VANCOUVER, B.C.—Olympic sports involve athletes competing for countries, so we typically think of them as different nationalities going head to head. Things aren't always that simple, though, and the women's Olympic soccer qualifiers have two players who serve as excellent cases in point. Sydney Leroux was born and raised in Surrey, B.C., so this tournament's a return home for her, but she'll be wearing the colours of the top-ranked and heavily-favoured American team. Lauren Sesselmann is the opposite story; born and raised in Green Bay, Wisconsin, she'll be suiting up for the seventh-ranked Canadian team this week. Leroux and Sesselmann may not follow the typical path of playing for the country they're born in, but they're both valuable parts of their respective teams, and they showcase an interesting side of soccer in an age of global interconnectedness.
Sesselmann's story isn't particularly controversial, as the American program never appeared to have much interest in her. As a player with the ability to suit up both at defender and forward (she tends to play the former role with the Canadian team), she had a solid collegiate career at Purdue University and has since gone on to play with the W-League's F.C. Indiana and Sky Blue F.C. and the Atlanta Beat of Women's Professional Soccer, but she didn't get a look with a national team until after new head coach John Herdman took over the Canadian side in September. Herdman opened the doors to players who hadn't previously suited up for Canada, including Sesselmann, who acquired Canadian citizenship in 2010 through her father (who was born in Newfoundland).
Sesselmann saw her first action for Canada in September in two friendlies (against the United States, ironically enough), and has since become an important part of the team, starting four out of five matches at left back in Canada's run to the gold medal at the Pan-Am Games and appearing as a substitute in the other. Her story's a reasonably typical one for players from large soccer powerhouses; given the strength and depth of countries like the U.S., there are plenty of players like Sesselmann who may never draw attention from the national team where they were born, but can be crucial contributors for other teams. As she told QMI's Hosea Cheung, it's a great opportunity for her:
"This team is phenomenal," she said. "Coming into a brand new fresh atmosphere was perfect for me to get in with this team and I fit in right away. There's a great chemistry and it's great to see the new attitude this fall leading up to the qualifiers here. I absolutely love Canada and I think Vancouver is a beautiful city, so it's great to be here."
Leroux's story stirs up a few more emotions in some, particularly Canadian fans. She not only was born in Surrey, but grew up locally and played for teams in the Vancouver area, including the Vancouver Whitecaps' women's team. She also suited up for Canada at the U-19 level, but moved to the U.S. when she was 15 (her father, former MLB pitcher Ray Chadwick, is American), starred at the collegiate level with UCLA and switched to the U.S. U-20 team in 2008. She's just 21, but is a tremendous talent who was selected first overall in the WPS draft last week, and she's a rising star in the U.S. national program. She also was engaged to Langley baseball star Brett Lawrie, who's now lighting up the majors with the Toronto Blue Jays. Understandably, many Canadians would prefer it if Leroux was wearing their colours this week, but she told The Vancouver Sun's Cam Tucker her decision was based on college and professional opportunities in the U.S.:
"I knew that I was going to live my life ... in the States and that I was going to college and pursue a career there and eventually build a family there. So it just made sense that I'd play there, as well."
Leroux's point of view can be empathized with. Canada does have high-calibre collegiate soccer at the CIS level, but American NCAA Division I schools tend to pour more money into their women's soccer programs (thanks to Title IX legislation), and most of the Canadian team's players came through the NCAA ranks. Women's club soccer is also at a higher level in the U.S.; teams like the Whitecaps' women do exist in Canada, but some players aren't happy with the way they do things, and it's notable that many of the top Canadian players (like Christine Sinclair, Karina LeBlanc and Sesselmann) do play at the WPS level. Of course, playing in the U.S. doesn't prohibit one from suiting up for Canada, but it's understandable why Leroux sees staying south of the border as easier. Given the U.S. team's profile and her talent, too, it may work out better for her; Sinclair's one of the top players in the world, but she's not the one appearing on Dancing With The Stars.
Canadian fans who would rather see Leroux in their colours have a point too, of course. She received much of her training and development through the Canadian system, so Canadian fans do have some reason to feel spurned (as they do with Canadian men's players who chose to represent different countries, such as Owen Hargreaves and Jonathan De Guzman). It's worth pointing that the ability to represent different countries than the one you were born in has benefits as well as drawbacks, too, though; it's what's allowed Canada to get players like Sesselmann, and many of Canada's top Olympic athletes like Daniel Igali and Lascelles Brown were born outside the country. We live in a global age, especially in soccer, and stories like those of Sesselmann and Leroux reinforce that.