Keeping Faith: Cheyna Matthews of Racing Louisville and the Jamaican National Team

Authors’ note: Quotes in this article were edited slightly for clarity.

This is the fourth of five interviews featuring Racing Louisville’s international players that will be published during the off-season. These profiles are a collaboration between the Beautiful Game Network and Fleur de Lis FC. Michael Shaw from Fleur de Lis FC is a contributing author on this article. 

Check out the series’ 1st profile on Emily Fox hereThe series’ 2nd profile on Ebony Salmon here & The Series 3rd profile on Vanessa Kara here

 

In the 84th minute of an early June match in Portland, Cheyna Matthews was subbed on for Racing Louisville. The game was already 0-3 in Portland’s favor and the likelihood of Louisville getting on the board in the waning minutes was slim. Still, the chance to step on the field and play competitive minutes in front of thousands of spectators was something Matthews savored. 

“It’s been a very long journey,” said Matthews after the match. “To step on the field in front of this kind of crowd is really emotional.”

The six or so minutes she played that night were the 27-year-old forward’s first in almost a year and a half. Matthews was injured in early 2020 which kept her from playing in the Challenge Cup tournament for the Washington Spirit that year. Afterward, she chose to opt-out of the remainder of the 2020 season and became pregnant with her second son. Her rights were picked up by Louisville off waivers ahead of the team’s inaugural 2021 season making her the third player in Racing’s history. However, Matthews would ultimately have to wait until after recovering from the birth of her son Lionel in December before she could join the squad in Louisville. 

Matthews’ story is one of resilience and a willingness to chart her own path. She switched colleges only to help her new school earn their first championship and be named offensive MVP. She gave birth to her first son only to earn a roster spot on Jamaica’s first-ever trip to the World Cup. No matter the interruption, she’s always come back strong.

While she’s proud of these achievements, Matthews says her faith has always guided her and helped her feel confident in what she has accomplished. 

“When I look back at it, it really is kind of wild how it all happened,” said Matthews in our Zoom chat earlier in November. “But I definitely believe with my faith and things like that I’m not as surprised as maybe some people could be just because it’s my faith and my prayers and how I journal and things like that. It’s wild to see, to look back at some of my journals and see things that have actually just like happened. There’s definitely a sense of pride and joy.” 

Through the course of my conversation with Matthews, we discuss her history as a soccer player from her first interest in soccer to her college and club careers to her experiences playing internationally for Jamaica. We also explore what it’s like balancing being a professional athlete and a mom on a young team, her take on Racing Louisville’s first season, and her future plans.

Stepping Stones

Soccer wasn’t a tradition in Matthews’ family. Neither of her parents played, but they signed all five of their children up for it around kindergarten. None of the children really took the sport except the second-youngest, Cheyna. 

“None of my siblings actually enjoyed it as much as I did,” recalled Matthews. “You know they were the ones on the field picking daisies and sitting down in the grass saying they were tired and getting distracted, or saying hi to family and things like that.”

Scoring her first goal at the age of four sparked the love of the game that carried her all the way through to high school.  

“At that point you’re scoring like five goals a game If you’re any good, so I really enjoyed that and for a long time I only played because I loved it.”

Growing up in Atlanta, there weren’t very many highly competitive clubs near to home. So, as she approached high school and became more serious about the sport, her family had to devote considerable time and energy to keep her playing at a high level. Her mother would drive her two hours to-and-from practice each day. That meant doing all her homework in the car and losing a good portion of her free time. Still, Matthews decided she loved it enough to pursue a college career.

When Matthews was in high school, students were encouraged to write or call college coaches directly to invite them to watch them play. Although many of her teammates pursued coaches at different universities, Matthews was more hesitant – although she did ultimately end up benefiting from her teammates’ work.

“They would come to see my teammates but end up seeing me,” recalled Matthews with a laugh. “I think I benefited from that for sure, their organization and those things. I just remember being so flustered having to call coaches and just kind of hoping they wouldn’t answer.”

