Chanté Sandiford: Heart of a Warrior, Mind of a Champion

To be frank, there are many things in life that I just don’t understand. Why are we the only country that doesn’t use the Metric System? Why do we abbreviate pounds with “lbs” and ounces with “oz”? How can you help a professional soccer (football) team win their respective league and not get a call up for your country’s national team?

We saw the latter here in the U.S. when Toronto FC dominated MLS yet Sebastian Giovinco continued to get snubbed by Italy. If Javi Martinez wasn’t in good form he wouldn’t be a staple at Bayern Munich, the biggest club in Germany, yet Spain refused to look his way. With 14 goals, 19 assists, two championship titles, and the Premier league’s young player of the year award, Manchester City’s Leroy Sané was left off the 2018 FIFA World Cup squad for Germany. A move that headlined worldwide as both fans and players were left befuddled.

Now that we’re two months out from the Women’s World Cup and rosters are being finalized, I can’t help but wonder… The reigning World Cup Champions (USA) have had a gaping hole at goalkeeper since the departure of Hope Solo in 2016. Why? And why do they keep recycling the same goalkeepers without scouring the globe to unearth talent like Jürgen Klinsmann did with the men? Do we only have three formidable keepers in this country? Enter Chanté Sandiford.

It’s always a pleasure when someone so talented has a personality to match. Within seconds of our video conference, you could see a gleam of confidence balanced with the spirit of a warrior all behind a smile that says, “Just to let you know, you might see avocado toast” (and perhaps I did, but I see nothing wrong with avocados or toast). The FK Haukar goalkeeper was kind enough to squeeze me in between a mid-day snack and a coaching session (just enough time for the veteran to share her story).

Chanté Sandiford CONCACAF Olympic Qualifying

Chanté began her football adventures at the U-13 level for Bethesda during the times of the now-defunct Washington Freedom. She was good with the U-13’s but playing in the Development Academy for the Freedom Youth Team is where she became great. For the U.S. National Team, she played at the U-15, U-17, and U-20 level. It was clear this girl could ball.

She initially attended Villanova but transferred to UCLA. It was none other than Jill Ellis, our current U.S. Women’s National Team coach, that was in need of a goalkeeper at that point in time so the transfer opportunity was perfect. After sitting out a season due to ridiculous NCAA rules, she started every match the following season and made it to the Final Four. Next season they went as far as the Elite 8. In her final season, it just made sense that a National Championship was coming based on her first two seasons, but disaster struck. A ruptured Achilles would end her collegiate career and force her to watch the remainder of the season. “It felt like the end of the world… but it wasn’t” she joked.

Towards the end of the summer in 2012, Sandiford’s talents would send her to Russia for her first professional season with WFC Zorky Krasnogorsk. She played two seasons in UEFA Women’s Champions League and even won the Russian Premier League with her club. Living just 30 minutes outside of Moscow, all appeared to be well. You’re winning with your club, you won your domestic league title, and you’re getting vital Champions League experience against top tier clubs in Europe. “It was an awesome experience,” she said with a smile. “But my next season I left early because I didn’t feel safe.”  I knew exactly what she meant, she knew that I knew what she meant, but for the purpose of professionalism she spelled it out anyway: “Russia is a hard place to live when you’re brown. I didn’t feel safe or welcome when I was away from the team.”

So in 2015, she left WFC Zorky in Russia in favor of Selfoss in Iceland. She would find immediate success with her new club, making it to their league’s Cup Final. Sadly, they went from a Cup Final to relegation the following season but she stayed because her heart was in it. She’s a warrior. A fighter. A leader. She stayed because she wanted to help rectify their relegation and get promoted, which they did. Even after her heroics, the club chose not to renew her contract. The combination of her being that good and being an international probably presented an affordability issue. But as a warrior and a fighter, this did not phase her one bit.

Chanté Sandiford leaping save

The circumstances actually worked out in her favor and presented her another opportunity to play in the Women’s Champions League. She moved to Norway to start the next chapter of her professional career, but being in a state of constant duress forced her to leave early. I ended up leaving there before the season ended,” she states. Her mental health was suffering. She came to the conclusion that the only way to mend her pain was to change her scenery so she left.

