In 2023, the Women’s World Cup will take place on one of four possible continents. One of the countries hoping to qualify for its first World Cup is Vietnam.
Two Gonzaga Prep girls soccer players could be on the 2023 squad trying to help the Vietnamese team make history.
Chelsea and Kyah Le are second-generation immigrants from Vietnam. Their father Lam moved to the United States when he was 7 and had a standout career at University High School and Whitworth.
On a trip to Vietnam over the summer – the first for Lam since he left and the first for his daughters – Lam Le jokingly said he would contact the Vietnam national team so his daughters could train with them.
“Of course, they thought it was crazy,” he said.
What happened the day after they landed in Saigon was crazier.
After heading to a local park, the Le sisters kicked the ball around and free-styled their skill moves. While it was just messing around to them, a local reporter spotted them and approached the family. He had just finished a story about Vietnam needing outside help from oversees Vietnamese players.
Lam Le gave the reporter highlight videos of his daughters, which were sent them to the VFF – the Vietnam Football Federation. The VFF was impressed and asked if the girls could fly to Hanoi to train on a trial basis with the under-19 national team.
The Le’s grandparents made the initial itineraries for the trip. After some reshuffling of plans, Chelsea and Kyah headed to Hanoi for a few training sessions.
According to VTC News, a Vietnam-owned media corporation, head coach Ijiri Akira said both players play freely, creatively and actively.
Akira, a Japanese national, is also the technical adviser to the senior national team. It is his final decision whether the girls will be invited onto the U-19 team for the Asian Football Confederation (AFC) U-19 Championship next month in Thailand.
As the two were practicing, Akira’s Japanese was being translated to Vietnamese, which in turn was being roughly translated into English for the Le sisters. But they mainly focused on hand signals to get though training.
“I literally only knew how to say, ‘Hi,’ and, ‘How are you?’ ” Chelsea said. “And I already forgot how to say, ‘How are you?’ But one of the girls spoke English pretty well. And I was like, ‘What are we doing next?’ ”
It isn’t unusual for countries to hire foreign-born coaches, but in this case, there is a deeper reason.
The Japanese have sought to increase the skill and talent around Asia so they dispatched their instructors, including Akira, to help with the development of soccer – specifically in southeast Asia. Japan historically has fielded strong teams internationally using a deliberate and technically sound formation, according to Lam.
One of the benefits the Le sisters have on their side is the amount of time they have been playing soccer.
In the United States, girls have the freedom to play soccer at any age and skill level. In Vietnam, most girls don’t begin play until 11 or 12, according to Lam. They are culturally expected to help with the house and younger siblings.
“When our girls were there, they definitely stood out,” Lam said. “So as far as contribution, I think that they are ahead of the curve on being technically and athletically (ready). I would say, yeah, ahead of curve over there.”
“I think it gives us an advantage just being in the U.S. because (the Vietnamese team coaching staff) has to teach some things that we’ve already learned in past years. But honestly, they’re picking it up super fast,” Kyah said.
Chelsea and Kyah have always dreamed of playing in a World Cup. It is a common theme among girls who have enough talent to play past the high school level. Being U.S. citizens with a parent who was born in Vietnam allows the Les to represent either country at an international level.
Because of their U.S. citizenship, they would have to become naturalized Vietnam citizens to play for the Vietnam National Team, which is a large decision for two high-schoolers.
So, for now, the girls are in a holding pattern as the Vietnamese plan their attack for the U-19 Championship next month and for World Cup qualifiers in 2021.
Vietnam is ranked 35th in the world. In the 2019 World Cup, Vietnam was on the outside looking in of the possible 24 teams that qualified for the tournament after it fell short to Thailand in the AFC Tournament.
But two months ago, FIFA – the International body that governs world soccer – approved the expansion of the tournament from 24 to 32 teams.
“With our current ranking and more slots for Asia, it is chance for us obviously,” Le Hoai Anh, General Secretary of the Vietnam Football Federation, said after the announcement was made.
“Recently, VFF has strongly supported the women’s football, especially for the youth teams, so that we would have the best preparation for the future targets.”
Some of those future targets for Vietnam might eventually include a pair of sisters who play in Spokane.