Last October may have brought the conclusion to Jill Loyden’s playing career but the former U.S. Women’s National Team goalkeeper’s link to the game goes on, and she also has an infinite amount of reasons why the lights will never go out on another one of her loves.
From the kid who was put in goal simply for being the tallest, to the player who mastered the position enough to go to the very highest level. As much as it sounds like a simple upward curve to the top, Jill’s story encompasses so much more than that, with setbacks, doubts, disappointments, and well-documented personal heartbreak to add in.
The former Sky Blue FC keeper has always faced the challenges, even when they were way beyond the archetypal hard knocks of the life of a soccer player. As those who played alongside her confirm, Jill is as sincere and endearing a person as she is a strong-willed competitor out on the field and those characteristics have all shone through and been needed in her journey to this point.
Capped ten times by her country, Jill decided to announce her retirement at 29 late last year to dedicate time to her family and Foundation. Although many will be familiar with certain aspects of her story inside and outside of soccer, there are always greater depths and new angles to discover.
Jill reveals more of the person behind the professional athlete people got to know and she does so through sharing her lifelong love of rhythm, melody and lyrics.
“Music plays a huge part in my life,” she began. “It can provide so much: an escape from the static noise of life, a beat when your feet want to move and your head wants to bob, or an emotional mellow jam when you maybe need a good cry, which I find happens more than I would like to admit.”
“It can pump you up, wind you up, and help you get ready to unleash for 90 minutes. Music gives us words when our heart feels so much emotion but our mouths can’t find words to put to it.
“Music sets our lives on fire, inspiring us to change the world, create havoc on the soccer field, or just simply dance and smile.”
Growing up in Vineland, New Jersey, Jill started playing soccer when she was eight years old and recalls wearing jean shorts for her first ever practice. Selected to go in goal at her second session as she was the tallest, she would go on to be named the Press Player of the Year at Vineland High School in 2003.
Also a basketball and softball player at high school, Jill further displayed her burgeoning soccer prowess as a four-year starter at Villanova University, earning the Big East Goalkeeper of the Year accolade on three occasions. An NSCAA First-Team All-American while with the Wildcats, she went from collegiate standout to professional player as she was acquired by Saint Louis Athletica in 2009.
Integration into the National Team fold was not too far away and it would be an incredibly special achievement for someone who dreamed of representing her country as she watched the women’s team from the crowd in the Atlanta Olympics as they competed en route to winning a gold medal. That was of course in 1996, which happens to be the same year a certain catchy song was released that Jill would make her first addition to her collection, and she remains very proud of it, as is easy to tell from her response!
“I can’t believe that I am admitting this, but the first tape I bought was Presidents of the United States of America because I loved the song ‘Peaches’. I still know every word, but don’t tell anyone that, it’s embarrassing.”
Although she was largely a back-up keeper for Saint Louis Athletica in her debut Women’s Professional Soccer (WPS) season, Jill showed a glimpse of how much promise she possessed as she made six saves and earned a shutout in a win over Chicago Red Stars to take the WPS Player of the Week in week nine of the 2009 campaign. It would be with Chicago that she became a regular starter during the following season and there was also a loan with Central Coast Mariners of Australia’s W-League, where she was named the competition’s Goalkeeper of the Year.
In 2011, Jill spent the third and final WPS season with the Florida-based magicJack, reaching the play-offs and advancing to the semi-final before a 2-0 loss to Philadelphia Independence. Among the well-known names on the team’s roster that year were U.S. stars Abby Wambach, Christie Rampone, Megan Rapinoe and Shannon Boxx.
There was also current FC Kansas City defender and captain Becky Sauerbrunn, who featured on here last summer, telling how she often discovers music through Jill. Sky Blue’s former number 21 is receptive to various artists and genres, matching them to specific situations and also connecting further with her faith through music.
“Growing up, I listened to a lot of punk: New Found Glory, The Starting Line, Yellowcard, Story of the Year,” Jill explained. “It was probably because I was always on the go, couldn’t sit still for more than five minutes, and wanted to just jam all the time.
