Chante' Sandiford was 13 years old when she found her second home.
Playing in the Washington Freedom's youth developmental program and going against a rival club, Sandiford made one big save after another to earn an impressive shutout. Afterward, she got a huge hug from her mother, high praise from her coach and an understanding — she belonged in goal.
Also a striker who could score goals, Sandiford learned she liked the challenge of stopping them more.
"I feel so comfortable, absolutely at home in the goal, and I love the challenge of keeping the ball out of the net," said Sandiford, a rising senior goalkeeper at UCLA who will start her third season for the Bruins this fall.
Growing up playing with the Baltimore Bays, Bethesda Rapids and Freedom, the McDonogh graduate credits the experience she gained from those high-level club teams for much of her development as a soccer player.
So when some of her UCLA teammates approached her to play club ball one last time this summer for the Under-23 Eagles SC of Camarillo, Calif., Sandiford couldn't pass up the offer.
The Eagles aren't just any club team. They're looking to win an unprecedented fourth age-specific national title when they compete in the U.S. Adult Soccer Association (USAUSA) U-23 National Cup beginning Friday in Bowling Green, Ky.
With much of their core still intact, the Eagles captured two U.S. Youth Soccer National titles (U-14 and U-17) and last year became only the second team in the 32-year history of women's youth and adult national championships to capture three titles when they won the U-23 crown.
They'll look to defend that title starting with Friday's semifinal against Texas-based D'Feeters.
Sandiford, 21, joins three of her collegiate teammates on the squad. The Owings Mills native is the only non-Californian on the 17-player roster.
"Their track record is unreal, and all the girls on the team are just incredible soccer players," Sandiford said. "Everything is like clockwork with them, so it's really easy for me to come in and be a part of something that's already so well run. I just have to do my part — keep the ball out of the net — and they'll take care of the rest."
Eagles' coach Vince Thomas is pleased to have Sandiford filling that role.
"She has great physical ability and brings leadership and experience from UCLA," he said. "So she brings a lot of confidence and more credibility in back for us. Bottom line: With a goalie so athletic and experienced, you feel like you're not going to give up anything, so it's almost impossible not to find a way to win."
After spending her freshman year at Villanova, Sandiford transferred to UCLA to have a chance to compete for a national championship. In 2009, her first season as a starter, the Bruins reached the semifinals of the NCAA College Cup.
Sandiford — who mostly played forward at McDonogh and scored 66 goals in her four years — went 21-2-1 with nine shutouts and a 0.64 goals against average that season. She then went 13-8-2 last fall.
With a mix of experienced players and talented newcomers, the Bruins are expecting to once again challenge for a national title in the fall.
Sandiford's stature in goal — she has good size at 5 feet 9 with natural athleticism and strong leadership —will be a key component to the team's success.
"She's one of — if not the — most competitive player we have on our team," UCLA coach B.J. Snow said. "She's a good communicator and has the one thing you want in all goalkeepers in that she has a knack to make that big save when you need her to make the big save."
And for Sandiford, who is majoring in geography, spending time in that home in front of the net has taught her lessons that go beyond the playing field.
"Every day, I make sure to do the best I can in everything I do," she said. "I work really hard in everything I do and have become a determined person. I make sure my every effort is my best effort — soccer especially taught me that."