New Olympian Jayde Riviere has seemed destined to play a big part for women's national soccer team
20-year-old one of key injections of youth to a team of competition-savvy veterans
The Canada women's senior soccer team is on the verge of a major transition.
Christine Sinclair, the most recognizable face of the program, will lead the team at the Tokyo Olympics for what will likely be her last appearance at a major tournament.
Just over a week ago, veteran Diana Matheson announced her retirement after 206 caps. Sophie Schmidt, with 205 caps to her name, is an alternate in case of injury or illness and while goalkeepers usually have a longer shelf life than outfield players, Stephanie Labbe is also 34.
Tough decisions — the toughest head coach Bev Priestman has felt she's ever had to make in her career — have had to be made to groom the younger players she once coached at youth level to be ready to take over the senior mantle whenever the time comes. As well, there is the constant challenge of giving the team its best chance to win in the here and now.
Four players will be making their Olympic debuts, with fullback Jayde Riviere the youngest among them at just 20 years old. Riviere made her debut for the senior team while she was still making appearances for both the U-17 and U-20 teams and that is only one example of how her talent has seen her soar to the top at warp speed.
With pace for days and a cannon of a right foot, Riviere has transitioned from being an attack-minded midfielder for her youth team to providing dynamism and explosiveness on the wing for the senior national team.
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Excelling at everything that is put across her plate is the only way she knows how, and after her debut World Cup in 2019 ended on a sour note with Canada unable to make it past the second round, there is an impetus to get things absolutely right in Tokyo. All signs point toward Riviere being a vital cog for the future, but a past of rapid ascension shows why she's ready right now.
As a child, Riviere was a bundle of energy. Excitable, curious, and hungry to learn. She was an only child to Tony Riviere, from Dominica, and Emily Lui, from Hong Kong. Both parents worked, Tony as a Toronto Police superintendent (now retired) and Emily had a marketing gig that required travel to Montreal and Winnipeg among other cities, so finding ways to keep their daughter occupied was top of mind. Jayde loved to move and be on the run, and Tony's time playing soccer in Dominica made the decision a no-brainer when Jayde was only three.
Tony was the type of dad who let you know he walked to school uphill both ways. He told Jayde stories about how he didn't have cleats growing up and played with bare feet wherever they could find a bit of space and the street lights going on operated as the final whistle. When Tony first took her to a field to play, Jayde remembers being enamoured with the dandelions she saw and picking them off the ground. But she also was drawn to the round, stitched synthetic leather that dad would roll at her feet. Kick and chase is as simplified as the beautiful game gets, but for a five-year-old looking to expend energy, it was all she needed. And that was where the talent started to emerge: a right foot that seemed at ease both controlling and striking the ball and a coordination between feet and sight that was rare for someone so young.
"When my dad saw that I had potential to actually pursue soccer in more of an elite way, he actually started working on the fundamentals of soccer," Riviere says of those memories. "What foot to use, how to pass the ball properly. So, soccer came more naturally to me once I had the fundamentals down."
Tony also knew she needed competition to develop and enrolled her at Pickering Football Club's grassroots developmental program under the tutelage of Peter Hogg. Hogg was intrigued from the first minute she stepped on the pitch.
It was obvious she was a special player. Driven, extremely talented, well beyond her age as far as soccer ability.- Peter Hogg, Jayde Riviere's youth coach
"It was obvious she was a special player," Hogg says of the first time watching her play. "Driven, extremely talented, well beyond her age as far as soccer ability."
To stay ahead of the curve, Tony didn't let the club be her only source of training. After she was done with her team, Tony would take her to the field by their home and put her to task some more — cones, shooting drills, aerial control drills, anything and everything Tony could do to get her any advantage. All the while, mother Emily played the prototypical soccer mom, attending every match and offering her support with loud cheers and fresh watermelon.
On weekend mornings, it was time to watch the Premier League and specifically Manchester United. Tony would earmark players such as Wayne Rooney that Jayde could study and learn from. She loved every second of it.
"I never really had the feeling of missing out on my childhood because I really enjoyed the sport that I played and I really enjoyed the girls that I played with," Riviere says. "That was the biggest thing, being able to go to training knowing that I had my best friends on the team who I used to hang with outside of soccer, being an only child I felt like that was really important.
