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Jul, 2020

Internationals SC Alum Taylor Leach Impresses at the NWSL Challenge Cup

Taylor Leach’s journey to the NWSL was a long and winding one. 

It all started in Northeast Ohio with a decorated youth career with Internationals SC.  The next step was with the University of South Carolina, where Leach played in 86 matches and earned First Team All-SEC honors during her junior and senior seasons.  Leach then went overseas for four years to play professionally in Sweden, starring for Sunnanå SK, Östersunds DFF, and Kopparbergs/Göteborg FC.  

Leach is now with NWSL side Utah Royals FC, but that doesn’t mean the challenges are over for the Maumee, Ohio native.  The COVID-19 pandemic drastically changed what her first season in the league would look like.  She was unable to train with her new team for an extended period of time. 

“Team cohesion and not being able to train with your entire team was the biggest challenge,” Leach said. “The whole time leading up to that you're by yourself or maybe with one other person, depending on what phase we were in.  I think the hardest part was the tactics of it all.  Individually you could train, do your first touch, your passing, but when you're with an entire team, you can do bigger passing patterns, possession, those little things where it's more game like.  That was all taken away when you aren't able to train with your entire team.  And I think that was the biggest thing that we all missed because that's what we love.  We love playing and you weren't able to play.  The minute we were able to train, you could tell people were just flying, people were so happy to be there, competing. That was for sure the number one thing.”

A lengthy season was replaced with the NWSL Challenge Cup, a tournament taking place in Utah.  But preparing for this tournament hasn’t been easy or normal. 

“It is a bit different,” Leach said. “I've never actually, besides a friendly obviously, played in a game where there are no fans.  I think mentally you really have to really stay in tune and communicate and because there are no fans, everybody can hear you.  You can communicate with your teammates and there's no crowd to kind of interrupt that.  I guess that's one positive.”

Yet competing without fans is strange for so many of the players.

“The downside is obvious,” Leach said. “When you are at home the crowd is that extra man on the field, encouraging you to go on and the cheering gives you a little bit extra, an adrenaline rush.  Now you have to really pull with from within and use the the momentum from your bench and that's why our bench has been huge.  Just to hear them helps because they are our audience essentially.  I think there is a pro obviously, like I said with the communication aspect, but then obviously the downside is just that environment.  It's so different.  For me, when I've been on the field, it's been different.  And then obviously, when I'm on the sideline, I try to help as much as I can vocally to try to get my teammates motivated because I know they can hear me.  In a game where there are a bunch of fans screaming all over you, they can't really hear you.”

Playing in a tournament does require a different perspective and mindset when compared to a long season.

“In a tournament setting, it's a game, a couple days off, and then a game again,” Leach said. “In an actual season, you have a game, and then you have a more of a recovery period, time to then prepare for the next game.  Now you don't have so much time to prepare.  You don't really have time to dwell on the game you previously played.  You have to already be ready for the next one.”

Yet individual players have worked hard to adapt and prepare for these differences.

“We all have to be ready mentally,” Leach said. “Players have to be ready to come in and know what their jobs are.  And obviously during this Challenge Cup all the teams are in essentially a lockdown.  It's not like we can go and clear our mind of the soccer side of things.  We have to be in our apartments and those players that obviously are coming from other places are in their hotels.  We are trying to mentally stay in tune and keep the mental health side of things in good condition so that we can go out and perform.  I think those were the biggest obstacles and still are.  But I think we've done a good job of managing that as the Utah Royals.”

Leach has excelled in this environment and just came off a strong performance against OL Reign on July 8th.  This was her first appearance in the competition as she had been dealing with a hamstring injury. 

Utah Royals FC head coach Craig Harrington has been thoroughly impressed with Leach and her contributions to the team.

“She brings so much,” Harrington said. “Taylor's an incredible person and you see that she has a different dimension in the field.  Physically, she's dominant, but she's also technically very good. She brings a lot.  She’s fitting in really seamlessly in the locker room.  She's a positive-minded person, but she also works incredibly hard at her own game.”

Harrington is a coach known for developing players and it is clear that Leach is in good hands.    

“She's on one of our individual development plan programs right now so we're doing the best we can to help her and educate her and improve and add to her game as a player at this level,” Harrington said.

Harrington has an appreciation for the long journey that Leach has taken to the NWSL. 

“I think she should be very proud of the hard work she's taken to get into the NWSL,” Harrington said. “It’s exciting to see those players who ultimately have to leave this country, go abroad, and then come back and then make the impact that she's had not only in our locker room, on me as a person, and then on our team, and hopefully, as we get more games she can contribute more on the pitch.”

Given her journey and the challenges she has faced in 2020, Leach is ready to contribute and make a name for herself in the NWSL Challenge Cup.

Photo Credit: Tyler Gibbons 

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