At the time Matthews was pursuing college, there was no professional league in the United States. The Women’s Professional Soccer League had just collapsed and the NWSL wouldn’t be announced for another year. If women wanted to play professionally, they needed to go overseas. As a result, Matthews saw soccer as a stepping stone to a free education at a good university more than anything no matter how much she loved playing.

“I wanted to get a full ride to college because I put so much time into this. My parents put so much time into this. I wanted to go somewhere where my parents didn’t have to pay for me to go to school.”

She explained, “Then it came down to where I was going to get a really good education and put myself in a great place to get a pretty nice job after school or put myself in a good place to get a master’s (degree).  When those applications start to happen that was definitely a top priority for me, so Vanderbilt was just the right fit.”

Matthews (14) at Florida State University / Image courtesy FSU

Like A Dream

Not only was Vanderbilt a good school, it was also only four hours from Atlanta in Nashville, TN. That meant it was close enough for her family to see her play without having to fly. Although it wasn’t the most competitive college program, it was one where she was certain she’d get minutes right away instead of having to ride the bench waiting for upperclassmen to graduate. It seemed like the perfect setting until suddenly a new women’s professional league, the National Women’s Soccer League, was announced in the United States. 

Matthews comes from a tight-knit family. To this day, she’s the only one of her siblings to actually leave Atlanta, so playing overseas wasn’t really an option. The unexpected chance to play professionally in a domestic league, however, offered quite a tantalizing opportunity. 

“Freshman year rolls around, and that’s the inaugural year for the NWSL and my eyes get really big at that point.  Once that happened, I went through every training with this in mind…that I could go play professionally.” 

By the time Matthews was a sophomore in college, she realized she needed to move on from Vanderbilt. Although she’d done very well with 22 goals in 35 appearances, she’d need further development to become a pro.

“It’s one thing to be a big fish in a little pond, but if you can be a big fish in a big pond, it changes the game a little bit,” said Matthews of the decision to switch schools. ”It changes the perspective of what you can do.” 

When Matthews was in school, the dominant college programs were the ACC and PAC-12. If you wanted to make tournaments and be a successful professional player, you had to be in these divisions. Nowadays, that’s changed somewhat with successful players like Cece Kizer coming out of Ole Miss in the SEC, but that wasn’t an option for Matthews. She chose to move to Florida State University.

“After talking to Mark Krikorian at Florida State when I was looking to transfer, everything he said was along the lines of what I was looking for in a program, what I was looking for from a development standpoint to get ready for pro if that was to be the case,” Cheyna said. “Obviously, I got to Florida State and had some great success there, so I mean our goals kind of aligned. Their goals as a program to win a national championship, finally, and mine to develop and be in the right place for those things. It just all worked out.” 

At FSU, Matthews had 51 appearances and 24 goals across her junior and senior years. She also helped the program win their first NCAA National Championship in program history in 2014. That same year she was also named the NCAA College Cup Most Outstanding Player on Offense after scoring two goals in the semifinal and earning an assist in the championship match. Of her time at FSU and winning the championship, Matthews says it was “like a dream.”

“Mark has always been very honest with the players, and so I sense that coming from being recruited, he’s not guaranteeing that I start or even play, but he can guarantee what he can bring to the table from for my development. Trusting that and to go on to win the championship in my first year there and to be the MVP of that tournament was wild. I couldn’t have predicted that to happen. I think it goes back to the competitive nature that I’ve always had, which is to continue to reach levels that I haven’t.”

Cheyna Matthews battles with USWNT’s Tierna Davidson durnig a June 2021 match / Image courtesy ISI Photos

Higher Callings

After winning it all at the college level, Matthews began thinking even bigger. In addition to now being fully invested in going pro, she was also beginning to dream of playing internationally.

“I think all players that want to play pro, when they think about the pro atmosphere they’re also thinking about international. Being on those stages, being in the World Cup, being in the Olympics, those are dreams that I had too.”

