometown of Ottawa, Ont. in 2016. Janine Beckie scored a goal in added time to give Canada a 1-0 victory in the friendly match.

During a press conference on Tuesday, Gilles smiled as she recalled being in the stands that day.

“I remember sitting in TD Place, watching Canada play Brazil and saying to myself and my teammates at the time as well, ‘Crap, I want to be on that field. I want to wear that jersey. I want to celebrate with them,'” Gilles says.

Five years later, she was back at TD Place, this time as a player celebrating Canada’s 5-1 win over New Zealand on Saturday in the first match of their Celebration Tour. Gilles, now 25, was a part of Canada’s historic run to a gold medal at the Tokyo Olympics in August, scoring the game-winning penalty kick in the quarterfinals against Brazil and playing a key role on defense throughout the tournament.

Gilles’ path to the top of her sport in Canada, from intrepid teenager to future star, has been fast but not exactly conventional.

‘I don’t want to play tennis anymore’

Gilles didn’t start playing soccer until she was 16 years old.

In fact, her first sport was tennis. She picked up a racket while her family was living in Shanghai and continued to play after they moved to Canada when she was 12, eventually making it all the way to nationals.

“She did quite well, but right after the nationals she told me, ‘I don’t want to play tennis anymore,’” recalls her mother, Josie Castelli-Gilles.

“Why don’t you want to play?” Castelli-Gilles asked her daughter at the time.

“I hate it,” Gilles responded.

Having enrolled Gilles in a sports study program at Louis-Riel high school, where the tennis coach had already designed an entire training program for her, Castelli-Gilles tried to discourage her daughter from quitting.

“I told her to just try it for at least three months, like ‘til Christmas, and she didn’t really want to but I kind of forced her to do it,” she says.

Gilles became “very disruptive” in the tennis group and was benched, her mother says. Eventually, the coach told Castelli-Gilles that Gilles didn’t want to be a part of the program.

“So I said, ‘OK, let’s save our money and our time,’” Castelli-Gilles says. “I pulled her out and she wanted to play soccer. I told her, ‘You do it on your own. I did everything for tennis. You do this on your own.’”

‘This girl could be on the provincial team. Like, now.’

Entering the 10th grade, Gilles had never touched a soccer ball in her life. She told the high school soccer coach, Joé Fournier, she wanted to join the team to be with her friends. Fournier was hesitant at first not because of Gilles’ lack of soccer experience, but because he was worried she would show up only for the social aspect and would distract the other players.

He finally offered her a tryout as a goalkeeper, which Gilles accepted.

By the end of her trial, everyone was dumbfounded.

“She was phenomenal,” Fournier says. “Like, unbelievable.”

The goalkeeper coach at that point was working with Ontario’s provincial program. After two weeks of training Gilles with Louis-Riel, the coach told Fournier, “This girl could be on the provincial team. Like, now.”

It was exciting for the team to suddenly fill a void in their lineup with a talented player straight off the tennis court.

The following week, however, Gilles admitted she wasn’t happy in net and was only playing there because she believed that’s what everyone else expected of her. What she really wanted were more touches on the ball.

Fournier obliged, assigning her to center back. The position suited her because of her physicality, but she had a lot of catching up to do in terms of her technical skills on the ball.

“She couldn’t pass even if her life depended on it,” Fournier says.

Fellow center back Alexie Morin-Holland, who went on to play university soccer for the Ottawa Gee-Gees, took Gilles under her wing and helped her learn the position. Years later, when Gilles came back to visit Louis Riel after making the national team, a student asked her to name her role model. Gilles’ answer was Morin-Holland.

“She knew what her place was on the team,” Fournier says. “Even though she was an unbelievable athlete, she knew she wasn’t at the same standards as those girls at that point. … She grew and she learned from those girls so much.”

Gilles’ natural athletic talent was obvious, but it was her ability to learn quickly and not take soccer too seriously that helped her take off.

