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NWSL takes the lead - and Hellstrom gets to play

Jenna Hellstrom likely suspected her first season of North American pro soccer would be different from the three previous campaigns, all experienced in Sweden.

Presumably, she did not expect it to be quite this different.

After splitting time between FC Rosengard, Djurgardens IF, Vaxjo VFF and KIF Orebro, all since graduating from Kent State University in the spring of 2017, Hellstrom elected to remain much closer to home this time around, signing on with the Washington Spirit of the NWSL (National Women`s Soccer League) this past December.

Not only was the proximity a primary factor, but the truth is that the NWSL is generally regarded as the top circuit of women`s soccer in the world, certainly the league of choice for a majority of the teammates with whom Hellstrom has spent time with during her stints with the national team, dating back to 2018.

And truth be told, the early season reviews were encouraging.

"I arrived in Washington in February, and there were actually a lot of us there, so we did have a good amount of training sessions before the pandemic hit," noted the 25 year old forward and graduate of Lasalle Secondary School. "We also went for a pre-season trip to (Club Med) Sandpiper in Florida - but by then, the news was coming out about the virus, so we had to shut things down."

Ah yes, that nasty little Covid-19 issue, the one that seems to be finding its way into every second or third story I write these days.

Still, one must commend the NWSL in terms of tackling the global challenge with a progressive outlook. On May 27th, the league became the first professional sports league in America to embrace the "bubble" method of returning to game play.

And though the event would see the Orlando Pride fall victim to the outbreak before even setting foot on the field in Utah in late June, the ground-breaking initiative worked - generally speaking. From a player`s standpoint, it was manageable, though not ideal.

"In a typical regular season, you have slightly more than 20 games," explained Hellstrom. "So you want to be in the best shape to start the season, but we didn`t even know, initially, when the season was going to start. Then we were getting kicked off some fields, even though we were in small groups."

"We were trying to do everything we could to get some ball work in, practicing in parking garages, trying to figure out anything possible."

Between June 27th and July 18th, the Washington Spirit would contest their four preliminary round games, posting a record of 2-1-1, before dropping a 1-0 (4-3) decision on penalty kicks to Sky Blue FC (New Jersey) in quarter final action.

"None of us had played games for months," admitted Hellstrom. "The soccer in our league was definitely not the best that it`s ever been, just because some of the girls were not used to playing that many games in such a short time. It was still extremely strong soccer, but you could tell that we did go through a pandemic."

Still, with more than half of their roster turned over since the end of the 2019 season, the Spirit were more than satisfied with their efforts, on the balance of things, in Utah. "I think we were happy with our performance, throughout the tournament," said Hellstrom. "It was tough, because every single game mattered, and the coach trusted the eleven (players) that he knew."

"Some of us would have played more in a regular season, because you need all of your players more, but in a tournament format, he was going with what he knew. We were a really fun team to watch, a team that emphasizes possession, and we`re still really young, so it`s very exciting in that way."

Unfortunately, both the tournament format and the current health crisis allowed Hellstrom and company precious little time to take in all that Utah has to offer, with the competition staged in the City of Sandy, located within the Salt Lake City Metropolitan area.

"We weren`t allowed to leave our hotel much," she stated. "The mountains were super pretty, but it was hot and a lot of us struggled with the elevation. I wish I saw more of Utah, but really, we got there and we played soccer."

With plenty of questions regarding both professional women`s soccer, in general, and the status and plans of the various national teams still very much up in the air, Hellstrom opted to forego a possible half-season return to Sweden. "I decided not to switch locations again - I haven`t been with any one team much more than a year."

"I think I still have more to show to Washington," she added. "I still have to get as many touches in as possible, all while being smart. There are things I need to work on, like making decisions with the ball more quickly. The level in that league (NWSL) is super fast, in terms of ball speed and such."

"I think I'm in a good place to work on that, making sure that I`m keeping sharp."

Yesterday afternoon, Hellstrom began her trek back to Washington, D.C. "It`s really cool to be there, to see the White House and the monuments," she said. "With the elections coming up and Black Lives Matter, it`s a little crazy, so we have to be careful. But overall, I really like it - it`s a really nice city."

Much like the summer of 2020 tournament, there is talk that the NWSL may become creative in terms of finding ways to keep their athletes in game shape. "They are trying to figure out what to do about games, but I`m hearing that they may be going to a small group of teams, maybe us and two other teams, and we play a round robin in each of the three cities."

"But that has not been confirmed yet."

In the year of the pandemic, very little has.

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