Home Women's Soccer NWSL The Aviator flies again

The Aviator flies again

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Born at the wrong time. Born under a bad sign. If Selenia Iacchelli had any luck at all, she might be as familiar to Canadian women’s soccer followers as Diana Matheson, Sophie Schmidt or Desiree Scott. But, Iacchelli had to wait till she was 27 years of age to break into the Canadian soccer mainstream. Her story is remarkable; filled withbroken limbs, career-path changes and a love of frozen yogurt…

Selenia Iacchelli had plenty of chances to quit playing soccer. There was the time when she broke her foot during her senior year at the University of Nebraska. Or, there was the time she broke her foot at her first Canadian senior women’s team camp. Or, when she broke her arm playing indoor soccer in her hometown of Edmonton.

Or she could have stopped playing soccer when she decided to go to the University of Alberta to get her master’s in physiotherapy. Or, when she and her buddy Emily Zurrer decided to go into the food-truck business in Vancouver.

But, through all of the life changes and injuries, Iacchelli knew deep inside that there was a pro player in there, somewhere.

Now, at 27, she’s pushed her way onto the radar of the national team. In 2014, she’s one of the 16 women allocated by the Canadian Soccer Association to the NWSL. She’ll team with American star Abby Wambach on the Western New York Flash. Iacchelli dreams about being on the field, in front of her hometown fans, when Canada opens the 2015 Women’s World Cup at Edmonton’s Commonwealth stadium.

And, if she does, 11 years will have gone by since she last played in front of crowds at Commonwealth; in 2004, she was a member of the Edmonton Aviators, who played one W-League season before folding. She was a teammate of current national-side keeper Stephanie Labbe.

When you meet Iacchelli, the one thing that hits you right away is how outgoing she is.

When she talks about the game, her voice rises, the smile widens. As we sit in a west Edmonton coffee shop, she’s just come from a physiotherapy appointment, as she’s recovering from a knee injury that would eventually keep her out of the 2014 Cyprus Cup. She wears her Canadian national team jacket. And, as she speaks, there are more than a few glances that come our way from other patrons. It’s clear that Iacchelli is the most interesting person in the room.

And it’s that enthusiasm that was a major hook for national-team coach John Herdman. In 2013, he decided to give the oft-injured food-truck owner a shot.

“She never stopped bugging me for about a year, in terms of emails and contacts about getting an opportunity,” Herdman recalls. “And, to be honest, she hadn’t been involved in the program since the under-20s back in 2006. So, for me, it was a player that had shown potential some time ago and, by chance, she was in Vancouver and we opened up an opportunity for her for a week. And, you just see the passion. She’s a passionate player and she’s got something a little bit different. She’s got this love of the game where she plays at times like a kid. She just goes out free and she’s got a little bit of a creative streak, you know I saw some things in Selenia I really enjoyed.”

She impressed Herdman so much, that she was called to join the national women’s team for a November friendly in BC Place against Mexico, and then to last December’s Torneo Nacional Brasilia. She came in as a sub in the Mexico game and for two matches in Brazil — a win over Scotland and a draw with the hosts. At 27, she had finally earned her first senior caps. But, more importantly, it was in Brazil that Herdman pulled her aside and gave her the big news.

“He said, ‘I want to offer you a contract in the United States. I see you in the program.’” recalls Iacchelli. “And it was a huge weight off my shoulders, and I thought I don’t want to let you down. I don’t want to let the country down.”

The Technician

When Selenia Iacchelli was put into the national- team program in 2013, and later granted a Canadian NWSL allocation, soccer supporters outside of Edmonton and Vancouver were scratching their heads. That’s the thing about sports; we tend to have short-term memories, and players who haven’t done anything for us lately quickly get tossed into the “forgotten” pile, the stuff of “whatever happened to?” stories.

Iacchelli in action for Edmonton Victoria against the Charlottetown Royals at the 2013 Jubilee Trophy tourney. PHOTO: UWE WELZ/CANADA SOCCER

But, as a teenager, Iacchelli was hailed as one of the best technical midfielders in our system. And that’s as good a place as any to start her story.

In 2004, a group of Edmonton investors launched the Aviators, a franchise that would field teams in the W-League and in the A-League, a precursor to USL-PRO.

The plan was ambitious. The women’s and men’s teams would play doubleheaders at Commonwealth Stadium, and would attract an average of 10,000 fans to each of the home dates. That would build momentum for the second half of the men’s season, when there would be no W-League games left to play and the A-League team would be the sole attraction.