Thanks to her mother’s British Jamaican nationality, Matthews was eligible to play for the English, Jamaican, or United States teams. While she was weighing her international opportunities, Matthews graduated and entered the 2016 NWSL draft where she was chosen as a first-round draft pick by the Washington Spirit. Matthews says she was happy to stay on the East Coast near her family and felt the Spirit was a good match for her. In her first professional season, she featured in 17 regular season matches, including 8 starts. That year, the Spirit made it to the championship finals for the first time, but ultimately lost in penalties. 

In 2018, Matthews became pregnant with her first son and sat out the season. In spite of missing play, she was contacted by the Jamaican national team who were on the brink of qualifying for their first-ever World Cup berth. After continued talks with the coaching staff and friends on the team, she became invested in the Jamaican team and began dreaming of what could be possible if they qualified for the tournament.

“I remember sitting on my couch with my son when they won that game in PKs. I remember having this outpouring of relief, but also pride. So at that point, I knew it was a no-brainer that that’s where I would put all my eggs in the basket.”  

Matthews received her first cap with Jamaica in February 2019 and was named to the World Cup squad. She made her World Cup debut in their first-round match against Brazil. Although Jamaica didn’t make it out of the group stage, Matthews feels strongly that this is just the beginning for the Caribbean team.

“We feel like the sky’s the limit right now. With all these different things and the way we’re clicking now because we’ve been together for a while, we know what to expect. I guess there’s still some learning curves, but there’s definitely some things that we have overcome and have made us so much stronger. I mean it’s amazing.” 

Matthews admits Jamaica still has a lot of growth ahead of them, but they’re setting a foundation that can be built on in the future. Jamaica being strong helps make CONCACAF strong by virtue of making it a more competitive grouping. Although proud of what the team has accomplished, Cheyna knows it’ll take a lot of work building culture and establishing precedents before they can reach their full potential.

“It’s been a nice evolution, being a part of the first [successful team] it’s definitely something I’ll appreciate as I get older when I’m able to like look back on it. But right now, it’s just ‘keep the ball rolling.’”

Matthews celebrates her goal with teammates / Image courtesy Connor Cunningham

A Family Feel

After returning from the World Cup and missing play in 2020 due to injury and family obligations, Matthews was picked up by Racing Louisville off of waivers in October 2020. The location was one that worked well for Matthews and her family with so much family nearby in Atlanta. 

Moving to an expansion team is an interesting and stressful experience for any player. No one knows anyone, it’s a totally new environment, and everyone has to build a team culture from scratch. At 28, Matthews is one of the older, veteran players on Racing which was primarily composed of rookies and second-year players in their inaugural season. The fact she is a mother also makes her stand out from her teammates. Did this impact her ability to bond with the other players?

“I think it honestly makes it easier,” admitted Matthews. “I hate to say it, but I think sometimes women kind of compete about little things. But I don’t find that with my teammates because I’m the mom on the team, so I think it’s easier for people to talk to me and know that like I’m not trying to level up on them or those type of things. I think it makes me a little bit easier to talk to and relate to because I have their best interests [in mind] now because I’m a mom, and I want to see everyone do well.”

If she can be a maternal figure for the younger players, Matthews says her teammates can help keep things light and fun in return.  

“They keep me young, too,” said Matthews with a laugh. “I say keep me young, I’ll be 28 [on November 10] actually, but I feel so young talking to some of my younger teammates, like the Katies [Lund and McClure] and Jorian [Baucom] and CeCe [Kizer]. You know, just like joking with everyone on the team. Emina [Ekic], we’ve had some really fun times. 

“I think it’s definitely more of a family feel with the dynamic that I have with the team, so it’s been really fun, honestly. I think it’s probably been the easiest to adapt to now because before when I was with the Spirit, I’d been there for some years, and been around the same players, and that’s always easy once you come back [from leave] and you know and it’s everything is familiar, but here I don’t remember feeling super out of place and I didn’t know any players before.”

