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What Happened When I Tried to Play Men’s Soccer

Jul 10 2018
Photo by
Stan Szeto/USA TODAY Sports
Photo by
Stan Szeto/USA TODAY Sports
Stephanie Labbé
Canadian National Team
Jul 10 2018
W

hen you’re the only woman playing on a men’s soccer team, and you also happen to be a goalkeeper, here’s how things go down:

If you’re really, really lucky, your coach isn’t going to care if you’re from Venus or Mars. He’s not going to worry about things like if you prefer pink, blue, or yellow, or whether or not you pee standing up.

But he will expect you to prove you’re just as talented as the male keepers on the team. And for you to finish every single rep —  probably more reps than you’ve ever done in any training session throughout your entire career.

Somehow, you gotta keep up.

It’ll be dive. Catch. Sprint. Dive. Miss. Sprint. Dive. Catch. Sprint. Again and again and again until your quads are begging for mercy.

You’ll constantly feel like you’ve reached your limit.

And, well … that’s what you asked for, right? To be pushed like the rest of the guys?

You’ve asked to face harder shots. You’ve expected a faster pace of play. You look forward to battling for loose balls in the box, going shoulder to shoulder with men who are much bigger than you.

Because you know this is how you get better.

Brad Smith/ISIPHOTOS.COM

In March I tried out for the Calgary Foothills in the Premier Development League — a minor league that serves as a feeder for MLS. After day one of training camp, I seriously questioned what I was doing.

I’m around 5′ 10″ and strong, but I doubted whether I was physically capable of handling the weight training on top of practice. The volume was insane. It wasn’t like anything I had experienced before — and I’ve been playing with the Canadian women’s national team for years. Honestly, there were squat days when I wanted to ask my coach to cut my reps because I was so exhausted, and I wasn’t sure if I was going to be able to recover in time to hop into goalkeeper training.

But I kept going. I didn’t scale things back. I wanted to make that team so bad, and I loved the feeling that came along with not knowing how things would turn out. Of knowing that I needed to work harder than I had ever worked before if I was going to have a real shot.

And the cool thing was that every day I could feel my legs getting stronger. My hands quicker. My passes smarter. I was proving to myself that I could hang.

Something that seemed like it might be impossible when I started, was suddenly becoming very … real. And it became clear to me that in some ways I’d been selling myself short by assuming back then that I wouldn’t be able to hack it on a men’s team. After a while, I couldn’t help but wonder where that self-doubt had come from in the first place.

When did I start believing I was less of an athlete than the guys?

Because when I was a kid I used to compete against boys all of the time.

And I didn’t think anything of it.

Courtesy of Stephanie Labbé

When I was eight, pretty much all I wanted to do was play hockey like my older brother, Kevin.

Growing up in Stony Plain, Alberta, we were always skating together on the makeshift rink in our neighbor’s backyard. And my parents would always bring me to Kevin’s games. One day I asked them if I could play, too.

There were no girls’ hockey teams in town. But we did some digging and found a boys’ club that was willing to give me a chance.

I’ll never forget my first day playing for Spruce Grove Minor Hockey.

It was community hockey, so there were no tryouts. The coaches just watched us skate and split us up into teams. They taped the rosters outside of the boys’ locker room. I was so proud to see my name hanging on the door. I could hardly stop smiling.

I barged into the locker room, claimed my spot on one of the benches and plopped my bags down.

None of the boys paid me any mind. We were all there to play the game and have fun. Together.

No one was talking about cooties.

On the ice, I was just one of the guys. My parents were always telling me how much of a brute I was. If wasn’t scoring, I was probably in the penalty box. I didn’t let anybody push me around. I knew I was just as good as anyone else.

But when I turned 11, playing hockey became more … complicated.

That was when I started really learning about puberty. I learned that boys’ bodies would change differently than mine. And I learned that as our bodies changed, many of my teammates would eventually grow stronger than me. At the same time, playing with boys just became less innocent. My coaches told me that the boys were going to start showering in the locker room. They showed me another room where I could change.

I didn’t talk to anyone about it, but deep down I was sad I had to start separating from my team. It was like some fantasy had ended. I felt like there wasn’t a place for me in boys’ hockey. So I quit and joined a soccer team with a bunch of my girlfriends.