Yes, it was indeed an ambitious plan. Also a very, very dumb plan. To find a W-League team that attracted 10,000 fans a game would be impossible then — as it is now. And, a fledgling A-League team certainly wasn’t going to bring in those kind of numbers. The investors had been fooled by the lightning-in-a-bottle success of FIFA’s 2002 U-19 Women’s Championships; the final between Canada and the United States had filled the stands at Commonwealth.

But, building a club from the bottom up takes commitment, time and patience. The Edmonton investors had none of those qualities.

Galled by attendances that were only a fraction of that magic 10,000 number, they pulled the pin and declared bankruptcy just as the W-League season wound down and the A-League still had months to play.

To salvage the team’s lame-duck season, the USL came in and took over the men’s team, renaming it Edmonton FC. It finished the year playing home games at the University of Alberta’s Foote Field and other community pitches across Edmonton.

THIS STORY ORIGINALLY APPEARED IN PLASTIC PITCH #1

The Aviators were the best example in Canadian soccer history of how not to run a pro franchise. No NASL team of the ‘70s could compare to the mess. But there’s something lost in all of this; that, despite the foibles of the front office, the women’s team was actually quite good

The Aviators Women finished their only season with a 7-5-2 record, good enough for third in the eight-team Western Conference. The team was filled with teenagers, who worked under the tutelage of former national-team star Janine Helland, who captained Canada at the 1999 Women’s World Cup. Now, Helland is in the Canadian Soccer Hall of Fame

Helland still believes to this day that if the Aviators had a year or two to gel, that nucleus of players could have risen right to the top of the Western Conference.

Helland had many very talented teens at her disposal. She had Labbe in goal, Aysha Jamani in an attacking role and Iacchelli in midfield. All were part of coach Ian Bridge’s U-19 program, and all represented Canada in 2004 at the U-20 World Cup in Thailand. Helland also had another talented midfielder, Monique Gjini, who could also be a threat with free kicks. Iacchelli and Gjini were technical players, comfortable with the ball at their feet. But, in Canada at the time, that was a problem. The national program was run by Even Pellerud, who wanted his teams to physically beat up their opposition. He wanted long balls played from the back to the strikers, and believed that Canada’s best hope for success came in winning physical battles, not by passing the ball around the park

“When she played for me, she was huge up-and-coming,” remembers Helland. “She was really talented playing on the national team. Unfortunately for her, she was a little bit like a Monique Gjini, she was a little bit before her time. She had skill, but she was a midfielder. And that was kind of lost those days with the way the national team was playing. Midfielders were getting passed by under Even’s system, right?”

But, even though she was the Canadian soccer version of a square peg, Iacchelli was making her mark in the youth system. She played again for Canadian side at the 2006 U-20 World Cup in Russia. She went on to play at the Unversity of Nebraska — the same school that attracted Jamani, Karina LeBlanc, Christine Latham and Brittany Timko — and spent her summers with the Whitecaps women. By her senior year, Iacchelli was the captain of the Cornhuskers, and was prepping for a professional career.

In her senior year, she noticed that the more she played, the more swollen her left foot would become. But she made the decision to play through the pain, to tape up her foot and try to grind it out rather than sit out a major portion of her final year. It was too late for her to abandon the year and apply to redshirt — that is, to come back the next season.

The gamble didn’t pay off. Finally, her foot broke under the strain.

“It was all set up for me to play professionally,” recalls Iacchelli. “But then I broke my foot and had surgery.”

Now, faced with a lengthy rehab, her plans were in limbo. She headed to South Africa, on a trip with her best friends, Timko and Zurrer, who would both go on to play for the senior national side. And then she got a call. Despite the injury, an Italian team was interested in bringing her on board. And, because of Iacchelli’s Italian roots, she’d be a domestic player there.

She arrived in Sardinia to play for Torres, a team which had qualified for the UEFA Champions League. She scored in her first game for Torres, against Lazio. The year was 2010, and Carolina Morace, an Italian, was now at the helm of the Canadian national team. It was time for Iacchelli to finally get noticed.

“It was this different game back then (Canada under Pellerud), it was not my style,” says Iacchelli. “I’d come back to Edmonton and people would ask me why I wasn’t playing at a higher level. I said ‘I’d try.’” I’d be in camps and stuff but I wasn’t the right fit. But when Carolina came on board she scouted me in Italy and said ‘I’m bringing you in’ because I am a more technical player.”

So, Iacchelli went to meet with the national team and, well, at the top of this story I mentioned something about being born under a bad sign…

“It was good, I was rehabbing well, everything was going great,” says Iacchelli. “And Carolina scouted me and invited to me to come to camp with the full national team in Norway. And at that camp, I fractured my foot. The same foot.”