The easy bonding and chemistry-building among teammates were by design, according to Matthews. The players that were chosen for Racing weren’t just chosen for their talent, but for who they are as people. 

“The players that were picked to be in Louisville, I can definitely tell the intention behind it just by the personalities, the work rate. I think when you have that high of a work rate and that rate of humbleness around a team, I could just tell that was something that they looked for when they were bringing these players in. 

“I think it speaks to the culture of Louisville and how they – Soccer Holdings and Brad [Estes] and James [O’Connor] – how they wanted to go about building this culture. When you start with a foundation like that it makes everything else easier.”

Matthews and son / Image courtesy EM Dash Photography

Unwavering Support

Still, being a mother is another full-time job on top of being a professional soccer player. To complicate matters, Matthew’s husband, Jordan, is also a professional athlete with the NFL’s San Francisco 49ers. Although this adds a layer of difficulty to planning schedules, travel, and childcare, Matthews can’t say enough about how encouraging her husband has been with her pursuing her professional career.

“I’ve always had such great support from my husband and with us growing up in sport and having sports be something that we both appreciate, cherish, love so much I knew on that end that I would have the support that I needed to continue to play if that’s what I chose to do.”

“I think that took the pressure off of things just knowing I wasn’t alone. It’s not like I was coming back as a single mom. Those challenges are challenges of their own, just from people that I know who have experienced those things.”

Matthews says she knew she had the full support of her husband, her parents, and her in-laws which made doing something huge, like playing in a World Cup with a newborn baby, not just possible, but manageable. And although NWSL players are notoriously underpaid, the boost she received in terms of income and resources from her husband’s NFL career is not lost on Matthews.

“Obviously with the NWSL being as fickle as it was at the time, with resources and things like that not being as good, I will say I’ve been blessed to be in a situation where that never really mattered much. Because of my financial situation with my husband, sometimes it’s hard for me to imagine doing this without that kind of support. I just don’t think we’re there yet as a league. I would say it definitely could have its challenges if you don’t have the right support in place for sure.”

Matthews is quick to point out that Spirit ownership was very supportive of her when she gave birth to her first son. She says owner Steve Baldwin made sure she had things she needed like a private hotel room, flights for her son and his caretakers, and so on. 

As for Racing Louisville, Matthews also says they’ve done an amazing job of supporting her as a mother with two young children. In particular, she names Brynn Sebring, Racing’s Director of Player Experience and Operations, as a standout.

“My kids have another auntie: Miss Brynn,” said Matthews with a smile. “She is a champion for my kids even on days when I’ve had some issues with babysitting this year. 

“That’s probably been the toughest part, the child care piece, because, with the pandemic with people having other things going on, it’s been really tough to kind of find that consistency and Brynn was always that person for me. If I needed to bring Lionel in, she says those are some of her best days.”

As for the rest of Racing’s staff, Matthews says they’re on top of everything she needs. She’s gotten everything she’s asked for and they’ve even offered things, like upgraded flights, without her having to ask. 

“They’ve gone above and beyond for my family for sure. Like with cold games, just making sure they had somewhere warm to go. They really are doing their part, and my family talks about it all the time. They’re just like I cannot believe how much they do for you and how easy they make this on you as a mom. It’s been a joy. It makes it easy going into work every day, that’s for sure.”

In addition to her soccer career, Matthews has also recently become an entrepreneur. In November, she launched her new company Seeded Sweat that makes high-quality athletic wear for pregnant and post-natal women. Currently, the company offers leggings that can stretch to accommodate a growing belly and support it during workouts. They also offer a sports bra that allows for nursing/pumping. 

Matthews said her motivation to create this line was based on her own needs while trying to stay in shape to return to playing while pregnant with her first son. During her second pregnancy, she decided to take matters into her own hands.

“Throughout my second pregnancy in 2020, I took on the challenge of finding high-quality fabrics to create sweat-wicking activewear that met my needs as an active, sweaty momma with 16 months of nursing in my locker. I became hopeful that the products I created for myself could help other moms like me, and Seeded Sweat was born!”