“Now I listen to more folk, indie, bluegrass music, but I go through different phases and different moods. I do love me some soul music!
“You can’t go wrong with a little bit of Marvin Gaye, or a lot of for that matter. It would be remiss of me to not mention that I listen to Christian music every day.
“I have a strong, personal relationship with Jesus and love the joy and peace that overwhelms my thoughts when I listen to worship music. Kim Walker is one of my favourites, as well as Crowder, and Hillsong of course.”
In the four years of running this site, I have talked to male and female players from around the world about music, some of whom share a much more meaningful and heartfelt connection with it than others. Some players will admit that their relationship with music is little more than casual, but with Jill it is genuine affection.
An incredible song can awaken a desire that was always there but had been suppressed and so many of us can think of that rush of emotion we get from a track that holds significance in our lives. The briefest sound from a song can open up the picture book in your mind and take you straight back to the happiest moments, when you felt completely part of something.
Music is also there to be by your side as you move forward along your journey and it is a notion that Jill can identify with. Last June, fellow National Team keeper Ashlyn Harris was interviewed on here and she singled out Tracy Chapman’s ‘Fast Car’ as a song she and Jill love to listen to. Far more than just a tune to help pass the time on the way to training, for Jill, it carries undeniable hurt and emotion, but also reasons to look back and smile as she remembers her sister Britton.
“Yes, I love ‘Fast Car’ – it’s my all-time favourite song, you can never go wrong with it. It is a song that reminds me of my sister who passed away three years ago.
“It carries so many amazing, happy memories with it. It will always remain my favourite.
“Looking at my top 25 all-time playlist, that is definitely number one, with Missy Higgins ‘Warm Whispers’ as my number two. After that, there aren’t that many frontrunners because I listen to such an eclectic mix, but in the last week I’ve been addicted to ‘Real Love’ by Clean Bandit and ‘Soul on Fire’ by Third Day.”
In the past two years, Jill has been back home in New Jersey to represent Sky Blue in the National Women’s Soccer League (NWSL). While training in Portugal with the U.S. at the Algarve Cup in 2013 she broke a bone in her left hand, two years after she had suffered a separate break in the same hand.
Jill subsequently missed the start of the inaugural NWSL season but she came back to play four games as the team finished 4th, making it to the semi-final where they were defeated by Western New York Flash. Last year, it was a 6th-place finish for Jim Gabarra’s side but they were just a point behind Washington Spirit in the fourth and final play-off spot.
Jill played 17 games and had four shutouts in her last season and her presence will undoubtedly be missed when the 2015 campaign gets underway in April. An inductee in both the New Jersey and South Jersey Soccer Hall of Fame, there is a little home state connection with one of the performers she mentions when discussing memorable live shows she has seen recently – Cherry Hill-born songstress Toby Lightman.
“In the last few months, I have been to a bunch of small shows: Johnnyswim, Toby Lightman, Relient K, and headed to Grizfolk. I love the feel of an intimate show where you can just feel the music in your soul!
“I was able to see The Lumineers down in Asheville, North Carolina with about 200 other people and it was one of the best shows I’ve ever seen! The band came out in the centre of the audience, banged their drum, and just sang the roof off.”
Despite never having been involved with the National Team at youth levels, Jill received her first call-up to the senior squad at the beginning of 2010. Her debut came in October of that year as she featured in the 2-1 win over China in Kennesaw, Georgia.
Selected in the squad for the 2011 FIFA World Cup in Germany, Jill was also named as an alternate for the Olympics the following year, travelling with the team to London. As she explains, and as many other players on the team have alluded to on here previously, a prominent midfielder is often the one to put together the pre-game playlist, but as such a music devotee, of course Jill played her part too.
“Lauren Cheney (Holiday) was always our DJ with the National Team. She’s the best; she had a knack for playing music that catered to everyone, and that way everyone got their fix before the game.
“I was never the official DJ, but I always had my input here and there about new music behind the scenes.”