“She was extremely focused, but it wasn’t a question of do or die,” he said. “Vanessa just enjoys life. Like, she’s a big joker, like a goof. But at the same time she’s extremely respectful, so she was a good listener, a quick learner because she put into practice what we were trying to help her with. I think that’s why she progressed.”

In her first year of organized soccer, Gilles helped Louis-Riel to the high school provincial championship. Within the next two years, she won a league title with her club team, captured a bronze medal with Team Ontario at the 2013 Canada Summer Games, received a full ride to the University of Cincinnati and, eventually, turned professional.

‘She did a lot on her own’

After playing her last college game, capping a highly accomplished career that included the 2017 American Athletic Conference Co-Defender of the Year award, Gilles came home for the holidays and had a conversation with her mother about the next chapter. That exchange, according to Castelli-Gilles, went something along the lines of:

“I’m going to Cyprus,” said Gilles, who had signed with Apollon Ladies FC of the Cypriot First Division.

“How did you get that?” asked her mother.

“My agent.”

“What agent?”

“I have an agent now,” Gilles said.

“Oh my god,” Castelli-Gilles said in disbelief.

Getting the agent to sign on required a few calls and some nudging from Gilles. But if Gilles has proved anything during her athletic career, it’s that she knows how to get something she sets her mind to.

In 2018, Gilles made 11 appearances with Apollon and scored 10 goals. Later that year, she joined FC Girondins de Bordeaux of D1 Féminine, where she’s since scored three goals in 59 games.

“For soccer, she did a lot on her own,” Castelli-Gilles says.

‘Vanessa is an absolute legend in Ottawa’

Gilles played her first game with the Canadian national team on Nov. 10, 2019 in a 3-0 win over New Zealand at the 2019 Yongchuan International Tournament.

Since then, she’s made 11 appearances, none more notable than in the quarterfinals of the Olympics. Gilles converted Canada’s fifth and final penalty kick against Brazil to set them on the path to gold.

The Canadians celebrated that win just as they had after defeating Brazil in 2016, when Gilles was watching from the stands. This time, she was the reason they had won.

“I think what we’re quickly learning is Vanessa is an absolute legend in Ottawa,” says Canada head coach Bev Priestman. “This city is so, so proud of Vanessa’s achievements … She’s an absolute legend and will do anything to keep a clean sheet and do whatever it takes to win, and I think they’re attributes loved by all Canadians.”

On Saturday, Canada played New Zealand, the opponent for Gilles’ first international cap at TD Place, where she first realized how badly she wanted to play for the national team.

“Now me being able to play on that field, doing exactly what I wanted to do is kind of full circle for me,” Gilles says. “But at the same time, I think about that moment (the celebration of Beckie’s goal in 2016) and I think about other girls sitting in the seats I was watching us play.

“My number one thing that’s important to me is inspiring the youth, having that impact on the players who are sitting in those seats … I can’t stress enough the impact that had on my career and my ambitions, and seeing other people and players in that position is really cool.”

Fournier surprised his 6-year-old daughter, Nève, with tickets to Saturday’s game. Her favorite players are Gilles and Beckie.

He also plans to bring Nève to Montréal for the second game of the Celebration Tour.

Gilles was born in Montréal, meaning Tuesday will offer yet another full-circle moment.

Jessa Braun is an editorial intern at Just Women’s Sports. She is also the Head of North American Content for the Women’s Sports Alliance. You can follow her on Twitter @jessabraun.

KC Current GM Camille Ashton Resigns

KC Current GM Camille Ashton
Former KC Current GM Camille Ashton left the undefeated organization early this week. (Denny Medley-USA TODAY Sports)

Kansas City Current general manager Camille Ashton has resigned, the club announced Wednesday.

The staffing shakeup comes as somewhat of a surprise after the Current started off the season undefeated under new head coach Vlatko Andonovski, sitting second in the NWSL standings through 10 games.