Faced with another lengthy spell away from soccer, Iacchelli returned home to Edmonton. She wrestled with the idea of going back to school, realizing that being a player in her mid-20s with a history of serious injuries wasn’t going to get her trials.

“At that point, I wanted to do my master’s in physiotherapy,” she says. “It was a tough decision, I didn’t want to stop playing, but I didn’t want to do nothing for six months. So I said to myself, ‘it’ll be a sign. If I get in then I am going to do it.’ I got in. I put soccer aside for a while.”

Career Change

She focused on her schooling, and kept getting her soccer fix playing for Edmonton Victoria, one of the best senior amateur sides in the country. She got her master’s, and went to work in a clinic. But, when she got to Victoria, she quickly asserted herself as one of the top amateur players in the country.

She had a fantastic 2012 season with Victoria, which would pad her résumé for an Alberta Major League MVP award she’d receive a year later.

And, it was in this period that Iacchelli wondered if she’d be satisfied with simply being known as one of the best amateur players in the country. She recalls sitting in her office in Spruce Grove, an Edmonton suburb, and thinking three words to herself: “I’m not done.”

She started making some calls. She got indications that, yes, Herdman would have a look at her, once she got to the point where she was playing first-team soccer, somewhere that wasn’t Alberta Major League. And the opportunity came. In early 2013, she reached a deal with Doncaster Rovers. In March, she was to head to England to join the side, and that would likely give Herdman the green-light to bring her into national-team camp.

But, a week before she was set to leave, Iacchelli’s luck — or lack of it — would strike again. Even though, this time around, the player had to take a share of the blame.

“The flight’s booked, I’m ready to go and, a week before I’m supposed to leave, I’m playing indoor, and I get tripped into the boards, and I break my left humerus,” Iacchelli says. “The plague of the left side. All I remember hitting the boards, and I’m a physio, so I knew I wasn’t going to England.”

Now, there isn’t a person reading this who won’t think “why the hell were you playing indoor when you’re about to head abroad to play professionally?”

And, there are probably a few more out there who are going to groan about the enduring popularity of turf-and-board indoor soccer over futsal in many parts of Canada.

But if you thought that Iacchelli would be apologetic about deciding to play in an indoor amateur game a week before she was set to report to Rovers, you’d be wrong.

“You’re going to kill me when you hear this. First of all, I love soccer. If someone asks to me to play in an indoor game, I’ll play. Now, I may have to rethink that now that I’m part of the national team. But I had actually played my game with Victoria. But it was the U of A team, the Green and Gold team, that was short a player and they said they needed a player and do you want to play? And I 100 per cent threw up my arm. And it was in that game that I broke my arm. That’s me. That’s my problem. If you ask me to play five games in a row, I will, that’s because I just want to be playing. So everyone is like ‘what the hell were you doing? Why would you play?’ And I was, like, I believe, in my life, everything happens for a reason. And I can take it as maybe I wasn’t supposed to go to England. Maybe it (going to England) would have been the worst experience of my life.”

Food Truck

Iacchelli had to face another long layoff. The previous time she was sidelined, she went through a career change. So why not do it again? Zurrer, Iacchelli and her sister, Stefania, decided to take their love of frozen yogurt and turn it into a business. In the summer of 2013, the Sweet Ride Froyo ’n Waffles food truck hit the streets of Vancouver. Earlier, Iacchelli was on a surf trip to Portland, Oregon, a city with one of the coolest culinary scenes in North America. And it was there that she was enthralled with that city’s food truck scene.

After breaking her arm, Iacchelli had decided to relocate to Vancouver. While the Alberta Major League is good, she needed to train with Zurrer, and they could get into games against stiffer competition in Vancouver. And, of course, that’s where the women’s national team is based.

“I broke my arm, had to go train, and was opening up the food truck. We decided to have the food truck in Vancouver because it’s a lot warmer there than Edmonton.”

But Iacchelli did play for Victoria in the 2013 Jubilee Trophy tourney, and led her team to a national title.

And, the call came for Iacchelli to do a two-week audition for Herdman. This time, she didn’t get hurt. She impressed. So, Stefania will have to mind the store when Sweet Ride hits the Vancouver streets in the spring.

Now, Iacchelli’s not worried about if she’s got it or not. She wants to get to the point where Herdman will want her on the field when Canada opens up the Women’s World Cup at Commonwealth Stadium.

Chances are there will be slightly few more people in the seats at Commonwealth than there were for those Aviators games back in 2004.

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