A rock in the heart of the defence and an aerial threat at the other end of the pitch, Vanessa Gilles has become an important member of the Canadian women’s soccer team.
The 26-year-old from Ottawa is one-half of Canada’s preferred centre back pairing with Chelsea’s Kadeisha Buchanan, a veteran of 123 internationals. Gilles has played in three of Canada’s four games at the CONCACAF W Championship, helping the sixth-ranked Canadians reach Monday’s final against the top-ranked U.S. at Estadio BBVA in Guadelupe, Mexico.
Canada coach Bev Priestman is not short on centre back options with Tottenham captain Shelina Zadorsky, who has 91 caps, also available.
Gilles relishes playing with Buchanan and Zadorsky, looking to learn from their experience.
“I think Kadeisha’s one of the best if not the best centre back in the world … Shelina’s a world-class centre back as well,” she said.
A powerful header, Gilles can add to the offence as well as defence. She scored the first goal in franchise history for her new club Angel City FC, heading home a Jun Endo cross in the third minute of the expansion NWSL franchise’s regular-season opener, a 2-1 win over the North Carolina Courage on April 29.
The Los Angeles-based franchise has star power on and off the pitch with a largely female ownership group that includes actors Natalie Portman, Jessica Chastain, Jennifer Garner, Eva Longoria, Gabrielle Union and America Ferrera, singers Christina Aguilera and Becky G, Canadian comedian Lilly Singh, former players Abby Wambach, Shannon Boxx, Julie Foudy, Joy Fawcett and Cobi Jones, designer Rachel Zoe, WNBA star Candace Parker, former skiing star Lindsay Vonn and NHL star P.K. Subban among others.
Gilles says the investors are easy to spot at home games.
“Most of the big names are at our home games, day-in and day-out, and are front and centre — right by the bench in their box sections screaming their heads off with their families or in the supporters section banging on drums … It’s great to see that. It’s not only their money that speaks but they’re truly invested in seeing this club do what it was set to do.”
Angel City’s mission is to be more than just another football club, looking to elevate women’s sports and serve as a platform for equality.
Gilles joined Angel City last December, signing a one-year deal with an option for an additional year, on a transfer from FC Girondins de Bordeaux.
At the time, Angel City sporting director Eni Aluko called Gilles “one of the leading central defenders globally.”
“It’s definitely been a new experience for me, having never played in the NWSL and never been on an expansion team,” said Gilles. “Just settling in and being a part of the beginning of the club and being there to set the standard, set the culture and whatnot has been a learning curve and has been rich in experiences, for sure.
“But no complaints. I think this club was the perfect club for me for my next step after Bordeaux in terms of mentally, emotionally, on the field and off the field. It’s exactly what I needed. And I’m just happy to be part of something greater than just winning games, which is always fun. But setting a new standard, driving a new status quo has been fun as well.”
The team has been a hit so far, averaging more than 18,000 for home games at Banc of California stadium, which is also home to MLS side Los Angeles FC.
“They’re amazing,” Gilles said of the Angel City supporters. “They’re loud, they’re proud and it’s been a real joy playing in front of them.”
Tennis used to be Gilles’s game but she quit at 15, joining her high-school soccer team at 16 as a goalkeeper. That did not last long, with Gilles switching to defender.
She went on to star at the University of Cincinnati, starting all 82 games she played there from 2014 to ‘17. She was named the American Athletic Conference Co-Defensive Player of the Year and a first-team all-conference selection in 2017.
After her Bearcats career, she joined Apollon Ladies FC in Cyprus before signing in France in July, 2018.
Gilles was 23 when she made her debut for Canada in November, 2019, coming off the bench against New Zealand at a tournament in China. In just her third national team appearance, Gilles was a defensive force in Canada’s 1-0 loss to the top-ranked U.S. at the SheBelieves Cup in February, 2020, with Buchanan back in France with her then-club side Lyon.
Gilles has played in 19 of Canada’s 27 matches since the start of 2021, upping her cap count to 21. She started four games at the Tokyo Olympics, including all three knockout rounds.
Off the field, Gilles spoke at the United Nations in New York in March, 2019, as part of the UN-Women’s 63rd Session of the Commission on the Status of Women. Gilles was in the U.S. at the time with her French club side for scrimmages in New York and Washington.