"I loved being around the girls, I loved the coaches, and I obviously loved winning."
WATCH | Bev Priestman has eyes set on podium in Tokyo:
Special days at Pickering
With Riviere getting all the time she could handle to scratch that soccer itch, her talent started to blossom. She also had to learn quickly and embrace the idea of leading her team. When she was eight, Pickering Power's U-8 program had a two teams — labelled green and gold — for the Richmond Hill Challenge Cup featuring six other rep teams. Riviere, along with several other teammates, perceived the gold team they were selected to as the 'B' team and it gave them a little extra incentive.
"I didn't know if it was technical reasons, I didn't know if it was talent reasons, I think it was kind of just the way the teams were split up," Riviere says. "I don't think there was a specific reason, but there wasn't actually a tryout to make the green team."
The green and gold teams played each other leading up to the tournament and to the surprise of the parents and coaches, it was Riviere's gold team that came out on top. Revealing her penchant for the big stage, Riviere controlled the game from start to finish in the midfield and showcased why those who interacted with her everyday saw such a bright future for her.
"She was unbelievable," Hogg says. "Things like vision, players usually see things at an older age that they don't see at eight, nine years old, but she was playing balls that 15- and 16-year-olds might not see. She could see spaces, not just players, and she'd find spaces you couldn't believe."
That performance was just an appetizer. In the tournament itself, Pickering Gold was able to make it out of the group stage and set up a clash with Newmarket White, where Riviere scored an absolutely scorcher from 20 yards out with less than a minute remaining to give her team a 1-0 win. The goal earned them a final matchup against favoured Vaughan, but it mattered little to Riviere who once again scored the winning goal and then was named tournament MVP.
Astounded by what he saw, Hogg made a bold prediction.
"When I called her up for her trophy, I said, 'Jayde Riviere, this kid will be playing for the Canadian national team,'" Hogg remembers proclaiming. "I've coached for a long time, I've never seen a player of that age be able to see the game and know the game as well as she did as well as have the technical ability and drive to execute. She loved to play, she loved to get better."
Along with all those gifts, Hogg also noticed a level of pressure Riviere put on herself. The often bubbly, cheerful personality would display a more intense persona before matches, perhaps internally coping with the nervousness and pressure of being the team's best player. Former teammate Eden Kozma saw someone who was very serious before games and even held back from flashy celebrations during matches. Above all else, the task at hand was to win the game.
Riviere, though, never projected that pressure onto her teammates. With them she was always a ray of light, beaming positivity and encouragement. She was never the type to yell at teammates or berate them for what they were doing wrong, only gently remind them of how they could improve. Her confidence sparked confidence in others, whether it be tricks she would try in matches or the spectacular goals she would score, Kozma and others felt a bump in their esteem to go ahead and be brave on the pitch when there's something at stake.
"She taught a lot of us, obviously coaches taught us a lot, but she taught us as well," says Kozma, who now studies kinesiology at the University of Toronto. "She did a lot of moves like 360's in the match and applied what she did in practice. She made other people feel more adventurous and just her doing that and displaying that we could do that in a game setting, not only a practice setting, was a big deal."
After gaining everything she could at Pickering, Riviere moved on to Markham Soccer Club to play in the Ontario Player Development League (OPDL), a program that began in 2014 and targets the top athletes in the province from ages 13-17. By 14, Riviere received an invite to Canada's U-17 camp headed by Priestman — now head coach of the senior team — and was asked to move from centre to the wing due to her physical attributes.
"I'm a big fan of Jayde," Priestman says. "I (coached) Jayde all the way through youth level. She has some unique qualities; her acceleration and speed is off the charts, and as a fullback or a wingback or a winger, that's a great trait to have."
To aid the transition, Riviere switched to the wing with Markham as well. But no greater adjustment was made when, a couple of years later, Riviere moved to Burnaby, B.C. to join the Vancouver Whitecaps FC Girls Elite program, home to the best women's soccer prospects in Canada. It was a tough decision to move away from the support of her parents and longtime teammates and coaches, but she knew this was what she needed to achieve her dreams.
"I feel like that was the hardest thing because I didn't have any siblings, my parents were the only two that were there for me," Riviere says. "I had hopped schools — Grade 9 I was in a different school and had friends there, then I went to a different school in Grade 10 and then I had to leave those friends and make new friends when I went to Vancouver. So, I think the hardest part was leaving my friends that I had there.
