May 15, 2013
By UConn Athletic Communications
In just a few short months, Jessica Shufelt has gone from wondering what kind of job she could get to best use her college degree in Sports Management to running onto the soccer field to sub in for superstar U.S. Olympian Alex Morgan.
It looks like Shufelt is managing her sport just fine.
After four years of solid play on the UConn women’s soccer team and two summers with the Ottawa Fury of the semi-professional USL W-League, Shufelt has literally taken her game to the next level. The 5-7 forward from Rochester, N.Y., has earned a roster spot on the Portland (Ore.) Thorns Football Club, part of the new eight-team National Women’s Soccer League.
“I’m just taking it day by day, because just a few months ago, not once did I think I’d be living in Portland,” Shufelt said. “I honestly thought I was done with soccer. Then this happened.”
What happened was Shufelt was given a chance to play professional soccer and decided to make the most of it.
Shufelt had an outstanding summer playing for the Fury in 2011, scoring nine goals and adding two assists in 11 matches. After helping the Fury reach the W-League Final Four, she was named to the W-League All-League team.
As an attacking forward at UConn, Shufelt appeared in 72 matches (43 starts) and totaled 11 goals and 10 assists. She helped the Huskies make back-to-back NCAA Tournaments in 2009 and 2010.
Following her senior season at UConn in 2011 and her graduation in the spring of 2012, Shufelt returned to the Fury and made 12 appearances, registering one goal and two assists, helping the team reach the W-League championship match. She played 34 minutes in the title game as the Fury captured a 4-3 penalty kick victory.
As far as Shufelt was concerned, that could have been the end of her soccer career. But she sent out her soccer resume to teams in the newly-forming NWSL and received an invitation from Mike Jorden, coach of the Washington Spirit, to attend a team tryout at the end of January at the University of Maryland’s indoor facility.
“I wasn’t expecting anything,” Shufelt said. “I hadn’t been training since the summer and thought I was done. But one of the girls I worked with convinced me that I should just go to the tryout and see what happens. So I did, and Coach Jorden told me he was putting my name in the draft to give me the opportunity to be drafted by somebody.”
In the fifth round of the NWSL Supplemental Draft in early February, with the 40th overall pick, Shufelt was selected by the Thorns, perhaps the strongest team in the new league, under coach Cindy Parlow Cone.
“I had spoken with Cindy a couple of times and she had seen a couple of highlight videos of me and she mentioned that they had their eye on me,” Shufelt said. “But when I saw the draft and the names that were being picked, I wasn’t expecting my name to be in there. It was kind of a surprise. But just because you’re drafted, it doesn’t mean you have a spot on the team.”
Indeed, with about 30 women heading for the Thorns’ preseason camp and only 20 roster spots available, Shufelt knew it was either time to refocus on soccer or retire from it. She decided the best place to get some help was back in Storrs, training with the Huskies.
“This winter, when Jess came here, she was very focused,” said UConn coach Len Tsantiris. “I think what happens to a lot of these kids is, when they are here, they get a lot of training, they get the right mentality, and some of them then really get into it. Jess really got into it. She became very fit and had the right mentality. She learned what she needed to do to get to that next level and she worked on it really hard.
“Any kid of ours who goes to the next level, that’s the idea, that’s what I want them to do, if they are capable. We want them to reach their potential.”
Shufelt arrived at preseason camp in Portland with no preconceived notions.
“I didn’t really know what to expect,” said Shufelt, who will turn 23 at the end of May. “I was just going to play soccer like all the other girls were. I was trying not to think of the big names who were going to be out there, but just have fun and enjoy it.”
Shufelt has discovered that the pro game is not quite the same as it was in college.
“Oh yeah, playing pro ball is a lot different,” she said. “This is by far the best competition I’ve ever played against. The speed of play is definitely a lot quicker and the talent on the field is just the best players from everywhere. The coach knows the one or two things that each player is extremely good at and you are expected to do those things the best every time you step on the field.”
By the time the NWSL season began on April 13, however, Shufelt had earned a roster spot and was a professional athlete.
“Jessica has a lot of great qualities as a player, but the first thing that caught my eye is how much she enjoys taking players one-on-one,” Thorns coach Cone said. “She’s very strong. She is able to hold the ball with her back to pressure and she has wonderful service into the box from the flank. Plus, she is aggressive on defense.”
At 4-0-1, the Thorns have had a strong start to their season, and Shufelt made her debut on the field last Sunday in Chicago, subbing for Morgan in the 90th minute.
“That was pretty cool,” she said. “Coming out of UConn, I never thought I would ever be subbing into a game for Alex Morgan. Even though it was for a short amount of time, it was an exciting experience.”
The next step is to earn more playing time.
“I’ve had conversations with Coach Cone and she tells me to just be patient and not be so hard on myself because I haven’t been a pro very long,” Shufelt said. “I can only improve, so I take it one practice at a time and try to get better at the things I need to work on. It’s a long season (the regular season ends in mid-August) and I think I’ll see more playing time toward the middle and end of the season.”
Cone is plenty satisfied with the progress Shufelt has made so far.
“Jessica has continued to work really hard and has improved on the things we have asked her to improve on during training since the start of the season,” Cone said. “I think she is on a great track to have a wonderful future in professional soccer.”
And while her contract with the Thorns only covers this season so far and the NWSL isn’t exactly year-round employment as yet, Shufelt has embraced her success.
“It’s one of the most enjoyable experiences I’ve ever had,” she said. “The opportunity to change coasts, see new things … when my dad calls, he always tells me, ‘There’s nothing like it, Jess, so enjoy it. You’re living the dream.’ ”