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McDonogh grad braves cold to play pro soccer in Russia

'I am really having the time of my life,' says Sandiford

By Tom Worgo, tworgo@tribune.com

9:04 AM EDT, July 9, 2013

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The idea of playing professional soccer first hit Chante Sandiford in the fall of 2009 while helping UCLA to a 21-2-1 record and an NCAA Division I tournament championship berth.

Unfortunately for the then-sophomore goaltender, the Bruins bowed in the final to Pac-10 foe Stanford University, 2-1, in overtime.

Still, she realized then that she had the potential to continue her career.

"I just saw how awesome soccer was and the level I could play," Sandiford said. "I just decided I wanted to play professional soccer after that. It's been my sole focus"

Four years later, the Owings Mills resident and McDonogh School graduate is realizing her dream.

She just never thought it would be in Russia, where conditions can be frigid, after considering Norway, Sweden and Germany as more realistic options.

"I didn't really think it was going to happen," Sandiford explained of playing in Russia. "I was skeptical because I didn't know much about Russia. What I did know I saw in the movies and it's not always that great."

The 5-foot-9 Sandiford enjoys competing for FK Zorkiy in the Russian Premier League so much, she signed an 18-month extension to play through December of 2014.

FK Zorkiy — which is based on the city limits of Moscow — won the UEFA Women's Champions League with Sandiford starting in goal in June.

Her team's season runs in two parts, from January to June and July to December.

FK plays in front of crowds of up to 7,000 people, Sandiford said.

"I am really having the time of my life," said Sandiford, whose team plays against nine other Russian teams. "I really like it that much. I am so glad I decided to go there and play."

Sandiford's agent, Damon Wilson, of Philadelphia's TransFair Sports Group, says her stellar play should pave the way for a long and successful career.

His agency represents 37 professional soccer player, including 14 women.

"Goalies in soccer can play so much longer than field players," Wilson said. "She easily has another 10 to 15 years of playing professional soccer at an extremely high level. Chante is very strong, she's got a great head on her shoulders and trains very hard."

Wilson said that FK Zorkiy beating FC Rossiyanka, 1-0, for the Russian Premier League championship with Sandiford leading the way was quite an accomplishment.

"They (Rossiyanka) were among the final seven teams in the world championships," he said.

Sandiford says playing in Russia has some great benefits, not the least of which is the pay.

"They have the highest salaries for women's soccer in the world," Sandiford said.

But there are also a few drawbacks of playing in Russia. The freezing weather for one. Sandiford's team played a game in March with the temperature 15 degrees below zero.

Much like Major League Baseball teams that flock to warm-weather sites for spring training, FK Zorkiy held training camp in a more temperate Turkey at the beginning of the most recent season.

"I was very, very worried," Sandiford said. "I really had to get used to playing in the cold and snow. Once, I got used to it, I was OK."

The language barrier also presented a big challenge. Sandiford was only one of two Americans playing in a league of about 300 players.

Sandiford eventually learned to speak some Russian using Rosetta Stone, a popular language-teaching software.

"English is not a second language there like a lot of other places," Sandiford said. "So it's really hard to communicate with people. But I know how to tell people the things I need to. I can talk to my teammates and tell the defense to come up and back, and who to mark, and things like that."

Sandiford had her doubts about playing professional soccer after she ruptured her Achilles tendon during her senior year at UCLA.

"You literally have to teach yourself to walk again," said Sandiford, who started her college career at Villanova University before transferring.

After sixth months of rehabbing, she was ready to play soccer again. Sandiford signed to play two months last summer for the semipro New Jersey Wildcats of the United Soccer League.

That led her to her current team — just not the one she expected.

"I had been out for so long," Sandiford said of missing nine months. "I needed that level of competition to get my timing back and where I need to be. That was the highest level in America."