Rhian Wilkinson, one of Canada's brightest young coaches, is leaving Canada Soccer.
On the plus side, she says she is stepping aside to challenge herself and to add to her coaching skills — with an eye to coaching Canada in the future. The 38-year-old, who won 181 caps for Canada as a player, had been serving as assistant coach of the senior women's team and head coach of the under-17 and under-20 sides.
In a social media post announcing her decision, Wilkinson said she was leaving with a "heavy heart."
"This decision has been incredibly difficult as this team has been my family for the past 20 years," she added.
Wilkinson applied for the Canada coaching job that went late last year to England's Bev Priestman after Kenneth Heiner-Moller returned to his native Denmark. While Wilkinson is seen as a star on the rise, the timing of the job opening was perhaps a little early in her coaching career.
"Canada Soccer didn't think I was ready yet," Wilkinson said without malice.
"Of course I wouldn't have applied if I didn't think I could do the job," she added. "But I also know that I have a lot more growth."
Wilkinson says she leaves with no hard feelings and spoke warmly about Priestman, calling her appointment a "wonderful hiring."
"She's going to do really well with them," Wilkinson said in an interview. "But it was more about my career and my aspirations. I one day want to coach Canada, absolutely a dream of mine for the future.
"And I realized, just like as a player, that you've got to make hard decisions about your comfort zone. And leaving it and learning from other people and challenging yourself. That was something maybe I haven't been doing in the last few years, that maybe I needed to leave this country that I love and these players that I love in order to really challenge myself."
Wilkinson said Priestman asked her to stay on and she was tempted to accept the offer "because I really do love her style of coaching, I love her ideas."
But after serving as an assistant to both John Herdman and Heiner-Moller, she thought it was time to try something else.
"If I want to be the best possible coach I can be, then I think I need to really challenge myself in a different way. And it might be an assistant coach for someone else or a head coach for someone else, but a different environment with different people."
That will likely take her outside of Canada.
The uncertain Olympic and FIFA tournament schedule also played into Wilkinson's decision.
The global pandemic has taken a toll on the world youth championships of late with the U-20 and U-17 tournaments, scheduled for 2020 and 2021 respectively, both rescheduled and then pushed back to 2022.
The rescheduled Tokyo Olympics are slated for this summer, although the surging pandemic continues to cast a shadow over the global sports showcase.
Wilkinson succeeded Priestman as Canada youth coach after the latter left Canada in August 2018 to become an assistant to Phil Neville with the English women.
Wilkinson's decision comes ahead of the Canadian women's return to action in the SheBelieves Cup, scheduled for Feb. 18-24 in Orlando. The Canadians last played at a tournament in France last March.
The native of Baie-D'Urfe, Que., who now calls North Vancouver home, played for Canada between 2003 and 2017, finishing with seven goals and 23 assists. A former forward/winger turned fullback, she was a smart player with an engine, although she downplays her skills.
"I just did the same thing as I did as a fullback, which was pass the ball to Sincy (Christine Sinclair)," she said with a laugh. "That's always been a good mantra."
Wilkinson participated in four FIFA World Cups, three Olympic tournaments and won medals at all six CONCACAF tournaments and all three Pan American Games in which she played.
“Canada Soccer would like to thank Rhian for her many years of dedication and commitment to our women’s national team program as both a player and staff member,” Canada Soccer president Nick Bontis said in a statement.
He said Wilkinson's contributions as coach "will be felt for years to come."
Longtime teammate Diana Matheson, who has 206 Canadian caps and counting, called Wilkinson "simply one of the greatest."
"There is no doubt she is headed for some incredible things, and I for one can’t wait to see what she does next," Matheson posted on Twitter.
Wilkinson began her coaching career when Herdman, then coach of the Canadian women, offered her a chance to be an assistant coach with the under-20 team in 2014.
Wilkinson, who has also served as head coach of the Vancouver Whitecaps FC Girls Elite program, earned her UEFA B coaching badge with the Football Association of Wales, paying her own way.
That prompted Herdman to start offering her coaching opportunities, with the under-15, under-17 and under-20 teams. And her role grew under Heiner-Moller.
"She's got playing experience, great character, huge talent,'' Heiner-Moller said when Wilkinson was made head coach of the youth teams in 2019.
Wilkinson has her UEFA A licence and is currently taking her Canadian A licence "because I think Canadian coaches should have Canadian licences."
The only one left after that is the UEFA Pro licence.
Wilkinson was part of the Elite Player-Elite Coach program, started by Herdman to keep former players like her in the program.
Wilkinson coached the Canadian under-17 women to a career-best fourth-place finish at the 2018 FIFA U-17 Women's World Cup in Uruguay although she deflected any credit to Priestman, who coached the team before leaving for England.
Wilkinson, whose first name is pronounced REE-in, has never shied away from a challenge.
After winning bronze at the Rio Olympics, she ran the Montreal marathon and crewed a yacht in the Mediterranean. After the 2015 Women's World Cup, she walked part of the famed Camino de Santiago trail in Spain with her mother.
Wilkinson, who has degrees from both the University of Tennessee and Athabasca University, has served as a member of the FIFA Strategic Committee, tasked with dealing with "global strategies for football and its political, economic and social status.''
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This report by The Canadian Press was first published Jan. 15, 2021