"My dad told me, 'You're there to do well in school and play soccer, those are the two goals you have when you go there.' Keeping that in the back of my mind even though I was going to be away from my family helped me remember I'm doing this because I want to have a future in soccer."
Riviere had a good understanding of what to expect. All those invites to youth national camps and CONCACAF events had groomed her for life away from home. She and another girl from the Whitecaps stayed with a billet which became her family away from home.
WATCH | Jayde Riviere on Canadian crowds at 2019 World Cup:
Riviere was now well and truly on her way. She played the FIFA U-17 Women's World Cup in both 2016 and 2018 with a handful of U-20 appearances and a first cap off the bench for the senior team sandwiched in between. After the 2018 U-17 World Cup where she helped the team to a best-ever fourth-place finish, the senior women's national team came calling again for an extended run.
Her first match was another substitute appearance, a friendly against England in Manchester. But then came April 8, 2019, when Riviere made her first start for the national team despite a minor knee injury. Facing Nigeria, Riviere knew she had to tough it out because the opportunity was too big. But in the first half, Riviere was on the wrong end of a bad tackle and though she lost some feeling in her leg, carried on to halftime.
At the break, however, Riviere sat in the locker room, her mind racing — why risk playing poorly with the injury and creating a bad impression? That's when veteran goalkeeper Stephanie Labbe came over to her and encouraged her to push through the pain because the team needed her. Labbe told her these were the moments that make or break players at the international level.
"It just resonated with me," Riviere says. "After that, I didn't think about the pain nor the injury nor the aftermath. I just thought, 'Stephanie Labbe is coming up to me and telling me that she needs me. She's telling me that I need to push, so, I need to push...'
"That was a defining moment, and one I'll always remember."
Stephanie Labbe is coming up to me and telling me that she needs me. She's telling me that I need to push, so, I need to push...' That was a defining moment, and one I'll always remember.- Riviere on playing with injury
Those riveting words inspired Riviere to a breathtaking second-half performance that saw her assist on both of Canada's goals in a 2-1 win. Afterward, Canadian captain Christine Sinclair singled her out for praise.
In Spain for another friendly, a group of players were invited by then-coach Kenneth Heiner-Møller to a team meeting. The room at first was dark, but soon music started blaring, the lights came on and before them on the wall was a giant picture of themselves, and suitcases with their uniform numbers. It was there Riviere learned she'd been named to the World Cup team and Heiner-Møller told her it was her perseverance against Nigeria that clinched her spot.
The rise of Riviere's international soccer career only means more of a juggling act with school. Currently studying kinesiology at the University of Michigan, she has to stay on top of her education while also starring for her university soccer team.
Good grades are a priority as ever and some of the flexibility professors have offered — like when she was with Team Canada for the SheBelieves Cup in February — have been much needed. She may be proudly wearing the red and white one moment, but just as easily in a Zoom call with a professor the next, asking questions about what she doesn't understand or lectures that she's missed. When the pandemic forced lifestyle changes for everyone, Riviere had her parents' home basement set up for her to train as best she could with a treadmill, weights, cones and a soccer ball.
A couple years on from the surrealness of playing in her first World Cup, Riviere is looking more and more like an everyday fixture in Canada women's soccer plans after being named to the Tokyo Olympics squad. Her personality and sense of responsibility to the team has increased while the veterans have also continued to help her feel at ease, especially through a steadily growing, fun friendship with Sinclair. They could be set to start a hard training session and out of nowhere Riviere will find water on her face, courtesy Sinclair squirting her with a water bottle. True to her veteran ways, Sinclair also uses the classic tap on the opposite shoulder.
"Sometimes she'll just walk right into me and I'll say, 'Sincy, watch where you're going, you're in my way!'" Riviere says. "She's a veteran on the team, her and Steph (Labbe), Desii (Desiree Scott), Soph (Sophie Schmidt) and Chap (Allysha Chapman) all have a really strong relationship but she also makes sure that younger girls are a part of the team and she does that through little actions like that."
Paths colliding, the present of Canada women's soccer is set to showcase what the past has been about and also what the future will bring.