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Everybody Loves Loyden

Jill Loyden, the USA’s third goalkeeper, receives little attention, but her impact on the team cannot be underestimated. With a big heart and a positive spirit she overcame the odds and a severe injury to make last summer’s Women’s World Cup team.

© Brad Smith/ISI

IN THE IMAGE: Jill Loyden has embraced the role of third goalkeeper on the U.S. Women’s National Team, and the team is better for it.

Does any player get less attention than the third goalkeeper on a World Cup Team?

Answer: Nope. Christie Rampone’s kids get more air time.

Suffice it to say that Jill Loyden didn’t do any media interviews during the USA’s run to the Women’s World Cup Final this summer in Germany. Still, talk to any of the U.S. players and coaches and they will sing her praises as an ultimate team player who embraced her role, played it extremely well and was one of many important cogs in the U.S. team’s success this year.

Add to that the fact that her journey to Germany was perhaps the most improbable of any player, and that makes for quite a good story.

She Was Once a Wildcat
In looking back on Loyden’s ascension to the U.S. team, it’s appropriate to ask how a player who was never called into a Women’s National Team camp at any age level gets called into the full national team and then a year and a half later was on the World Cup Team.

“I don’t even know how that can happen,” said Loyden. “But I guess it just takes luck and hard work, and I think when those two things combine, opportunity arises. You just try to take advantage of it and rely on the path that got you there, just trust in that and try to take advantage of it.”

Loyden had the good fortune to be drafted out of Villanova, where she finished her career as the best goalkeeper in Wildcat history, by the now-defunct St. Louis Athletica. Awaiting her under the Gateway Arch were U.S. Women’s National Team goalkeeper coach Paul Rogers and the squad’s first-choice goalkeeper Hope Solo.

No other ‘keeper in the country had that kind of quality coaching as well as a tremendous role model during training on her first day as a pro.

Rogers liked what he saw in Loyden’s size, work ethic and attitude, and after she got to play a few WPS games in Solo’s absence, he called her up to her first-ever national team camp in January of 2010.

“As a goalkeeper, over the last three years that I’ve known her, the main thing is that she’s improved her fitness, her range around the goal and putting into action her understanding of the game,” said Rogers. “Her ability to listen, absorb and execute is phenomenal.”

Going Down Under to Get Up and Over
Historically, goalkeepers have not broken into the U.S. team and excelled at this level until their mid-20s, so perhaps Loyden wasn’t too far behind the curve. In fact, just six goalkeepers have played a match for the USA since the end of the 2003 FIFA Women’s World Cup. But there have been plenty of quality college ‘keepers who have never gotten a sniff of the rarefied air that is the National Team, and Loyden credits her decision to play in Australia between WPS seasons as well as getting the chance to start with the Chicago Red Stars as keys to her development.

In New South Wales and with the Red Stars, she was able gather an incredibly valuable commodity for goalkeepers – experience – playing 90-minute games and developing as a leader from the back.

“I went to Australia just hoping to get better,” said Loyden, who played with the Central Coast Mariners at the end of 2009 and very beginning of 2010. “I was supposed to be in St. Louis again as a backup and then things happened. I got traded to Chicago to become a starter, and when I got back from Australia, I got an invitation to the U.S. team. It was then that I was like, ‘Wow, this is for real. I have a chance.’ I tried to enjoy that first camp and just run with the chance and opportunity and here I am.”

There is no such thing as a third goalkeeper on a World Cup Team who is not a team player and who doesn’t contribute positively to team chemistry. That just doesn’t exist. And Loyden gets that.

“I loved it,” Loyden said of her experience on the World Cup team in Germany. “First, I was just lucky to be there. Just looking at the way I’ve come into this team, I feel very honored to have been a part of that. I also feel a responsibility to represent the U.S. every day I’m in camp. I feel a responsibility in our little goalkeeper family to bring it every day and to make Hope and Barnie (Nicole Barnhart) and Ashlyn [Harris] better. I feel the responsibility to raise the level and challenge everyone every day and bring that joy and passion and smiles to make it fun so we all enjoy getting better and enjoy the process.”

