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North Shore Girls team makes historic debut in international soccer league

First Canadian team to join Women's Premier Soccer League
Allyson Dickson shakes off a defender during the North Shore Girls Soccer Club’s debut match in the international WPSL Saturday at Kinsmen Park. photo by Paul McGrath, North Shore News

The North Shore Girls Soccer Club made a little history Saturday, becoming the first Canadian team to play a match in the Women’s Premier Soccer League.

The NSGSC squad hung tough with perennial league powerhouse OSA Football Club from Kent, Wash., for much of the game, taking a 1-1 tie into halftime before OSA struck a pair of late goals to wrap up a 4-1 win.

The WPSL is billed as the “largest women’s soccer league in the world,” boasting more than 100 elite amateur teams across North America playing at a level that is one step below the professional National Women’s Soccer League. The North Shore team did well in their debut, considering that many of the new players had to introduce themselves to each other before the game, said NSGSC technical director and head coach Jesse Symons.

“It was a good test on the opening day for sure, to see what the level will be like in our league. It’s very high,” said Symons. Katelyn Erhardsen had the honour of scoring the first WPSL goal for the North Shore squad, knocking in a cross from Margaret Hadley.

“The talent level is going to be there,” Symons said about his squad. “(We) definitely played a little bit individually, which was to be expected, and we were a little bit I’d say naïve from a defending perspective, but that will come as the players play together more and start trusting each other more and start learning our defensive schemes and expectations. Overall it was a very good opening day. We were in it for about 75 minutes. Our legs got a little tired.”

The NSGSC team will play a 10-game regular season against the WPSL’s Northwest Division featuring teams from Washington and Oregon, including sides aligned with MLS’s Portland Timbers and Seattle Sounder. The decision to form an elite squad to play in an international league under the NSGSC banner was influenced by the success of last year’s FIFA Women’s World Cup, which culminated in a championship game played at Vancouver’s BC Place.

“It was a fantastic event and there was so much positivity,” said Symons. “Vancouver as a city really got behind the whole event, especially the national team. We want to keep that going, we want to keep being able to inspire girls every year to want to keep playing and pushing up to the highest level they can.”

The North Shore club got in on the World Cup action last year, putting together an all-star team to take on the Cameroonian national team for a pair of exhibition matches before the tournament. That taste of action helped convince club brass that they could field an elite team in the WPSL.

“As a large female club that’s really motivated to grow the game from the grassroots level all the way up to the senior level, we thought there was a need for high level women’s soccer in Vancouver,” said Symons. “I think that overall, having young girls able to see the highest level of soccer available in North America at the amateur level is a very big win for everyone in our community.”

The NSGSC squad consists mainly of current and former NCAA and CIS players, including several that have represented Canada on the international stage either as youth players or with the national team. Leading the squad into battle this year are defender Brienna Shaw, midfielders Jaclyn Sawicki, Taylor Shannik and Chelsea Harkins, and forward Selenia Iacchelli, who was on the Canadian roster but did not appear in a game at the 2015 World Cup.

There are also a handful of North Shore natives on the team, including Sutherland grad Rachel Jones, St. Thomas Aquinas grad Rebecca Defer and Handsworth grad Rheanne Sleiman, all of whom played on Saturday with Defer getting the nod as the team’s starting goaltender. The talent is there to field a very competitive team, said Symons.

“It’ll take time,” he said. “The Northwest is very deep in talent. It’s going to be a learning year for us as a club to organize games and also for the players to learn the level. But we’re definitely in every game and I think we’re going to do well.”

More than 200 fans took in Saturday’s opener at North Vancouver’s Kinsmen Park. The club is hoping that a loyal fan base will be built starting with the players on their own youth teams.

“The Kinsmen field park has such a great history, but it’s also a fantastic location,” said Symons. “It’s got mountains in the background, grass field, very enclosed, you’re right on top of the field, pretty much.”

Each game day the club will host an on-field clinic before the match and provide opportunities for young players to meet the women on the team, tour the locker room and get autographs.

“Seeing the young girls watching the game and smiling and interacting with the players, an autograph session after – it’s already showing that it’s going to be a very positive season and a very positive program for years to come,” said Symons. “The mindset of the club is to be leaders for female soccer in Canada. We want to keep progressing the game and giving opportunities to players that do hit that highest level, and also have young players aspire to that level. We’re going to keep hopefully growing this and seeing what can come of it.”

The NSGSC team hosts ISC Gunners FC today, May 29, at 4:30 p.m. at Kinsmen Park.