Desiree Scott is northern star
When it comes to cold, real cold, there is a point at which even the temperature scales that divide the United States and Canada appear to throw up their hands and surrender. When the mercury reaches minus-40 degrees, Fahrenheit and Celsius converge. It's the same by either measure at that moment, no conversion necessary. Miserably cold is miserably cold.
For most people, that's nothing more than a random bit of trivia. In Winnipeg it can be, well, Tuesday. Situated a little more than 200 miles due north of Fargo, N.D., the capital of Manitoba has been known to hit minus-40 from time to time. Not with the aid of wind chill, mind you. Just the temperature.
"I have lived there all my life, and I absolutely hate the winters there," lamented FC Kansas City midfielder and Canadian international Desiree Scott.
It didn't mean she was in any hurry to leave the city behind. Winter eventually ends, even in Manitoba. And as much as Scott might loathe the layers necessary to leave the house in certain months, not to mention the block heater necessary to keep the engine warm enough to start in the morning, Winnipeg in all its seasons is where she is from and part of who she is.
For soccer to take her to places as memorable as an Olympic semifinal at Old Trafford, she needed to begin the journey in Winnipeg. Even if it meant the road was a little more difficult to navigate and lot more sparsely traveled.
Until the year Scott graduated from high school, the University of Manitoba didn't even have a women's soccer team, at least not beyond the club variety. Eight years later, the school in Winnipeg claims among its soccer alumni one of the rising stars in both NWSL and the international game, a 5-foot-2 midfielder who earns every bit of her nickname. Forget inch for inch or pound for pound, the "Destroyer" is one of the new league's toughest players, period.
"It's so funny to me watching her play because she fits every part of that name," FC Kansas City teammate Courtney Jones said. "Honestly, there are times when I'm just completely mesmerized by her. She can get into any single tackle. She is strong as hell. Any tackle she goes into, she will win. ... It's been a blessing, and I'm so happy and thankful that I got to play with her because watching people like that makes me want to be better."
That's high praise for a former Manitoba Bison from someone like Jones, who was part of two national championships at the University of North Carolina. When the United States played Canada earlier this summer in a friendly, there were six former Tar Heels on the American roster, not to mention one on the Canadian roster. In that same game, there were just two players on the Canadian roster who had played at Canadian colleges: Scott and Kaylyn Kyle. And Kyle, now a member of the NWSL's Seattle Reign, played only one season at the University of Saskatchewan before pursuing professional and national team opportunities in more familiar soccer settings.
Soccer pipeline leads south
Schools across the United States have emerged as the southern termini of talent pipelines from north of the border. Perhaps most famously, Christine Sinclair led the University of Portland to a pair of NCAA championships on her way to earning a place as one of the best players in the world. Just a season ago, Calgary's Ranee Premji slipped a goal past Winnipeg's Erin McNulty when North Carolina played Penn State in the College Cup final.
To go anywhere in soccer, young Canadians generally start by going south for college.
University of Manitoba women's soccer coach Hadyn Sloane-Seale is a Winnipeg native who played and coached college soccer in the United States. He didn't coach Scott when she played at Manitoba but coached with her when she returned as an assistant the past two seasons.
"I think the Canadian system is to a great extent quite far behind the American system with regards to university or college athletics," Sloane-Seale said. "If I'm being honest, a kid like Des, she's pretty unique and special in her own way. She didn't have that great desire to want to go away from home. She always felt like she was more comfortable here. She's a bit of a different breed."
I'm happy that I can be an example that you don't have to go to the States to play on the national team. Is it an easy road? Absolutely not. But I do think it's a possibility.Desiree Scott
Upper-echelon American college soccer programs such as Santa Clara and LSU recruited Scott, but she chose the familiarity of Winnipeg and a new soccer program under the umbrella of Canadian Interuniversity Sport, the governing body for four conferences that encompass 54 universities across the country (49 of which competed in women's soccer last season). Even with less scholarship money available compared with American schools, lower tuition costs at Canadian universities ($3,222 for a full-time undergraduate student at Manitoba in 2012-13) makes them viable financial alternatives. As the level of play improves, it could make as much sense for many Canadian players to attend school in the country as to go to a school with a lower- or middle-echelon soccer program in the United States.
For someone with aspirations to the national team or a top professional league, it remains very much the road less traveled.
Scott was a member of the Canadian team that competed in the 2006 under-20 Women's World Cup in Russia, but the subsequent years offered few such opportunities with the national program. By the time she finished her college career in 2009, she thought that might be the end of the road for her. It was only good fortune that placed former Canadian national team coach Carolina Morace at the same club tournament as Scott, who managed to catch the coach's eye. The midfielder made her senior national team debut on Feb. 24, 2010, against Switzerland as a substitute. She was the only player on the field for Canada that day who didn't play at an American university.
She has been a mainstay since John Herdman took over the national team in the aftermath of the 2011 World Cup, starting 30 games since the beginning of 2012. Few players earned better reviews in last summer's Olympics.
"I'm happy that I can be an example that you don't have to go to the States to play on the national team," Scott said. "Is it an easy road? Absolutely not. But I do think it's a possibility. And I hope more people who play in the CIS can get noticed, and I hope the national team coaches don't overlook it as much. There's definitely talent here in Canada, and there's some great university programs that can help get you to that level."
Warm feelings for Winnipeg
Even Scott wonders whether her path and development would have been different had she tried college in the United States for even a year, but it's difficult to come up with a scenario in which the present looks any better. She is a fixture for a national program that hopes it is in the early days of a golden era. She is similarly a key figure who has played almost every minute for which she's been available for FC Kansas City, now in third place and well positioned to make the playoffs. There is little left to prove. It is clear by now that Scott could have played anywhere, including the best programs the American system has to offer.
"Without a doubt she could have played there," Jones said of her alma mater. "[North Carolina coach Anson Dorrance] loves anyone who is athletic, anyone who will have the courage to get into any sort of battle and go in hard doing it and not be afraid. That's the type of player that he wants, and it's very clear that Des is that person."
Scott is used to the next question when new American friends learn for the first time she's from Canada. Which of Vancouver, Toronto or Montreal is she from? Few seem to know anything about Winnipeg, other than perhaps that it's cold there. But it's also where a crowd gathered at the airport and chanted her name when she returned from the Olympics with a bronze medal around her neck. Maybe you don't learn to love the winters, but you love the place.
"I may be biased when I say this, but it just feels like a home," Scott said. "I think the fans and the community are very loyal to the sports teams there. I also like the fact that it's a big little city, if that makes sense. It's not too big, but it has that big feel. It's the heart of the country. It's my hometown. I love it."
It's a good place to come from. Even if it takes a little more work to get where you're going from there.