Being with them was just simpler, you know?

Courtesy of Stephanie Labbé

I never thought I’d try out for a boys team again.

As I continued to play soccer, I moved up the ranks and fulfilled my dream of playing professionally.

Sometimes during the NWSL off-seasons, I’d practice with a men’s pro club to get some solid training in, but I’d never imagined competing for a spot on a men’s team. I didn’t think I’d ever have any reason to.

After all, I’ve always loved women’s soccer.

I spent four amazing years at UConn. (Go Huskies!) I played six challenging years in Sweden. And in 2016 I even got the chance to represent my country at the Olympics, where I won a bronze medal.

But after Rio, I really struggled to find my passion for the game.

You spend all this time amping up for this amazing moment. You’re playing some of the best soccer of your life. You get to smile on the podium with this great big medal around your neck.

Then it’s all over, and … you just return to regular life. And, in my case at least, you start to ask, What now?

By last fall I wasn’t having fun playing soccer anymore.

Some mornings I would wake up and everything would just feel … heavy.  

I lost the energy for everything that I loved. I no longer wanted to hang out with my friends because I was ashamed that I wasn’t my usual upbeat self. Even walking my dog, Rio, felt like a drag — and he’s adorable.

So I took a four-month break from soccer to get my mind right. But without soccer I didn’t really know who I was or what I wanted. I was just kind of lost. Drifting. I figured maybe I needed to change things up. Find something new. It sounds insane, but I actually considered retiring to try a different sport entirely — like handball or track and field or something.

But a small voice inside me said: Give soccer another chance. 

I started thinking about how much fun I’d had in the past training with men’s teams and how demanding it had been. And, for whatever reason, I thought a lot about Hayley Wickenheiser, and how she had played for a professional men’s hockey team over in Finland….

I decided to take a risk.


Back in January, I emailed and called a bunch of the coaches I knew in men’s soccer to see if one of them would give me a shot. Not only did all of them turn me down, but most of them also told me that there was no way I was ever going to play for a men’s team.

They were wrong.

A friend connected me with Tommy Wheeldon Jr., who managed the Foothills. When I talked with him on the phone, I got super excited.

“Look, I can’t guarantee you anything,” he said. “But if you can prove that you can play at this level, I will judge you based on your ability. I don’t care if you’re a guy or a girl. I just want a team of good footballers.”

I still get goosebumps thinking about that call.

Courtesy of Stephanie Labbé

The morning I walked into the Foothills’ indoor training facility, I was fully prepared to be challenged by the pace of the game. I was ready to be knocked around and tackled in the box more than I was used to … maybe concede more goals than I ever had in my life. But I also had a ton of questions running through my head.

Will the boys respect me?

Can I earn their trust?

Am I going to get along with everyone?

I was expecting a few cold shoulders.

What I got was … a bunch of handshakes and high fives.

I was so relieved. I was blown away, actually.

But, I gotta admit … when I introduced myself to everyone during our pretraining breakfast, I quickly realized it was going to take some time for me to be “one of the guys.” I kept messing up all the fist bumps, the homie sideshakes, the shoulder hugs. (I’m a classic handshake kind of girl, I guess.)

I didn’t know what I was doing.

And as the days went on, I felt like I kept giving my teammates more reasons to make fun of me.

During one of our bonding sessions, I made a complete fool of myself. The team was hanging out in the lounge playing FIFA on PS4, which was bad news for me because I’m honestly the biggest noob when it comes to video games. When it was my turn, I spent like 10 minutes trying to figure out which button was which.

And what did I do right off the bat?

Made my goalkeeper throw the ball right into my own net.

Nice.


Thankfully, stuff like that didn’t matter once I got in goal. When I’m in that position, things just flow. All that matters is keeping the ball out of the net. 

It was definitely tough at first. Every shot came hard and fast, and even though I could read the ball, I had trouble getting to it sometimes. The boys would also run plays so quickly it took some time to figure out how to adjust my positioning. But after three weeks, I started to get the hang of things. My hands were finding the ball more. I started coming up with big saves.