No further details were given about her departure, other than that the club "wishes her the best in her future endeavors."

"I am thankful for my time in Kansas City," Ashton said in a team statement. "It was important to me to dedicate my time and efforts to ensure a successful 2024 season by building the championship-caliber roster that's currently near the top of the table. I am proud of what we have accomplished here. I look forward to the next step in my personal and professional journey."

Ashton, who played in the league from 2014-17, helped rebuild the Current roster, including picking up then-free agent Debinha in 2023 — the biggest free agency signing of that offseason. This past offseason, she brought in international players Temwa Chawinga and Bia Zaneratto

But the club has also encountered some rough patches throughout Ashton's tenure. Following her daughter's dismissal from the Current last year, mother of 2023 draft pick Mykiaa Minniss also accused the club of mistreatment during the preseason. While both the league and NWSL Players Association looked into the comments, no formal reprimand or consequences were publicly issued.

Players like Lynn Williams, Alex Loera, and Cece Kizer voiced concerns over what they described as unexpected trades, with Kizer adding that there was "no conversation this could happen." Williams, meanwhile, was informed of her trade moments prior to its execution while she was in New Zealand with the USWNT.

"There could be a lot of debate about that on its own, but at the end of the day, that’s the mechanism that we work with right now in the league," Ashton told reporters earlier this year when quested about the Current's player trade procedures.

While the club made an NWSL championship appearance in 2022 — the year Ashton came on as general manager — the 2023 season kicked off with the team firing head coach Matt Potter just three games into the season and hours before a road game. 

At the time, the club cited "issues around his leadership and employment responsibilities" as the reasoning, though players were reportedly confused with the decision making.

Last October, the Current hired former UWSNT coach Vlatko Andonovski as head coach, in addition to giving him the title of "sporting director." Whether or not that role overlapped with Ashton’s responsibilities as general manager was cause for some speculation.

NWSL Honors UWSNT Great Lauren Holiday With Impact Award

Lauren Holiday at nwsl impact award event
USWNT legend Lauren Holiday has long been involved with social activism off the pitch. (NWSL)

The NWSL announced today that the annual civically focused Nationwide Community Impact Award would now be known as the Lauren Holiday Award in honor of the National Soccer Hall of Famer.

Since 2021, the award has recognized one NWSL player each season for their character and contributions to community service off the pitch, according to a league release. The winner of the newly retitled award receives $30,000 toward a charitable organization of their choice.

"The NWSL is proud to honor Lauren Holiday as the namesake of this award recognizing exemplary athletes and their commitment to service and activism," said NWSL commissioner Jessica Berman. "Lauren’s influential work in the community and her outstanding character both on and off the field epitomize the values we look to uphold and celebrate in the NWSL every day. 

"I can think of no one more deserving of this recognition than Lauren and look forward to seeing the continued positive impact this program has on our clubs and communities with her example guiding our efforts."

In a statement, Holiday said that throughout her career she has always "believed in the power of giving back and creating positive change." A two-time Olympic gold medalist, World Cup winner, and former NWSL MVP, Holiday founded the Jrue & Lauren Holiday Social Impact Fund alongside husband and fellow professional athlete JRue Holiday.

The fund contributes to programs that combat systemic racism and socioeconomic inequality. Holiday has also long been an advocate for legislation to help close the racial inequality gap in maternal health.

"This award is a testament to the important work that athletes are doing to strengthen and uplift their communities every day and I am deeply humbled to take on its namesake," Holiday said. "I hope it inspires others to continue their efforts in making a lasting impact on the lives of those around them."

Waylaid Seattle Rookie Nika Mühl Makes WNBA Debut

seattle storm's nika muhl guarding indiana fever's caitlin clark
Mühl spent her first few pro minutes repeating her college assignment: guarding Caitlin Clark.(Steph Chambers/Getty Images)

Seattle rookie Nika Mühl made her long awaited WNBA debut in last night’s 85-83 win over Indiana after missing the first four games of the season due to visa issues. 

