Canadian central defender Vanessa Gilles ready to reach new heights with Lyon
Just when you think Vanessa Gilles’ incredible rise has come to a halt, the Canadian women’s defender finds a way to soar to dizzying new heights.
Originally a tennis player growing up in Ottawa, Gilles switched to soccer as a teenager and eventually earned a scholarship to the University of Cincinnati, leaving her mark on the program by winning several individual accolades. Gilles turned professional after school, first signing with Cypriot side Apollon in 2018 before moving to French club Girondins de Bordeaux later that year.
She made her national team debut for Canada in 2019 and had just six caps to her credit before the final Tokyo Olympics in 2021. She was a bench player at the start of the tournament, but by the time Canada won the gold medal, she replaced veteran Shelina Zadorsky in the starting lineup. She still holds a starting role for Canada to this day, having established herself as one of the best centre-backs in the world.
Gilles won universal acclaim for her performances in Tokyo, earning the nickname « The Magnet » from her teammates. With his outstanding performance at the Olympics, Gilles announced his presence to the rest of the world and made a lasting impression on many notable observers, including Canada Soccer Hall of Famer Amy Walsh, who earned 102 caps for the Canadian women’s team from 1997 to 2009. .
« The way she played and the composure, means and veteran mentality she instilled at the backline during Canada’s run to the gold medal in Tokyo was so impressive, » said Walsh at CBC Sports.
Now Gilles is ready to take on even more. Last week, the 26-year-old joined Olympique Lyon on loan from NWSL’s Angel City FC until the end of the French club’s 2022-23 season. The Canada international moved to Angel City from Bordeaux at the end of 2021 but a lingering hip injury has sidelined her for most of this season.
WATCH | Gilles scores the first goal of the 2022 NWSL regular season:
Gilles hit the big time when he returned to France, and seems about to leave the NWSL in his rear view mirror.
« I was texting one of my former teammates and she was like, ‘Does it make me an ass to think the NWSL wasn’t big enough for Vanessa Gilles? ‘ And I agreed. I don’t think it’s a blow to the NWSL, but with Gilles, we don’t know what his cap is yet. There’s still so much development in his game that we don’t have seen again, and she’s going to keep getting better, » Walsh explained.
« She will pass these daily tests in an environment and a team with a rich history like Lyon… Playing against the best players in France and in the Champions League will elevate her game. »
Gilles is still struggling with a hip injury that sidelined her for several months, meaning she won’t be called up for Canada’s upcoming friendlies against Argentina and Morocco, and she is not expected to make her Lyon debut until next month.
Replacing fellow Canadian Buchanan
Buchanan left the French team during the off-season, moving to England to sign with Chelsea. It left a gaping hole in Lyon’s backline, which grew even bigger after defender Griedge Mbock dislocated his right knee earlier this month, effectively ruling him out for six months. Gilles will fit into the heart of the Lyon defense where she will line up alongside Wendie Renard, one of the true icons of women’s football.
Walsh argues that now is the perfect time for Gilles to move to Lyon as it will allow his game to develop even further ahead of next summer’s FIFA World Cup.
« There will be a weight of expectations placed on Gilles at Lyon that she didn’t have during her time at Bordeaux. The different tactical looks she will face in the Champions League will help her put more tools in her toolbox, and it will mean so much to Canada at the World Cup,” explained Walsh.
WATCH | Gilles on Canada’s road to the 2023 World Cup, Paris 2024:
Gilles is known more for his ability to win the ball than for his technical skills. Playing alongside Renard has helped Buchanan develop the technical side of his game during his tenure at Lyon, and the hope is that the French veteran can have the same kind of influence on Gilles.
Walsh says there are already good building blocks in place with the Canadian international.
« Vanessa is a good 1v1 defender. She may not have the kind of speed you want for a centre-back, but it’s her positional awareness that continually impresses me. She doesn’t play like a slow player who needs to take an extra five yards because she knows she’s going to get beaten in a running race She scans the pitch as you would expect like a central midfielder would, so she is always ready for what her opponents throw at her and has a solution at hand, » says Walsh.