Veteran Canada goalkeeper Erin McLeod is back in North America with the NWSL’s Orlando Pride following four injury-disrupted seasons in Europe, in a June 17, 2020 story. (Photo by THE CANADIAN PRESS)

Veteran Canada ‘keeper Erin McLeod happy to be back after painful foot injuries

After months of pain, Erin McLeod is just grateful these days that taking her dogs for a walk doesn’t hurt any more.

Playing soccer is a bonus.

Restored to health after a debilitating foot injury, the veteran Canada goalkeeper is back in North America with the NWSL’s Orlando Pride following four injury-disrupted seasons in Europe.

“I just feel very lucky to be here after a couple of rougher years,” McLeod said.

“To step on the field … with Marta and players like Ali Riley, Ali Krieger and some of the best players in the world. I get to do this every day,” she added.

While McLeod says it’s important to remember the “hard times,” at 37 her expectations are modest.

“I have no goals right now … I’m proud of what I’ve done,” said McLeod, a world-class ‘keeper who has represented Canada 118 times. “I still work really hard and pay attention to detail … So whatever happens now, happens.”

In announcing her signing in February to a one-year deal with an option for another year, Orlando Pride GM Erik Ustruck said McLeod would provide “some much-needed depth at the goalkeeper position.”

The incumbent is 34-year-old Ashlyn Harris, the Pride captain who missed much of last season on international duty as backup to Alyssa Naeher at the World Cup. Harris who married Krieger in December, is a two-time goalkeeper of the year (2011 in the WPS and 2016 in the NWSL).

Backup Haley Kopmeyer, who filled in for Harris last season, was waived in February.

With 23-year-old Lainey Burdett having little experience, McLeod fills a void.

“Whatever’s best for the team and making the team better,” McLeod said of the ‘keeper situation.

McLeod’s career was essentially derailed by tarsal tunnel syndrome in both her feet. it’s a painful injury caused by compression of or damage to the nerve supplying the heel and sole.

“I probably returned to play too early and because of that I broke my third metatarsal in my left foot and then I was forced to take time off,” she said. “Which helped me heal both my feet.”

The foot problem, which kept her out of the 2019 World Cup, was initially thought to be plantar fasciitis until a specialist corrected the diagnosis.

It means away from soccer, she has to pay attention to her feet — from managing swelling to wearing recovery boots or just having them up.

“(I’m) very mindful of time on the feet,” she said.

McLeod, from St. Albert., Alta., has had more than her share of injuries with three knee surgeries.

She suffered ligament damage in December 2015 playing for Canada at a tournament in Brazil. Things got worse two months later in the CONCACAF Olympic qualifier in Houston.

The knee finally gave out in March 2016, kicking a ball in FC Rosengard’s Champions League quarter-final game against FFC Frankfurt.

She had surgery to have part of her kneecap inserted into a hole in her tibia from a previous surgery and a small strip of quadricep used as her new anterior cruciate ligament. An extra ligament, from a cadaver, was also inserted.

As a result, she missed out in the 2016 Olympics in Rio de Janeiro, where Canada won bronze.

One of the reasons she returned to North America was to be closer to her family.

“I’m 37 years old now. I am still very proud to be playing but both my sisters have kids. It’s just nice to be able to be on a similar time zone at least and to be able to visit them.”

Prior to moving to Orlando, McLeod got to spend a month with her parents on Vancouver Island.

“It was great,” she said. “You very rarely get to know your parents as adults.”

McLeod, who previously played in the NWSL for the Chicago Red Stars and Houston Dash, also has seen advances in the league from the housing provided to player insurance.

“It’s very professional,” she said.

There is little she hasn’t done in soccer, having played in Sweden and Germany as well as North America where she won W-League titles in 2004 and 2006.

On the international front, she has 45 clean sheets and won Olympic bronze in 2012.

Commanding in her penalty box, McLeod has always been a steadying force at the back.

But with Canada, she now finds herself looking at a group of talented younger ‘keepers with No. 1 Stephane Labbe flanked by Sabrina D’Angelo and Kailen Sheridan.

“I have done a lot things in my career that I’m very very proud of,” McLeod said. “And I think as athletes it’s just natural for us to always want more and to do better.

“But if I didn’t play for Canada ever again, I would be OK. And I think that’s what I learned after the 2016 Olympics. It was devastating in a lot of ways but I realized how much of my identity was wrapped up in football.

“It is definitely a huge part of what I do every day. But I think I’m very lucky that I’ve found a lot of passions.”

An artist, musician, entrepreneur and former LGBT representative on the Canadian Athletes’ Commission, McLeod just got certified as a mental coach and is looking into courses to become a meditation teacher, life coach and cognitive behavioural therapist.

She recently developed the Mindful Project, a mindfulness program created in tandem with Bethel University professor Rachel Lindvall.

The goal is to help focus more on positive thoughts while moving past negative ones.

They started it with an eye to children aged six to 12, but it has since expanded to programs for sports clubs and adults, with the course having undergone refinements from test runs. The latest project is a high-performance version of the program.

This report by The Canadian Press was first published June 17, 2020.

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