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Wilkinson lands dream job, but mindful she had to flee Canada to pursue soccer career

Rhian Wilkinson's introduction as Portland Thorns head coach was filled with smiles and laughter, with effervescent general manager Karina LeBlanc adding to the feel-good Canadian moment.

Rhian Wilkinson's introduction as Portland Thorns head coach was filled with smiles and laughter, with effervescent general manager Karina LeBlanc adding to the feel-good Canadian moment.

The two former Canadian internationals will be joining forces with Christine Sinclair, who doubles as Portland and Canada captain, as the Thorns look to add to their legacy as a women's soccer powerhouse.

But Wilkinson's return to the National Women's Soccer League club she once played for also came with a heavy dose of reality.

"This … is the dream job. This is where I want to be," Wilkinson told a new conference Tuesday at Providence Park. "But I also recognize I could not work in Canada if I wanted to. And the same for our players. So Canadians have to leave the country if they want to continue in the sport they love."

The dearth of women's pro soccer north of the border is "embarrassing, frankly," said Wilkinson. 

"It's been talked about for too long. Action's needed in our home country," she added. "And we're very glad that here in the U.S. and at this club, there's somewhere for us to keep practising the game we love. And to give chance to the young women coming after us."

Nick Bontis, elected president of Canada Soccer in November 2020, has consistently said women's pro soccer in Canada is a priority.

"We're getting closer and closer and closer," he told OneSoccer last month.

Bontis has said a Canadian NWSL team is likely the first step.

"I'm willing to say I'll work my butt off to get an NWSL team in Canada," he said upon taking over as president.

But while the governing body can fight the good fight, it needs people with money, ambition and expertise to step up to make it happen.

Wilkinson remains frustrated by the lack of chance north of the border.

"I do think feet need to be held to the fire here," she told The Canadian Press. "Because there's been a lot of talk. about this.

"If you don't have an American passport or European passport when you graduate university, you have to retire in Canada, unless you have wealthy parents. It's embarrassing and it's devastating."

Sinclair and other Canadian players, past and present, have echoed Wilkinson's call. That includes Diana Matheson, who is paving the way to help — starting an MBA degree and taking UEFA's course in football management.

Wilkinson, the fourth head coach in Thorns history, succeeds England's Mark Parsons who left to take over the Dutch women's team.

Wilkinson, 39, was most recently an assistant coach with the England women’s team and was part of Britain's coaching staff at the Tokyo Olympics won by Canada (which tied Britain 1-1 in group play). Previously she was an assistant coach with the Canadian senior women and head coach of the Canadian women's youth teams.

Wilkinson won 181 caps for Canada, appearing in four FIFA World Cups (2003, 2007, 2011, 2015) and three Olympics (2008, 2012, 2016) before retiring in 2017.

The native of Baie-D'Urfe, Que., who made North Vancouver her home, was a forward/winger turned fullback — known as a smart player with an engine.

At the club level, she played for LSK Kvinner in Norway from 2005 to 2012 before joining the Boston Breakers for the team’s inaugural NWSL season in 2013. She joined the Thorns for the 2015 NWSL season.

Wilkinson began her coaching career when John Herdman, then coach of the Canadian women, offered her a chance to be an assistant coach with the under-20 team in 2014.

Wilkinson earned her UEFA B coaching badge with the Football Association of Wales, paying her own way. That prompted Herdman to start offering her coaching opportunities, with the under-15, under-17 and under-20 teams. And her role grew under his successor, Kenneth Heiner-Moller.

Wilkinson applied for the Canada job when Heiner-Moller returned to his native Denmark but the job went to Bev Priestman.

Wilkinson was part of the Elite Player-Elite Coach program, started by Herdman to keep former players like her in the program. She has since earned her UEFA A licence.

Wilkinson has never shied away from a challenge.

After winning bronze at the Rio Olympics in 2016, she ran the Montreal marathon and crewed a yacht in the Mediterranean. After the 2015 Women's World Cup, she walked part of the famed Camino de Santiago trail in Spain with her mother.


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This report by The Canadian Press was first published Dec. 1, 2021

Neil Davidson, The Canadian Press