Signing autographs for fans in Louisville / Image courtesy EM Dash Photography

Kids & Comebacks

Despite all the support, coming back from having a baby isn’t easy. All the players are jockeying for minutes and getting pegged as the one who’s still recovering from having a baby can be frustrating when you’re trying to work your way back into lineups. The abrupt coaching change in early September certainly didn’t help matters either.

Although Matthews praises interim Coach Mario Sanchez as a wonderful replacement who helped the team immensely, just the fact that she had to start over again with a new coach and begin to make her case again was frustrating. 

“That has been one of the challenges that I’ve had more recently, but I’m looking forward to not a clean slate because I’ll always be a mom, but having an offseason to train and to come in as an equal to my teammates and not having that ‘Oh, how do you do it?’  ‘Are you sleeping?’ and this or that and not being babied, I guess. Because I’m a competitor, so I always look forward to that.”

“It gives me something to look forward to. I think it makes me a better mom to continue to play because when I’m with my kids, I still have my thing. I still have my baby, my first baby which was soccer. It’s fun for now, just kind of keeping it going.”

Cheyna’s biggest contributions to Racing Louisville on the field are a little difficult to summarize via any statistical analysis. She played only 512 minutes and scored a single goal, but her ability to press the opposition in their own half stood out.  While Cheyna was most often used as a substitute striker, in those appearances she often disrupted the other team’s backline and was a nuisance in attack even if that only translated to a single goal. That single goal against Kansas City was mainly down to her effort in pressing and being in the right place at the right time as she walked the ball into an empty net to put Racing up 3-1.  

As for Racing’s first season, Matthews admits finishing 9th out of 10th place wasn’t the finish they’d hoped for, but she says they need to be reasonable and take into account everything a new team faces when joining a competitive league. That doesn’t mean they’re lowering expectations for next season, however.

“I would say we show each other a little bit more grace, being the expansion team,” said Matthews. “Now this year [2022], you know we’re going to wrap it up. We’re not going to be happy with losses and things like that. We want to win and we have that winning mentality and I think it will make it easier coming into a preseason and a new year where you have two other expansion teams and they are having to figure these things out.”  

The last three games Racing played, in particular, showed a team that was finally starting to click after a long season. They earned 5 points against higher-ranked teams in those final games, something Matthews attributes to a sense of freedom players had once they knew they were eliminated from the postseason.

“The last three games we knew we were out of the playoffs and so anything that we were trying to maybe make work up into that point, that goes out the window, because now we’re focused on the future. And I think that where we left is a brief look at what we are working on towards the future. So I think with that clean slate, knowing we’re not making the playoffs, knowing these last games are the last three we’re going to have together for a while, I think you play a little bit more free. I think you have a little bit more, I don’t know if confidence is the word I’m looking for. I think you just play a little bit more free and know that anything that’s happening from this point on is just building for the future.

“For some players those games meant ‘Is this coach gonna bring me back? Where do I stand with the team?’ Then you have this own personal perspective where you’re like, ‘I want them to want me back here.’”

Does Matthews feel like Racing’s players want to return to the team next season? She says yes.

“I think everybody on the team had that feeling because everybody wants to be back with Racing. I don’t know anybody that’s like, ‘I want out’ and that’s rare. I’ve been in the locker room at the end of a Spirit season where players are literally like, ‘I’m going overseas if you guys don’t trade me.’ 

“[All of Racing’s players] went to dinner the last night that everybody was going to be in town.  It’s just different. We just love being a part of the team and what we’ve experienced this year for sure.” 

Author

Bekki Morgan

Covering Racing Louisville on the Beautiful Game Network and the central NWSL teams on She-Plays.com. Co-host of Butchertown Rundown: A Racing Louisville Podcast. Find me on Twitter @bekki_morgan and my pod @ButchertownR.