She’s very outspoken when it comes to mental health. It’s something that had never affected her before and then boom, things went awry. The reason she and many other athletes struggle when approaching these challenges is that as an athlete, you’re taught to do the very opposite of what you should do. “Push everything away” “Focus on the task at hand” “Whatever’s going on in your life, all that goes away once you get on the field.” Well, what happens when you can’t push everything away? Or make it go away once you get on the field? Chanté has a message for anyone who may be experiencing this right now:

Whatever it is that you’re feeling is completely justified. Whether or not you think you can explain it to somebody else or you don’t think someone else will understand, anything that you think or feel or anything going on in your head and in your heart is 100% justified. If you’re feeling burnt out, if you’re feeling football (or any sport) isn’t making you happy, talk to someone about it. If you don’t feel like you can talk to your coach or your parents or anybody about it, find someone else who can listen to you like a professional and explain to them you feel A, B, and C and how do I fix feeling A, B, and C. It’s not normal to wake up with anxiety. It’s not normal to be doing something you love and feeling sad about it or not excited about it. If you’re trying everything that you can to feel differently and it’s not changing then you need to find somebody to help you because you can’t handle it on your own. That would be my biggest advice. Don’t downplay your feelings.”

Everyone has a different story to tell and I think young athletes can learn a lot from hers. If your mental health is suffering, you’re not alone. If you want to do something that other people can’t understand, you can still do it. If you want to be a professional athlete, don’t be afraid to adventure outside the bubble (the U.S.). The latter comes with its own set of challenges and drawbacks but it’s not impossible. The main drawback, as it appears in the women’s game, is the likelihood of a call-up. I’ve talked to many players all over the world and everyone’s congruent on the point that there’s no greater feeling than playing for your country. The best female players from the United States should be playing on the U.S. Women’s National Team. My worry is that the U.S. isn’t taking the right approach at ushering in the next generation of champions which leads me to Chanté. Here we have a 5’9″, fully fit, fresh goalkeeper who’s a leader, a joy to talk to, has Champions League experience, championship experience, and experience in the agony of relegation but building up team spirit and fervor to bounce back to the premiership. So does she play for us? No. She’s everything I said she was but for the Guyanese National Team. And it’s not because of lack of interest or a vendetta either. I played for the U.S. until U-20, then I wasn’t getting called into camps anymore.” I truly believe her phone never rang because she’s not playing stateside.

Guyanese Goalkeeper Chanté Sandiford

If you look at the roster right now, it’ll show nothing but NWSL players, which is not a bad thing. The bad thing is the league is comprised of just nine teams. Nine. We have talent making waves globally but our eye for talent stays on the domestic league. On a domestic league with nine teams.

So what exactly does it take? Hailie Mace is a defender out of UCLA. The year of her senior season, she was capped three times. Suddenly, she moves and plays for Melbourne City (AUS) and now FC Rosengard (SWE) and she hasn’t been back since (recently called to U-23, but not the senior team). Another goalkeeper who could surely give the USWNT the boost it needs is Casey Murphy. With 45 clean sheets in her college career, Murphy is Rutgers’ all-time leader for career shutouts and ranks second in Big Ten history. She gets drafted by NWSL club Sky Blue FC and coincidentally gets a call-up. When she left Sky Blue FC to play in France she also left any chance of playing for the national team. In her first season with Montpellier, Murphy started in 11 games. She also earned the Division 1 Best Keeper Award, was selected by French media as part of the league’s Best XI, and participated in both the Coupe de France Féminine and UEFA Women’s Champions League.

The point should also be made that it’s not easy to play overseas. There are far more complications that come with playing across the pond than here at home. “If you don’t have a European passport, it’s almost impossible. The work permit issues, the teams don’t wanna pay to sponsor your visa, they don’t wanna pay agent fees, they’d rather find someone in Europe who’s already cleared to work in Europe as opposed to taking American players, even though they might be better,” says Sandiford. A lot of the most successful players in Europe have English or Italian passports. They’re American but, they have European passports, making it easier for them to play.

For now, Chanté is happily enjoying her time in Iceland with friends, family, and teammates at FK Haukar. The vegan goalkeeper is a joy to talk to and her story is just starting to unfold. After battling disappointment in her collegiate career and mending her mental health in her professional career, Sandiford is now in a place where she can focus on her passion.

You can follow her journey on Instagram and the club’s progress as well.

-Jon J.

Photos: Provided by Chanté Sandiford

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