Expression can be extremely powerful in soccer, and indeed in life, and music has allowed a number of the U.S. players to show off their personality. In addition to the locker room dancers (and Heather O’Reilly’s ‘Lose Yourself’ rap), midfielder Megan Rapinoe is known for her singing talent, as is former coach Pia Sundhage.
A lot of players are put on the spot and asked to perform a song when they join a new team but has Jill ever been placed in that situation?
“I was never forced to – come on, that’s a privilege and a rite of passage though! I don’t sing many karaoke songs, but my go-to is ‘Build Me Up Buttercup’ by The Foundations.
“Everyone loves that song so it kind of turns into a sing-along.”
Back in January 2012, the U.S. had stormed to the final of the CONCACAF Olympic Qualifying Tournament and faced hosts Canada in a sell-out encounter at Vancouver’s BC Place. With 25,427 in attendance, two goals each from Alex Morgan and Abby Wambach ensured that the Americans rounded off the competition in style.
When Jill was asked about the singing performances from teammates that stuck in her mind there was one memory that stood out and it was in the lead-up to this game. It may not have actually been a vocal display but it was a routine that helped ease any tension as kick-off drew nearer.
“Well it wasn’t so much singing, but Heather Mitts and I learned the solo dance to ‘Call Your Girlfriend’ by Robyn. As the team was getting ready for our big game against Canada in the Olympic qualifiers in Vancouver, we broke it out in unison during the musical break in the song.
“We thought it would be a way to lighten the mood pre-game!”
As mentioned, Jill suffered a broken bone in her hand while at the Algarve Cup in March 2013, although she had played in the opening game as the U.S. beat Iceland 3-0. Three months later, she played the second half at Red Bull Arena as 18,961 were in attendance to see Wambach tie then break Mia Hamm’s international scoring record of 158 as she struck four goals in a 5-0 rout of Korea Republic.
Two of Jill’s other counterparts from her magicJack and National Team days were the ones she put forward as the career teammates she would have alongside her if she was to record a song cover. Her choice owes much to nostalgia as she thinks back to some active video game sessions as the U.S. squad were in Europe ahead of the World Cup in Germany.
“Oh that’s a tough one. I will have to go with Becky Sauerbrunn and Christie Rampone.
“Before the 2011 World Cup, we were in Austria training, in the middle of absolutely nowhere. There wasn’t much to do besides play soccer, relax…and of course, play Just Dance.
“Needless to say, I was pretty much addicted and got a few teammates addicted as well. I will say my favourite dance was ‘Push It’ by Salt-N-Pepa.
“Clearly I would be Pepa, and then Becky and Christie would have to fight over Salt and DJ Spinderella.”
Founder and director of The Keeper Institute, Jill is working to give youngsters the kind of specialist guidance and training that she didn’t have access to as a kid. Her ventures also include the non-profit Jillian Loyden Foundation, which began after the passing of her 23-year-old sister Britton in February 2012.
The Foundation aims to provide resources and support to children who have faced difficult circumstances, particularly with regard to domestic violence. Through efforts such as the ‘Every Voice Counts’ campaign, the JLF continues to encourage people to speak up and break the cycle of domestic abuse.
In November, the Foundation held its second annual ‘Break the Silence’ gala in Philadelphia, with attendees including Jill’s teammates and friends Christie Rampone, Carli Lloyd and Yael Averbuch, to name but three. Various programs have been devised to help children with their education and two scholarships are awarded each year to support someone who has had to overcome adversity.
Even just on the Foundation’s website there are safety tips for anyone who may be subjected to domestic violence, and although Jill might not be on the field now, her positive impact is stronger than ever.
Together with her family, she wants to give her nephew Madden, now four years old, the kind of love and compassion that every child deserves to grow up around but far too many don’t get the chance to experience. One of her most cherished songs, ‘Fast Car’, contains the lyric ‘had a feeling I could be someone’, and Jill is making sure that it’s never forgotten that Britton truly was.
From the most devastating of circumstances she has put plans into action for positive change and she shares her current perspective on where she is at in her life, with regard to soccer and beyond.