After a while, the guys knew I was good. I could tell by how they kept me accountable. If a catch wasn’t clean they’d be like, “Steph, it’s gotta be better.” Or if I ever made a sluggy pass, it was “Steph, you need to put some pace on it!”

It was all tough love. But to me it meant that I had finally earned their respect.

Courtesy of Stephanie Labbé

When coach subbed me in during a preseason match against FC Edmonton, I knew I was ready. I even made a point-blank save. And we won 4–0. It felt amazing to be a part our first victory of the preseason. When I walked off the field, everyone was patting me on the back. It was smiles all around. For the next few days I was walking on air.

But I guess it was all too good to be true.

One afternoon after practice, Tommy pulled me aside … in that solemn way someone does when he has bad news.

He told me that when he went to chat with league officials about signing me, he got nothing but pushback. He said they’d told him I couldn’t play because the PDL is a “gender-based” league. I couldn’t be on the roster because I was a woman. It was against their rules.

I’ve never seen Tommy’s face look so deflated.

“I’m sorry,” he said. 

My heart sank.

I’d come so far only to have the door slammed in my face.

I contacted the PDL as soon as I could to see if I could get more of an explanation, but I didn’t feel like I was able to get any additional answers. I wanted to appeal the decision, but the league said that its decision was final and told me to go play on a women’s team.

The Calgary Foothills have both a men’s team and a women’s team, they said. And they told me that the women’s squad was Canada’s highest-level women’s club team.

I felt like they were sending me a clear message: Just go play with that squad.

The caliber of the women’s team is awesome, for sure.

But I felt like the league officials weren’t hearing me. At all.

Amy Kontras/ISIPHOTOS.COM

Look, I understand the need for “gender-based” leagues. I get why they exist. In sports, men have certain physical advantages over women. We have separate leagues so that women don’t have to compete against men for a chance to play the sports they love. That boundary keeps things fair.

But it’s time we consider the women who beat the odds.

I believe if any woman chooses to play in an environment that challenges her to be a better athlete … if she chooses to be in a place where she’s at a biological disadvantage and she proves that she can hang, then she deserves the right to play. It gives everyone on the team a chance to grow and learn, not just as athletes, but as humans, too.

The PDL’s decision is discouraging, and I’ve been really down about it. But at the same time there is some good that can come of all this.

The proof is in my inbox.

Ever since I was barred from the league, I’ve received so many supportive emails from parents whose daughters want to try out for boys teams, either because there are no opportunities for girls to play or simply because their daughters want to test their abilities.

One mother wrote to me about her daughter, who had asked to try out for a boys’ soccer academy. She said the main reason she had let her daughter do it was because the mom had read about my story. The girl is now one of two keepers on the academy team and she’s playing really well!

Girls like her are the reason I’m exploring my options for legal action to challenge the PDL’s gender rules.

This isn’t about me anymore.

I want to fight for other women, so they can have a shot going forward.

Courtesy of Stephanie Labbé

I want to thank Coach Tommy and the rest of the Calgary crew for being open-minded enough to take me on — for seeing something in me and giving me a chance to take this risk. Even though I wasn’t allowed to play in any games, they were gracious enough to let me practice with the team until I figured out my next steps.

I’ve grown so much since I started training with the Foothills a few months ago. And I’m so grateful for all the relationships I’ve formed in such a short time. I can now confidently say that I can sit and chat with any of the boys at breakfast … although I could still use some more work on my handshake game. (Help me out guys?) 

To be honest, though, it’s been tough sitting on the sidelines. I’m ready to get back in the game. That’s why I’m happy to announce that I will be playing with Linköping FC in the Swedish Damallsvenskan starting later this month. I’m super pumped to return to the women’s game as a smarter, stronger and faster goalkeeper.

I’ll be sad to leave the Foothills, and I’m disappointed that the PDL didn’t give me a chance. But at the very least, I will walk away knowing that those guys on the team saw me for who I really am:

A professional female athlete.

Editors Note: An earlier version of this story described the Calgary Foothills and the PDL as professional. The PDL, however, says that it is an amateur league. The piece has been edited accordingly.

Stephanie Labbé
Canadian National Team