CARY, N.C. — Knowing that 2019 was a World Cup year, Stephanie Labbé decided she was ready for a challenge.
It wasn’t that she didn’t have good experiences at the clubs she played with in 2018, spending time with the Calgary Foothills in her native Canada and Linköpings FC in Sweden, but she wasn’t being tested. She felt she wasn’t getting better. Perhaps that’s why she attempted to play with Calgary’s men’s team in early 2018, before the Premier Development League barred her from doing so.
“I don’t ever want to be comfortable any day in my life,” Labbé said. “Being here, I’m pushed out of my comfort zone every day.”
“Here” is in Cary, at WakeMed Soccer Park, where the 32-year-old Labbé is spending her first season with Paul Riley’s North Carolina Courage.
The club won everything in professional women’s soccer in the United States last season, taking home the NWSL Shield, the NWSL championship and the inaugural title in the International Champions Cup.
Riley didn’t necessarily have a glaring need at goalkeeper coming into the season. Yes, his depth chart got a bit thinner when Sabrina D’Angelo opted to go play in Europe, but Katelyn Rowland — who started in the 2018 NWSL championship game — was coming back as the incumbent starter.
And that is where Labbé found her challenge. Maybe she wouldn’t unseat Rowland as the starter, but Labbé — slated to be Canada’s top goalkeeper in France in this World Cup — would absolutely apply pressure and give Riley something to think about when constructing his depth chart. And vice versa, Labbé knew Rowland would make her better too.
“Coming in, knowing the quality of Katelyn Rowland, I knew it was going to be a tough training environment where we’re both pushing each other and fighting for a spot,” Labbé said. “I think for me, it’s later in my career, and I just wanted to put myself in the best possible environment. Being here, I’m around world-class players day in and day out. To have that type of training environment where I’m being pushed to my maximum and I know I’m going to be developing every single day, that was what I was really looking for.”
Rowland suffered a shoulder injury late in training camp, and Labbé grabbed the job between the pipes for the Courage.
Labbe, a 5-foot-10 product of UConn, played in four games for the Courage before leaving for the World Cup, and she performed admirably in each. She faced 15 shots on target, notched five saves and allowed just two goals. The Courage won two and drew two, and Labbé tallied a pair of clean sheets.
“Steph has had a great start to the season so far. She’s playing really well,” Riley said. “Steph is playing the way we’re going to play. She wants to learn and dedicate herself here.”
Added Courage centerback Abby Dahlkemper: “Steph is a world-class goalkeeper. She’s stepped up and provided and has done pretty well. It’s enjoyable to play with her.”
In those games with the Courage, Labbé faced attempts from likes of Sam Kerr, Alex Morgan and Marta, players that might fire shots her way in France.
Labbé had been away from the NWSL for more than a season — last playing in the league with the Washington Spirit in 2016 and part of 2017 — but admitted that it’s the next best thing to international soccer. To her, coming back to the league with the Courage was the best thing to prepare her for the World Cup.
“It’s the closest you can get to being on the international stage. The NWSL is a really fast-paced game, it’s pretty transitional, it’s pretty back-and-forth,” Labbe said. “So, in terms of speed of play, athleticism and physicality, it’s up there. But when you get on the international stage, nothing can really prepare you for that. But me being [in North Carolina] it’s the closest I can get.”
S Q U A D
G O A L S pic.twitter.com/P4wkYRoFDg
— 𝓢𝓽𝓮𝓹𝓱𝓪𝓷𝓲𝓮 𝓛𝓪𝓫𝓫𝓮́ (@stephlabbe1) May 29, 2019
This is Labbé’s first World Cup, but she’s helping lead a Canada team on the rise.
The Canadiens have performed well in international tournaments over the past decade. They captured bronze medals in the 2012 and 2016 Olympics and reached the World Cup quarterfinals in 2015, the year they played as hosts. Last year, they were runners-up in the Concacaf Championships.
So far in 2019, Canada has five wins and three draws in its matches leading up to the World Cup. And although they were friendlies or in relatively low stakes competitions, four of those five wins came against World Cup-bound teams in Norway, Scotland, England and Nigeria.
“We’re feeling good. Of course, it’s a really exciting summer. The opportunity to represent your country at a World Cup is kind of the pinnacle of soccer. It’s super exciting,” Labbé said. “We had really good games against England and Nigeria in our past camp and we’re feeling confident after that. I think we’re more confident than ever that the trophy is a possibility for us.”
Canada is the favorite to advance out of its group, which also includes Cameroon, New Zealand and the Netherlands. The second game slated for Canada in the tournament, against New Zealand, could be interesting, as Labbé will go up against her new Courage teammate Abby Erceg.
While there’s plenty of friendly banter between the two at Courage camp and off the pitch, when they step on the grass in France on June 15, there won’t be any friendly exchanges.
“Off the field, we’re friends and teammates. But when we get there, it’s World Cup,” Labbé said. “When you step on the field, you’re not really looking across and saying, ‘That’s my teammate.’ You’re fighting for your country and doing everything you can to win that game.”
On May 4, Labbé’s final game with the Courage before leaving for the World Cup, she posed for the team photo in her mint green kit, pink headband and orange gloves, then jogged out to her goal as the North Carolina sun shined down on WakeMed Soccer Park. Just before the whistle blew to start the Courage’s match against Sky Blue FC, Labbé spit in her mitts and smacked them together. She was ready.
“Steph has fantastic feet, excellent organization skills, [is a] great shot blocker and has a proven presence, which is crucial in the top levels of the game,” Riley said.
Labbé faced six shots that day, and none of them cozied up to the back of the net. If her play with the Courage is any indication on how she might play in the World Cup, opposing strikers are going to have a hard time scoring against her.
For Labbé, playing in the NWSL in 2019 presented the most comparable competition she would face in France,. With the Courage, she’s been pushed, she’s been made uncomfortable and she’s been properly prepared for a World Cup run.