“I am incredibly grateful for the opportunities that I have had to play around the world, develop relationships with some of the most incredible people, and have a heck of a lot of fun doing it, but it was time for me to hang up the boots. People ask me all the time, ‘Jill, what are you going to do now that you are retired and you have all this time?’
“I always laugh at first because my days are even busier now than they were before. But I always answer, ‘I don’t know exactly what, but greater things than I have done before.’
“I believe our best days are ahead of us. That more is in store for each of us, that no matter what you have done in your past – whether that was winning first place in your rec league or winning a gold medal – that we are destined to achieve more.
“So whether that’s changing lives through my non-profit organisation, inspiring a goalkeeper to become the next great goalkeeper of the U.S. Women’s National Team, helping a person through my church, or empowering my nephew to become a great man, I believe that greatness is still in store for me. That greatness is now defined not by the medals I have won, but the lives that I get to impact on a daily basis.”
Before she went on to achieve a Bachelor of Science degree, Jill was a match-winning scorer in a penalty shootout as a high school senior as Vineland defeated Washington Township in the first round of the South Jersey Soccer Coaches Association Tournament. The game she loves has served her some genuine hardships but also personal high points that will always remain attached to her name.
As Jill reflects on the biggest lessons in life she has been given by what is such a simple game when we break it down, she does so in characteristically candid fashion.
“Soccer has been the catalyst in everything I have done in my life. Whether it’s been a vehicle to travel around the world, meet amazing people, or empower me to chase bigger dreams, it has really shaped my life in more ways than I am even probably cognizant of.
“But ultimately soccer has taught me that I am stronger than I ever thought I was. Being a professional athlete, people see you and think you have it all together, that you are tough, and that you are confident beyond confident.
“That has not always been the case and I still sometimes struggle with that now. I am a real-life person, I have struggles just like everyone else in the world, but through soccer I was able to gain confidence.
“Moving from a posture of ‘I’m just not good enough’ to ‘I can do that, I’m capable of way more than I ever thought, and I will do everything in my power to achieve my goal’. It taught me about fear and doubt, and that when we let those thoughts fade and just enjoy the feel of the pitch, smell of the grass, and feel of the ball, we realise those doubts are just lies that we tell ourselves.
“That the truth is we just want to enjoy the trainings, the games, the relationships, the wins and the losses. That we are free to enjoy it all and that nothing in this world can steal that away from us, but us.”
For those who have followed Jill’s career with interest in recent years, or from the very start, there will be more than a tinge of sadness to think of the NWSL starting without her on the field this year. However, you can rest assured that the flame she carries for soccer burns on, and just maybe she might make a cameo appearance again one day.
Through the pain and the unforgettable moments of happiness, Jill can continue to move onwards with tremendous pride. As we await the impact she manages to have in the future, there is time to steal one last glance back through the years from her.
No matter how complicated life can be, time spent playing the beautiful game and taking it all back to basics can be a magical escape. If Jill was to take up position in her goal one more time and to choose four of those who shared in her career as teammates to complete her 5-a-side line-up, who would be starting in front of her when that whistle sounds out?
“This is a great question – I love small-sided games. My deep-rooted competitive nature comes out and I’d run over any player to win a game.
“I’d want Becky Sauerbrunn as my defender – we just have this telepathic vibe; she’s always at the perfect spot when I need her. She’s one of the most dependable defenders I’ve ever had the pleasure of playing with.
“I’d go with Formiga in the midfield. She’s a silent assassin; I don’t know if I’ve ever seen her give the ball away and she’s deceivingly fast.
“For my forward, I would choose Christen Press. She has a knack for the goal, she always finds herself at the right place at the right time.
“She’s super opportunistic; I would never want to play against her. Last but not least, Lauren Cheney would be on my squad.
“She’s a winner, she has a winning mentality, she can shoot from anywhere – you always have to be cautious of her. She’s a leader and someone I loved to play with!”
To catch each of these interviews in future, follow me on Twitter: @chris_brookes
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