Canadian forward Nichelle Prince doesn’t feel as though she’s at the crossroads of her professional career, but admits she is long overdue to have a breakout season with the Houston Dash in the National Women’s Soccer League. 

Prince, 27, has been a consistent performer for the Dash after being selected 28th overall in the 2017 NWSL draft, earning the praise of her coaches and teammates for her work ethic and professionalism over the ensuing years.  

She’s also been a key member of the Canadian women’s team since making her debut as a 17-year-old in 2013. Prince has gone on to earn 80 caps for Canada while scoring 13 goals and tallying 13 assists, and helped her country win an Olympic bronze medal in 2016 and gold at last summer’s Tokyo Games.

Success at the club level though, has been much harder to come by for the native of Ajax, Ont. Prince has only nine career goals for Houston, with her best offensive output coming in her 2017 rookie year when she scored three times.

The NWSL regular season begins this week, and Prince doesn’t mince words when asked what targets she has set for herself this year with Houston. 

“I think it’s sometimes scary to say, but I definitely want to be a top goal scorer in this league. I think I have the potential to do that,” Prince told CBC Sports. “Over the years, maybe I’ve shied away from saying that out loud to people because then if you don’t do it, you feel like you’ve failed. But for me, it’s about getting in front of the goal more, taking more shots, being a little bit more selfish.

“If I can do that, I think I’ll be able to become a top goal scorer in the NWSL and put up some nice stats for the team.” 

Prince (15), seen during Canada’s Olympic gold-medal win over Sweden in August, has earned 80 caps with the national team, scoring 13 goals and adding 13 assists in that time. (Naomi Baker/Getty Images)

High expectations

James Clarkson has coached Prince in Houston since 2019, and believes the Canadian has the potential to be among the league’s top scorers.

“Our expectations are incredibly high for Nichelle. I’ve been on record numerous times saying how much I admire her play and what she brings to the team. I think she’s going to be an absolute superstar,” Clarkson said during pre-season training camp. 

“Ideally, this is the year when her assists go through the roof, and she scores more goals. Her attacking ability — one-on-one, coming in off the wings, coming down the middle — is exceptional. The defensive side of her game has really improved and she’s consistently a top performer. Now we just need that final product, whether it’s the final ball or a goal, to really put her into that elite level which I know she’s capable of playing at.” 

On Tuesday, Clarkson was suspended as Houston’s general manager and coach after the team received a report on a joint investigation conducted by the NWSL and the players’ association into alleged discrimination, harassment and abuse. The Dash also stated that Clarkson’s future as its coach will be “based on the final results of the ongoing [joint] investigation.” 

Regardless of whether or not Clarkson stays on at Houston, the fact remains that Prince needs to become more ruthless in front of the opposition’s goal, something that Canadian women’s team coach Bev Priestman has also communicated to her. 

“Under my time, Nichelle has been an established starter, but I think she has more to give. … For me, she’s an outstanding professional, and I think she needs to score more goals and get more assists. I think she knows that too,” Priestman told CBC Sports. 

To her credit, Prince has already hit the ground running ahead of the regular season. Last weekend, she scored the opener in a 2-1 home win against Racing Louisville in Houston’s final group stage match of the NWSL Challenge Cup, the league’s annual pre-season tournament. The Canadian expertly picked the pocket of a Louisville defender just outside the penalty area and then showed great composure in firing a shot through the legs of goalkeeper Jordyn Bloomer. 

That single sequence displayed some of Prince’s best attributes, from her determination to her intelligence and attack-mindedness. If she can do that on a consistent basis this year, there’s no reason why she can’t emerge from the shadows and establish herself as one of the league’s top forwards. 

“I’m getting to the point where I think it’s time for me to have that breakthrough. I believe it can happen and I am that player,” Prince said. 

Canadians to watch

Prince isn’t the only member of Canada’s gold medal team from Tokyo that is looking to have a big 2022 NWSL season. Fellow forward Janine Beckie recently signed with the Portland Thorns, where she’ll team up with Christine Sinclair and play under newly-installed Canadian coach Rhian Wilkinson. 

Beckie, 27, scored 23 goals in 90 matches across four seasons in England to help Manchester City win two Women’s FA Cups and two League Cups. But she didn’t play that much this season, so the transfer move to Portland gives her a chance to get her club career back on track.

Beckie spent two campaigns with the Houston Dash after being selected eighth overall by the club in the 2016 NWSL College Draft. She was then traded to Sky Blue FC in 2018 before going to Manchester City later that year.

Sinclair recently signed an extension with Portland Thorns through 2022, with an option for the 2023 NWSL season. In doing so, the 38-year-old forward from Burnaby, B.C., essentially committed to playing the next two seasons with Portland, which is good news for Canada should it qualify for next year’s World Cup co-hosted by Australia and New Zealand.

Defender Vanessa Gilles, a key figure for Canada in Tokyo, joined the LA-based expansion Angel City FC following a transfer from FC Girondins de Bordeaux. Gilles, 26, has never played in the NWSL, so it’ll be interesting to see how she adapts to the league after spending the past four seasons in France’s first division. 

Kailen Sheridan is expected to take over as Canada’s starting goalkeeper in the wake of Stephanie Labbé’s recent retirement. The 26-year-old shot stopper was named to the NWSL’s first all-star team last year, but was traded in the off-season from NJ/NY Gotham FC to the expansion San Diego Wave. 

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