Late in the first half of Saturday’s friendly against Mexico, Canada’s women’s soccer team was pinned in their own end. Off a set piece, a Mexican player headed the ball past goalkeeper Kailen Sheridan.

But The Magnet was there.

Vanessa Gilles made a goal-line clearance, casually flicking the ball away with the side of her foot, helping pave the way to Canada’s 2-0 victory.

When asked postgame how Gilles always seems to be in the right place, head coach Bev Priestman referred to the defender’s moniker.

“Wherever that ball is, when it comes into the box – she's there. She's a warrior,” Priestman told the media.

Gilles and her Canadian teammates are in Toronto to face Mexico once again in the second game of the Summer Send-Off Series Tuesday night at BMO Field, the last match before Priestman names her roster for next month’s Paris Olympics.

It was three years ago at the Tokyo Games that Gilles made herself known on the world stage. The Ottawa native had six caps under her belt when she was named to the roster for the tournament. After being an unused sub in Canada’s first two games, Gilles started the final group stage match against Great Britain.

From there, she never looked back, playing every minute of the knockout round, including the gold-medal match again Sweden, where Canada won in penalties.

Since Tokyo, Gilles has been a mainstay on the Canadian backline. Entering Tuesday’s match, she has 41 appearances (38 starts), and has also chipped in four goals.

When asked how she believes she has grown over the last three years, Gilles offers a slight smile.

“That’s a bit of a loaded question,” she told TSN with a laugh.

Gilles, 28, cites the various club experiences she’s had since Tokyo as key factors in her development. She currently plays for Olympique Lyonnais, one of the top clubs in Europe, but she has also spent time with Girondins de Bordeaux and Angel City in the National Women’s Soccer League.

“Just confidence wise, being able to go into each of these teams and impose myself and learn and grow has been incredible,” she said. “Being able to take that confidence, since confidence is everything for a player, and bring that to the national team and do the same has been really incredible for me.”

Kadeisha Buchanan, who plays closely with Gilles on the Canadian backline, has also noticed a steady increase in her teammate’s confidence.

“I think we just gave her the reins to be that strong center back that we need and to be a goalscoring threat,” Buchanan said. “And I think from that, she gained confidence to want to lead the team from the back.”

Gilles has been able to accumulate a wealth of experience for club and country. She recently advanced to the UEFA Women’s Champions League final with Lyon, losing 2-0 to Barcelona. 

While Priestman doesn’t see any major changes in terms of Gilles’ ability, mentioning the centre back’s uncanny knack for finding the ball in the box, one major development the coach has noticed is leadership.

“I've seen a rise in her mindset, and I think that's being around world-class players in that club environment, being exposed to Champions League, and being around some of the best players in the world,” Priestman told TSN. “I think it's fed her confidence, because she was so new and inexperienced when she really broke through.”

With more players on the national team stepping up to leadership roles, especially since veterans like Christine Sinclair, Sophie Schmidt and Stephanie Labbé have retired, Gilles has emerged as a vocal leader on and off the pitch. Priestman noted how Gilles was galvanizing the team in a huddle before penalties against both Brazil and the U.S. at the SheBelieves Cup in April.

“You talk about players who'll do anything to win… She's born with that. That's in her,” Priestman told the media after Saturday’s match. “She cares about keeping a clean sheet. She celebrates keeping a clean sheet just like a forward does [when they] score.”

Gilles’s competitive fire is evident even during training. As her teammates scrimmaged at BMO Field on Monday, Gilles was engaged on the sidelines, shouting encouragement and clapping vigorously. Even off the field, she can’t help getting animated during a game of Overcooked! 2 with her teammates.

“I'm very vocal and very out there – on and off the pitch,” Gilles said with a smile.

While that drive to win is omnipresent, she doesn’t see herself as actively trying to take charge.

“I think leadership just comes from wanting to win, and that rage to win,” she said. “Do I see myself as a leader? Yeah, but I think we need a team full of leaders. Is that something I'm pushing towards? No, I think I'm just being myself and I just want to win at the end of the day.

“So, I wouldn't necessarily say that’s an objective of mine, to be a leader, but I want to win and maybe I'll help the team and bring the team along with me.”

Gilles believes the experience she has gained at Lyon has been vital to her development as a player. The defender joined the French giants on loan from Angel City in Sept. 2022, and that loan was extended last year until June 2025.

Lyon has won Division 1 Féminine the past two seasons, as well as finishing runners-up in this year’s Champions League.

“Playing in a lot of finals and in a lot of knockout-style games has been invaluable. How you prep as a player, how you recover, how you mentally prepare has been uncanny,” Gilles said.

But ever the competitor, Gilles can’t help but lament the result against Barcelona in the Champions League final. The game-winning goal, scored by last year’s Ballon d’Or winner, Aitana Bonmati, deflected off Gilles as she was attempting to block the shot.  

“When you lose, you kind of re-question everything,” Gilles said. “But it's the beauty of football. You can't predict much, and you get to do it all over again next year.”

Despite the result, the memory of playing in front of over 50,000 fans at San Mamés Stadium in Bilbao, Spain will stay with Gilles – even if the majority of those fans were pro-Barcelona.

“Seeing a stadium full for women's football is always a win for everyone,” she said. “I obviously still have mixed emotions about the experience… but being surrounded by that many legends of the game is such an honour.”

After Tuesday’s match, Gilles is looking forward to a vacation before gearing up for the Olympics. Coming off a full season with Lyon, Gilles said getting an abundance of time on the pitch has been rewarding, but also very tiring.

With a major tournament around the corner, Gilles is doing her best to keep her mind focused on the now.

“I'm not even thinking about the Olympics,” she said. “Coming off of a pretty devastating [Champions League], I’ve just been taking it day by day.”

While she may not be thinking about the Paris Games, she did offer her thoughts on how she believes Canada is viewed by the rest of the world. While the Canadians, ranked ninth in the world, enter as defending gold medallists, they are coming off a disappointing World Cup last year, where they failed to advance to the knockout round.

Gilles believes Canada is still often overlooked, but she also recognizes it’s ultimately up to her and her teammates to change the perception.

“I think a lot of teams still brush us off. I think going into this tournament, that's also where we thrive, having that grit of a, ‘F you, we are really good team. We have really great players. We are a good country; we belong on the stage,’ kind of attitude.

“I'd be lying if I said, ‘Yeah, we're going into it, we're Olympic champs, people are scared of us.’ I think everybody knows our attitude. I think it's going to be up to us again to kind of shut other countries up and prove that we belong there.”