Canadian goalkeeper Erin McLeod set to return after lengthy layoff

Eric-McLeod;-Canada

Eric McLeod in action for Canada. (Frank Gunn/CP)

The journey continues for Canadian women’s goalkeeper Erin McLeod.

After being sidelined with a knee injury, one that forced her to miss the 2016 Olympics, the soon to be 35-year-old shot stopper is now settled in with a new professional club in Germany and is back in the national team fold, ready to add to her 115 appearances for Canada.

The Alberta native recently chatted with Sportsnet about her lengthy career and what motivates her to keep going.

How did you end up with FF USV Jena in the Frauen-Bundesliga?
Yes! USV Jena, which is pronounced Yena, I’m still learning how to say it. I feel really lucky. I’ve had a lot of things on my “to do” list in my career. And to be honest, at the end of my Swedish season, and those politics that happen on every level of sport, for me, I wasn’t Swedish, and it wasn’t helping my case, I’ll put it that way. I thought about maybe going home to be closer to my family, and then my wife [Ella Masar McLeod] got this incredible offer to play on one of the best if not the best club teams [VfL Wolfsburg] in the world in Germany. Then I thought that maybe I can try it over there.

The head coach here [Katja Greulich] was actually the assistant when I was at Rosengård [in Sweden’s Damallsvenskan] the first year. Even though I was injured, we did a lot of tactical stuff together. I worked with her and really, really liked her style. We chatted and joked about me playing here, and the opportunity presented itself. I came here to train for a week, and a week later, I signed. It was almost out of left field, but I’m so happy here.

I was thinking about the NWSL [National Women’s Soccer League], but Boston folded and for right now, with the goalkeeping, it’s a hard league to break into. Our team right now is second-to-last place, and it’s a perfect team because you get a lot of experience really fast. That’s what I need right now.

How soon are you and Ella playing against each another?
It’s in the middle of March, and I’m already so excited [laughs]. I don’t know how much trash talk will be happening, but she did say she won’t celebrate if she scores on me, assuming that she’ll already be scoring on me. We’ve already had some pretty good banter about that.

The last time I played Ella, and it’s funny, she played for Chicago, and I played for Washington back in the WPS [Women’s Professional Soccer] days. Ella, when she was in Washington before I got there, she stayed at the host family I ended up staying at later. I heard all of these amazing things about her, and when I played her then, she literally went right through me on a through ball. It’s funny now because we’re married and I can still make fun of her for that [laughs].

Your professional career has taken you around the world. Have you noticed differences in playing styles between Sweden and Germany?
I’m really happy to be here, and that’s no discredit to the Swedish league. The top two teams in the Swedish league are very competitive, very good. Aside from that, the level drops. I think you’ll find that with the French league where the top three or four teams are excellent and I think the English league is becoming more competitive. What I love about the Bundesliga is that it seems the top to the bottom of the table is pretty competitive. And to be fair, I think that’s why the NWSL is so great – it seems that every game is a competitive game.

When I think of styles, when I played with Rosengård, I think we had the cream of the crop — many excellent players there. But here, we might be second-to-last, but the players are really intelligent. We have one midfielder, and she’s playing balls that make me think, “how do you see that?” Wayne Gretzky is my hero, and they always say that he’d see two or three plays before they happen and she’s the same. And there’s some young talent with this tactical awareness that I really appreciate playing in Europe.

And you’re not the lone Canadian with Jena.
In my first camp back in with Canada in two years, we were in Spain getting ready to play Norway. Amy Pietrangelo and Shannon Woeller were there, and we were talking because I didn’t have a team yet. I was still thinking things over, and they say, “come to our club.” We were joking around at the time, and it was funny when I showed up. I was here, literally, just to train and I ended up staying. There are quite a few internationals here, and the German girls have been so welcoming. I feel really lucky because it’s been such a great group. Half of the reason I play is because of the locker room and team chemistry. I feel lucky to be here.

