Stephanie Labbé is seeking a new challenge. The 31-year-old Labbé has shone for Canada’s women’s soccer team internationally, including in their bronze-medal campaign at the 2016 Rio Olympics, and she’s played in the NWSL for the last two seasons with the Washington Spirit, but they released her in February. Labbé reportedly received some interest from other NWSL teams, but she’s decided to go a different direction; trying out for a men’s team, the USL Calgary Foothills’ associated Premier Development League team.
The club and Labbé both announced the move on Twitter Monday:
We are delighted to welcome @CanadaSoccerEN #CanWNT Goalkeeper ✋? @stephlabbe1 to our club to compete for a spot on the roster of our @FoothillsFCU23 team for 2018.
Read below: ? https://t.co/J5Vo0QWVYq
— Foothills Soccer (@FoothillsSoccer) March 13, 2018
Here it is! 2018 is going to be EPIC! https://t.co/aK3jFCQ6WI pic.twitter.com/aq4cYkf1Ow
— Stephanie Labbé (@stephlabbe1) March 12, 2018
Here’s more from Labbé’s blog, where she talks about how she drew inspiration from Canadian female hockey players who have joined men’s leagues (notably goalie Shannon Szabados and forward Hayley Wickenheiser) and mentions that she made this move to challenge herself and improve her own game:
I have decided to take my career to the men’s pro soccer world. This is the best option for me at this time. I want to be clear in my belief that I am making this decision based on my own experiences, and my determination to be the best that I can be. I want to challenge myself in a whole new way, and push my limits on what I can achieve.
I grew up playing many sports, and some of my best childhood memories were playing hockey and soccer on boy’s teams. I strongly believe that the the diversity of playing with boys helped me development as a young athlete. Admiring other inspiring athletes like Hayley Wickenheiser and Shannon Szabados pursue this path as professionals made me think about the possibilities in my own career. This past off season, my professional career was at a road block and I felt like I had no say in my future. I decided to create my own future, and pursue a new path.
…I am extremely grateful for the Calgary Foothills Men’s PDL program for welcoming me and welcoming this challenge as a club. I knew it was the right fit for me when their message was “We are a forward thinking club that are willing to provide you the opportunity to pit your wits with and against talented male players, some of our team this year have also worn the red of Canada. Here you will be judged on your ability to play at this level and not your gender.”
…I am a realist, and understand that entering the men’s game may prove to be more of a challenge than I am capable of. This also could be one of the most rewarding risks I have taken in my career, and may open other people’s minds about their open possibilities. I’m choosing the latter.
A mentor of mine who has challenged her own sport by playing in men’s professional leagues told me, “At the end of the day, I wasn’t seeing it as a female playing in a men’s hockey world. I was simply a hockey player looking for the best environment to better my game”.
Before heading to the NWSL, Labbé played for the Connecticut Huskies in college, earning the Big East’s goalkeeper of the year nod in 2008. She joined the Canadian senior national team that year, and has recorded 49 caps there. She’s also played in Sweden with Piteå IF and KIF Örebro, and played in eight games for the Spirit in 2016 and 17 in 2017. However, there were reportedly some issues there; the Spirit opted to stick with the team they had after she returned from the Olympics in 2016, limiting her playing time, and while she played more in the early going in 2017, she finished the season on medical leave, putting out a joint statement with the club in September that she was taking a medical leave of absence for the rest of the year.
This is a big move for Labbé, and it’s an intriguing one. The Foothills PDL team is a decent level of competition, especially at keeper, where she’ll likely compete for time with Canadian men’s U23 keeper Marco Carducci (seen at left above with Labbé) and possibly senior men’s national team veteran Nik Ledgerwood. The PDL’s the fourth level of North American men’s soccer, so it’s not the highest out there, but there are plenty of good players at that level. It’s mostly a developmental league for U23 players, but teams can have up to eight slots on their 26-person roster filled by those over 23, so that’s how Labbé can qualify if she makes the team. And if she does and if the men’s game challenges her the way she expects, that could help make her even better when she plays for the national women’s team. We’ll see how this turns out, but it’s definitely a notable move, and something worth watching.