Bad Break
Despite doing everything right in her quest to make the World Cup Team, Loyden almost didn’t, as she suffered a badly broken hand during training camp at The Home Depot Center in January of 2011. It would be a race to see if she could get fit in time because, well, you really need two healthy and strong hands to play goalkeeper.

“I came into that January camp after our break, which was like five weeks, and I trained super hard for the whole time to get fit and improve my foot skills and everything,” said Loyden, who did another stint in Australia just to train. “I came into camp and felt really good and had a great first day. The second day was going well and then bam, I caught a ball wrong, screamed in pain for a while, and then found out I broke my hand. I went back to Chicago and had surgery. It was pretty bad.”

The doctors initially said it would be 8-10 weeks before she was able to train again. Loyden set her goal as six weeks, but that timeline came and went and she still wasn’t ready. It ended up being 12 weeks.

“During that the whole time I just was thinking, ‘You know, this is so unlucky but I’m going to do everything I possibly can to give myself the best chance,’’’ said Loyden, who had pins large enough to set off an airport security machine inserted into her hand. “I worked really hard for three months, got fit, and I felt like I was playing some of my best soccer. I made it just in time.”

By that time Rogers had seen what she could bring to the team on and off the field and when Loyden proved she could take a driven Abby Wambach shot off her hand, she was in.

“Jill has a great balance with her teammates,” said Rogers. “She gets along with everyone and can hang out with everyone. Jill also actually keeps the balance between Barnie, who can be quiet, and Hope who can be intense. Plus, in training, she will do anything you want. You’re doing a shooting exercise where they’re doing three or four reps in each shot, and Jill just stays in, she never complains. She’ll just step in the goal and gets on with it.”

Cerebral ‘Keeper
Rogers was also impressed with her insatiable desire to learn as well as her high soccer IQ, something that was a surprise for someone who had not played on a high level until she got drafted into WPS.

“She’s someone you can talk soccer with,” said Rogers. “I can ask her stuff about the backline, I can ask her stuff about the forwards and she has a great feel for what goes on in training. People use the phrase ‘student of the game’ rather loosely, but she’s the closest thing. I talk to her about goalkeepers from all over the world, female, male, youth, old and when talking about games, she won’t say ‘Did you see that save?’, but instead, ‘Did you see that situation where I thought he could have come or she could have come and they didn’t?’”

Loyden has sincerely enjoyed training alongside the other U.S. goalkeepers, which in this camp also includes Harris, the 2011 WPS Goalkeeper of the Year, and credits them as much as Rogers for her improvement.

“Hope and Barnie are two of the best goalkeepers in the world right now and Ash is one of the top young ‘keepers,” said Loyden. “Being able to watch them and emulate them every day in training and just being able feed off each other has taken my game to a new level. And being able to work with Paul has opened my eyes to a different side of the goalkeeping and has just furthered my game that much more.”

Solo: She Makes Me Better
Perhaps the greatest compliment comes from Solo herself, who says Loyden has helped her game over the past few years as Solo has battled through shoulder issues and surgery.

“I find that Jill has the best technique of any goalkeeper I’ve ever trained with so I find myself really looking to her to make my own self better,” said Solo. “If she goes first in a drill, I always try to go second so I can watch her. She’s got really sound footwork and the smoothest and most solid hands. In training, she’s the perfect balance because she brings a level of professionalism. She’s intense and really, really focused but also is able to laugh at herself and keep things light.”

So far, Loyden has just two caps, playing against China in Kennesaw, Ga., in 2010 and against Canada this fall in Portland, Oregon. She also knows that just two goalkeepers will make the 20-player Olympic Qualifying roster, but of course, that doesn’t dim her positive outlook at all.

“I want to keep getting better, but it’s important to remember that the team is greater than any one player,” said Loyden. “The coaches are going to do whatever is best for the team, but I want to make their decisions as tough as possible. I am just going to continue to compete every day. You never know what could happen.”

Like, maybe, making a World Cup Team?

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