Congratulations on being named to Canada’s Algarve Cup squad. What’s it like returning to the national team environment?
Thank you. It’s wonderful, and it’s always an honour. I’ve spent a lot of my career being nervous and afraid sometimes, afraid of mistakes. My only goal this season is to enjoy it. I’m getting older, and I might only have a few seasons left. That’s what I want. I listen to podcasts all the time, and one is about feeding the positive dog versus the negative dog, which is the anger, the frustration, the fear. The positive dog is about being compassionate to yourself and living a life of love. All those things. That’s how I want to live, and that’s why it’s so cool that I get to play the game. It’s like a mini lab where I get to try out my lifelong philosophies in sport. That’s how I want to live, and that’s how I want to play. I’m so excited to be back with the girls.

Tell us about your journey back from your knee injury. How did missing the Rio Olympics and extensive rehab affect you?
The hardest thing for me was deciding whether I was going to play or not. I felt like things were so unfinished. In a sense, it was heartbreaking watching the Olympics, but at the same time, I’m so grateful for it because it showed me I wasn’t done. I didn’t want to be miserable and feel angry. To be fair, if the Olympics would’ve gone really well, maybe I would’ve thought about retiring. In a sense, it gave me a couple of more years. Rehab is tough, but it’s been easier on my body, so it extended my career in a way. I think I would’ve always regretted not having this chance to play with this mindset. I’m not sure I believe everything happens for a reason. I think things happen and you create your own reasons, you find a new purpose. It taught me that I’m a lot stronger than I think.

I also have been really working on self-compassion. As athletes, why are we so hard on ourselves? Or as young people? I’m not grateful that I got injured again and now I’m meditating twice a day, I’m meditating, I’m doing more recovery than I’ve ever done and I’m taking care of my body, eating better. I’m putting more time and effort into this than I ever have before. In that way, it’s kind of nice because I can just show up and enjoy it.

The Algarve Cup will mark Kenneth Heiner-Møller’s first camp as coach since John Herdman moved over to the men’s program. What do you know about your new head coach and what was your reaction to finding out the news?
John tried to get a hold of me when I was here in Germany. Because of the time change, I woke up and my phone was blowing up. My family and everyone I knew was trying to get a hold of me because of the news and I was wondering what was going on. I checked Twitter and saw that John was no longer the head coach and I was like, “what?” I checked my email and John wanted to set up a time to talk and said, “I really want to connect with you. I’m sorry because of the time difference I wasn’t able to do it before.” John and I were able to connect, and I’m really glad because he’s had such an impact on my life, as a person and as a coach.

Kenneth, I actually don’t know really well. It’s going to be an interesting transition. He seems like a really good man, and for me, it’s easier to fight for someone who you know is good. And from a soccer intelligence standpoint, his is through the roof. I’m excited to work with such a smart and kind guy. He’s going to be different than John, of course, as he’s quieter, but in a sense, it’s an opportunity as players to be more vocal and step into those leadership roles. John was kind of always the 12th man on the side, and I believe Kenneth will direct us in the right way, and the rest will be up to us.

I think there was a negative reaction with John moving over to the men’s side and what I admire about John is that he’s always looking for the biggest challenge. I think that’s why he pursued that.

I hope that people continue to have faith in us. With the youth team not qualifying [for the U-20 Women’s World Cup this summer] there was negativity, like “John Herdman is gone and now they aren’t qualifying.” I think what I love about being Canadian is we’re a country with fewer people, and we’re at our best when we’ve got everyone behind us. Christine Sinclair will be my hero for the rest of my career, and there are so many good things to come. I hope people continue to believe and support us.

It’s interesting you mention the U-20s because we caught up with coach Bev Priestman not long ago about the CONCACAF result in January and she conveyed how gutted she was for the girls. This marks the start of a new journey for the women’s program, doesn’t it?
Absolutely. It’s cool because I know Melissa Tancredi is helping the medical staff, Rhian Wilkinson will be helping from a coaching perspective. I think there are a lot of people being put in positions that are going to continue to enhance our program. That’s another thing that John wanted, and I think that’s so cool to be surrounded people like Nicci Wright helping with the youth goalkeepers, Carmelina Moscato plays a huge role with coaching, Candace Chapman has been helping, Mel Booth. Forgive me if I didn’t include everyone. It’s really in our hands, and it’s all of our responsibilities. It’s super easy to be negative, but if people continue to trust and believe in us, we’re still ranked so high in the world, and I think we’ve got the world ahead of us.

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