A Croatian national, Mühl had been waiting on P-1 visa approval in order to work legally in the US. While the paperwork came through Friday, she had to travel to Canada in order to get her status changed.

The former UConn star poked fun at the delay ahead of the game, walking into Climate Pledge Arena wearing a t-shirt displaying her approved visa.

Mühl checked into the game on Monday in the third period to a standing ovation, immediately diving over the baseline to save a loose ball. She spent her first few minutes of the game the same way she completed her career at UConn: guarding Caitlin Clark

Mühl, who had two rebounds in two and a half minutes, held Clark to five points, a rebound, and a turnover when the two were matched up. 

"I threw her in the fire," Storm coach Noelle Quinn said with a smile after the game. "It’s tough to come into the game at that rate and think that you’re going to stop the player, but I like… her physicality, her poise, her confidence. She took an open shot and I thought that was a great look for her. We’ll continue to put her in the mix in practice, and she’ll have opportunities to show what she can do on the defensive end to start."

An instant fan favorite, the UConn star donned the No. 1 jersey — in part because her usual No. 10 was retired by Seattle after Sue Bird, who wore it for her entire WNBA career, retired last year. Mühl's new number was chosen by none other than Bird herself. 

"I actually FaceTimed Sue and asked her what number I should wear. She took a day to think about it and came back to me with an answer of No. 1," Muhl said in a WNBA video posted to social media. "When I asked her why No. 1, she basically said 'This is a new beginning, but you’re not starting from scratch.' I loved that whole analogy and story, so Sue actually picked it and I love it."

WNBA Confirms Toronto Expansion Team for 2026

Fans at a game between the Chicago Sky and the Minnesota Lynx in Toronto
Canadian fans asked and the WNBA delivered: Toronto's getting a team. (Jordan Jones/NBAE via Getty Images)

The WNBA is officially expanding to Toronto, with the league announcing its 14th franchise early Thursday. 

Kilmer Sports Ventures has been awarded the team, said WNBA commissioner Cathy Englebert at a press conference attended by Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, Ontario Premier Doug Ford, and others. 

"Growing internationally, I’ve been trying to think through next steps on a global platform," Engelbert told the Associated Press ahead of the official announcement. "It helps us reach new audiences and bring in new partners. The thing I love about going to another country is that the young girls and boys get to see professional basketball for women is important, too."

The CBC was the first to report on the expansion franchise back on May 10th. 

With the Golden State Valkyries set to begin play next year, the Toronto franchise will begin play in 2026. The goal, per the WNBA, is to then add two more franchises by 2028 for a total of 16. 

Toronto will play at Coca-Cola Coliseum, which holds 8,700 seats. On occasion, the team will play games in Scotiabank Arena. The WNBA has previously hosted sold-out preseason games at Scotiabank Arena and Edmonton’s Rogers Place. There are also plans to play games in Vancouver and Montreal, according to majority owner Larry Tanenbaum. 

This will be the first WNBA franchise outside of the United States, and joins PWHL Toronto as just the second professional women’s sports team in the city.

"Our Toronto sports franchises are thriving but, we have been missing one critical piece — women’s professional sports," Tanenbaum told the AP. "The world is finally taking notice of something that’s been there all along — the immense talent, passion and competition in women’s sports. 

"I saw an opportunity and knew we were in the right place at the right time to bring Canada’s first WNBA team to Toronto. And now we have, making sports history."

Similar to Golden State, the Toronto franchise paid a $50 million expansion fee. They’ve also committed to building a dedicated practice facility, but will train at the University of Toronto’s Goldring Centre for High Performance Sport in the meantime. 

"Women’s sports is good business," Tanenbaum said. "Just look around — it’s not a moment, but a movement and it’s just the beginning."

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