‘Eyes are on the women’s game’: League1 Ontario director Chelsea Spencer on growth and development of L1O women’s division

International Women’s Day this year is March 8, 2022. To celebrate, will be profiling some of the women working in Canadian soccer who help make the sport great.

A year ago today, Chelsea Spencer joined League1 Ontario’s board of directors to help lead the top domestic women’s competition in the province.

As the only female member of the five-person board — which oversees both the men’s and women’s competitions, Spencer is integral to supporting the women’s program, which has expanded to see 18 teams competing in 2022. With women’s soccer in particular exploding in popularity across the country, Spencer — herself a former player and an experienced coach — is keen on bringing her own expertise to the table.

After beginning her career at the grassroots level in Burlington, Spencer would go on to play for the University of Louisville, as well as at the semi-pro level in the USL W-League and in England before getting more involved in coaching around 10 years ago. So, Spencer has seen the women’s game at a lot of different levels, which means she has plenty of experience to bring to League1.

“My main focus is to ensure that the players that are currently there are getting the experience that they deserve,” Spencer told this week. “But then also to continue to bring exposure to the women’s side, and just build it so that if there’s lots of eyes on our women’s game, League1 is the highest level of amateur soccer for women in Ontario.”

She added: “People often ask me, being the only female (on the board), is that hard? It’s not actually, I have great board members that support me… I feel like in some ways I’m teaching and bringing up points that maybe a female would only be able to see, almost lending a different lens to the group, but I’m learning and growing as well just as much as they are.”

On top of her duties with the board of directors, Spencer is making a return to the pitch this year too. Though her playing career abroad was previously cut short by injuries, she’s hoping to play in 2022 for Oakville Blue Devils.

Getting back out there, she says, will also help her get a more personal understanding of the players in the league and their needs.

“It’s just been a very welcoming environment,” Spencer said. “I definitely feel comfortable playing, because of the experience that I’ve had being part of League1, it’s a very welcoming close-knit family, and I want to extend that to the players. Partly that’s why I’m playing, to be able to see them and support them.

The first year on the job has, Spencer admits, been a little tough, with the COVID-19 pandemic keeping a lot of meetings virtual, but it’s still been an incredible few months for League1, which continues to grow (and recently announced a reformatted system with promotion and relegation on its way for 2024).

In L1O, the men’s division has already proven to be an important part of the player pathway, with myriad Canadian Premier League stars and even a handful of senior national team players having come through the league, and recently the women’s division has made strides toward establishing its own place in the national landscape.

Chelsea Spencer (L) in action for Oakville Blue Devils.
Chelsea Spencer (L) in action for Oakville Blue Devils.

“I think part of it is knowing what I had growing up as an athlete, what I wished I had growing up as a female athlete,” Spencer added. “I know what benefitted me as a player and benefitted my teammates; I’m in constant conversation with my former teammates or some of my coaches and now we collaborate a lot on different things and being able to have that understanding of what worked and what didn’t work, and how we can compare that to the landscape.

“And we can relate to another female; not that male coaches aren’t great, I’ve had some fantastic male coaches that taught me a lot, but being a female and being able to share my experiences with younger females and be a voice for them and what they need, things some people might not think of because they were never an elite female soccer player. So I do feel I can bring a different mindset.”

The past year has been, of course, an incredibly successful one for soccer in Canada; with the women’s national team winning gold at the Tokyo Olympics last summer, interest in the women’s game has skyrocketed.

To Spencer, it’s important that the momentum behind the women’s national team be harnessed and turned into meaningful growth at other levels of the sport — which is exactly what League1 Ontario can do.

“(With) how important the women’s game is in Canada, and how popular it is, we have the quality players, so having that quality league to reflect all the hard work and dedication that the players put into their craft, we need it,” she said. “Especially our younger players, they can see that they can get to this level if they work through ranks, it’s imperative.”

So far, it’s making a difference.

“You see the younger players, going out to more games, they see it on social media, they’re watching soccer,” Spencer added. “You even see moms and dads now posting about women’s soccer and pro soccer, and their daughters are watching it more and more on TV. This is showing that it is very popular, and our women’s team should have a place for them to play in their home country and get compensated; so eyes are on the women’s game, and it’s only going to continue to grow.”

With the L1O women’s season set to kick off with more teams than ever in 2022, that growth is sure to continue.