Canada's No. 1 female footballer looks to win job with men's soccer club
Goalkeeper Stephanie Labbe training for place on Calgary Foothills FC
Goalkeeper Stephanie Labbe, who has earned 49 caps for Canada and helped the women's team claim Olympic bronze in Rio, is looking to win a job with the Calgary Foothills FC men's soccer team.
The 31-year-old from Stony Plain, Alta., has been Canada's No. 1 since veteran Erin McLeod was sidelined with a knee injury prior to the 2016 Olympics.
With McLeod's return at the recent Algarve Cup, Canadian coach Kenneth Heiner-Moller used all three of his goalies but chose Labbe for the first and last matches.
Labbe has been looking for a club since parting ways with the NWSL Washington Spirit in February. No other NWSL club picked her up and Labbe elected not to go overseas, having already played six seasons there.
So she looked for alternatives.
"The place I am in my career right now I just feel like I'm ready for something completely different and ready to challenge myself in ways that I've never been challenged before," she said in an interview. "This (the men's game) is where all the arrows were pointing and I started reaching out to different coaches of different clubs.
'Got a lot of resistance'
"At first I got a lot of resistance ... I kept pushing because I knew that I would end up coming across somebody who was kind of the same open mind as myself."
That turned out to be Tommy Wheeldon Jr., head coach and technical director of Calgary Foothills.
"His first message to me was 'If you want to come and give it a shot then we'll give you the opportunity just as we'll give anyone else the opportunity and we're going to judge you based on your ability to play football, not on your gender.'
"As soon as he said that, it almost gave me goosebumps because for someone to look at me as a football player and not as a female football player was huge."
The Foothills play in the Premier Development League, a feeder league sponsored by United Soccer Leagues in the United States and Canada.
Wheeldon calls it a pro-am league. "It's run professionally with amateur players."
The league has been home to a lot of MLS players, who augmented their college career with PDL play prior to making it to the top North American league. With the Canadian Premier League set to kick off in 2019, the Calgary PDL club will soon have a new circuit to feed.
'The players have taken to her'
Wheeldon said he was won over by Labbe's professionalism when she started training with his team.
"She's a super-strong personality and the players have taken to her," he said. "All I said to her is we're a forward-thinking club, we're always open-minded and players are based on ability. And if she can come in and perform at the level that we need her, then yeah we're open-minded to put her into the action, no problem."
The Calgary club is currently in training camp, leaving for pre-season tour to the United Kingdom on March 20. Labbe is set to play in an exhibition game this weekend against Lethbridge before heading off to join Canada ahead of an April 9 game in France.
Wheeldon said he will giver her some more game action when she returns to see if she is a good fit.
"All I can say is she's come in with an unbelievable attitude and looks good in training," he said.
Labbe said the biggest adjustment so far has been going up for a cross "and getting hit by someone that's 15 kilos heavier than anyone I've ever faced before."
But she says, after a few days practice, she is already adjusting to that and the power and speed of men's shots.
The Calgary club is set to kick off its regular season on May 11 against the Victoria Highlanders.
Labbe has competition. Other Calgary goalkeepers include Marco Carducci, a former Vancouver Whitecaps product, Kody Thomson and Foothills under-20 'keeper Ben Press.
Labbe says the national team's main concern is that she get playing time. "I'm well aware of that ... That's something I need to keep pushing for here," she said.
Labbe said the relationship with the Spirit had become "toxic." It started when she sat on the bench for the final games of the 2016 season after returning from Rio.
Things did not improve in 2017 and Labbe, who has spoken publicly about her battle with depression, elected in September to take a leave of absence and sit out the remainder of the season.
"It was just better off for me and for my personal well-being to get out of that environment," said Labbe, who started 17 games for Washington last year.
"There was no point in me going back again the next year. We tried to make it work and it didn't. So I knew what that season was over I needed to look for something different."