Jill Loyden makes most of unexpected opportunities

In January, Jill Loyden didn't think she'd be starting in the Women's Professional Soccer playoffs or going to Germany with the U.S. national team over the course of 2011.

For one thing, she had made only one career appearance for the USA. For another, she had signed with WPS's magicJack, where U.S. star Hope Solo was going to start when healthy.

On top of all that, she broke her left hand in January.

"None of this would have ever looked likely," Loyden said. "I didn't think I was going to be back. I played in the first game against Boston, but I didn't think I'd be back in time to do that or make the roster to go to the World Cup."

She did both. When Solo had to serve a one-game suspension carried over from 2010 for criticizing officials, Loyden posted a 1-0 shutout win in magicJack's season opener April 23. And when U.S. coach Pia Sundhage named the roster for the World Cup in Germany, Loyden was one of Solo's two backups.

"This is just a blessing, and I'm trying to enjoy it every day," Loyden said.

Now Solo is the one who's injured, working to get her right shoulder fully healthy. That leaves Loyden in net for magicJack, which finished third in the regular season and will host Boston in the first round of the WPS playoffs on Wednesday.

Loyden learned of her new starting role when she returned to the U.S. and spoke with magicJack owner Dan Borislow.

"He said the team really needed me at this time," Loyden said. "I was happy to go back and be part of this team. It's definitely something special since we got back. The team's really close."

And Loyden is close with Solo, dating back to when they met as teammates with St. Louis in WPS's debut season.

"I'd never met Hope, didn't know too much about her," Loyden said. "Then we just really enjoyed training together. It was a great environment, and it's been great ever since."

Solo goes beyond mere politeness in training. On her Twitter feed, she questioned Loyden's omission from the list of nominees for WPS goalkeeper of the year.

"I just appreciate technically sound GKs who use footwork to make saves and make everything look easy," Solo wrote on Twitter.

Reached for further comment, Solo called Loyden the "best training partner I've ever had."

"[Loyden is] the most technically sound out of all of us GKs," Solo said. "Not to mention a kind, kind heart who can cook amazing meals! She can make pretty amazing salsa and fish tacos."

Loyden gets a kick out of Solo's effusive support.

"She's funny," Loyden said. "We just really have a great chemistry training together. You can't really find that environment too many other places. It's hard to replicate. But we bring out the best in each other."

Paul Rogers, Solo and Loyden's goalkeeping coach in St. Louis and with the national team, was impressed with Loyden after coaching against her in college. Yet Loyden, who spent a couple of seasons with the W-League's Jersey Sky Blue before and after her senior year at Villanova, went through an adjustment period after showing up out of shape in St. Louis.

"She wasn't fit, wasn't particularly sharp, but she had a great attitude," Rogers said.

Rogers guided Loyden through a lot of work in the gym, and she changed her nutritional habits. "She's a model pro now," he said.

After a year as Solo's backup in St. Louis, Loyden got a chance to start last season with Chicago, playing well enough to get her first appearance with the national team in a 2-1 win over China in October.

"Tactically, she still needs a lot of improvement," Rogers said. "She has not played a lot of games in the highest level. It was important for us to trade her to Chicago [for playing time]. She was better than most of the keepers in the league. The trade was to do her a favor."

Chicago left WPS in the offseason, but Loyden was able to continue her development with magicJack. Borislow was happy to bring her to South Florida, saying she has "hands like glue."

Loyden laughed at the praise. "I grew up playing a bunch of different sports [including basketball], and I think that may have helped me," Loyden said.

Though many magicJack players have split their seasons between WPS and the national team, Loyden has had continuity with the defenders in front of her -- U.S. teammates Christie Rampone and Becky Sauerbrunn have been with her in South Florida and Germany.

"I respect every defense in the league, but I think we have the best one," Loyden said. "I'm really excited to play behind our back four."

And there's another national team player, Abby Wambach, coaching the team these days. Loyden is drawing on Wambach's experience not just in soccer but also in their daily routine of solving crossword puzzles.

"Abby always finishes more than me," Loyden said. "I'm usually the one asking her what the answer is. But I just started in the past two years, so she's got a bit of a lead on me."

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