CHAMPION: CMHS graduate Sam Lofton helps team win Open Cup in Iceland

Central Mountain High School graduate and girl’s soccer alumni Sam Lofton, left, celebrates with teammates from the Breidablik team after winning an Open Cup championship in Iceland this summer. (Photo Provided)

Standing on the pitch in Iceland as the tournament directors were getting the trophy ceremony started, Central Mountain grad Sam Lofton stood alongside her teammates waiting to touch the trophy, something she had never been able to experience as a professional athlete. And as she stood around, Lofton noticed officials coming out with liters of milk as the ceremony was going on.

That’s when Lofton glanced over at one of her teammates and joked if this was really happening. Granted, celebrating with milk is far from common and she may have been expecting to pop open some Champagne instead on the field, but regardless, for Lofton she didn’t care what she was spraying on herself and teammates.

All that mattered in that moment was that she could call herself a champion.

This summer, Lofton won a professional championship in Iceland, claiming an Open Cup with Breidablik in the Urvalsdeild league, one of Iceland’s top premiere soccer league.

After bouncing around between the National Women’s Soccer League – in which she got drafted to in 2015 with the Boston Breakers – and going to Europe, Lofton could finally say she was at the top of the mountain as a professional athlete.

“Winning a championship as a professional athlete definitely goes on my list as one of my proudest accomplishments. Winning any championship is so hard to do, especially in a team sport and even harder when you’re playing against the best talent in the country,” Lofton said. “It feels so good to have your life’s work pay off like that. My team is also in first place in the league with four more games to go, so we are hoping for the double title, and that gets me emotional just thinking about the possibility.”

Lofton unfortunately missed out on playing in said championship game this year due to an MCL sprain, but Lofton’s more than ecstatic that her team and her have climbed the standings and not only have won the championship Cup, but also are in contention for the league championship this season. While she missed the final, Lofton did get to play in the Round of 16 and Round of 8.

“The league games are always competitive here because you desperately want three points every game, but the cup adds another layer of excitement because there is the draw every round and the possibility to play a team you’ve never faced before,” Lofton said. “The championship game is also played at the National Stadium in Reykjavik and it’s the only non-national team game of the year that is played there. So to win and experience playing in that atmosphere makes it even more special.”

With the league’s set up, teams from different divisions all compete for the Open Cup, from amateur to professional, and it’s an experience Lofton is glad to have been a part of.

“It’s such a unique experience. You’ll see the lower-level teams play the game of their lives just because they finally get the chance to play on the big fields in front of lots of people. Especially in a small country like Iceland, the teams all know each other and most of the players are aware of who the other players are, so it’s very fun for us all to be competing for the same title,” Lofton said. “It’s a part of European football culture that I’m thrilled that I got to experience and even more happy that I got to win.”

In the Urvalsdeild 2018 Women’s Cup, Lofton’s Breidablik team opened the tournament with a 1-0 win over KR from the Pepsi League, the same league Lofton’s team competes in. In the quarterfinals, Breidablik cruised to an 8-0 win over IR of the First Division, which is the division below Breidablik. The team then won in the semifinals, 2-0, against the Pepsi Division’s Valur and won the championship on August 17 by defeating Stjarnan, 2-1.

After winning it all, Lofton and her teammates celebrated with family and friends went back to the team’s training facility and celebrated with fireworks.

“We couldn’t celebrate as hard as we would have liked because we had a league game in a few days, but it was still so much fun,” Lofton said. “I think as athletes it’s so easy to fall into the vicious cycle of ‘OK, what’s next?’ even after winning a championship. So having those few hours where we forgot about the pressure of the league and just hung out with supporters and each other was a time I’ll always cherish.”

Lofton’s professional career started wtih the Boston Breakers and Portland Thorns FC in 2015 and 2016, respectively. Lofton then decided to go overseas to play in Iceland, playing in 2016 with Sunnana SK and then landing with Briedablik UBK in 2017.

The Central Mountain star and former James Madison standout didn’t get much playing time in the NWSL, but ended up having six appearances in games with Sunnana SK and 24 so far through two years with BReidablik UBK.

And going from the NWSL to playing in Europe was a bit of an adjustment for Lofton, especially being able to once again be a contributor playing nearly all game like she did when she was an all-state player at Central Mountain or a star at James Madison.

“When I played in the NWSL, it was honestly my first time in my life not really being one of the best players on my team and that was a really hard adjustment for me,” Lofton said. “I could have hung around and kept fighting for my time, but I’m thrilled that I chose to go overseason.

“I won’t be able to play forever and, injury aside, I start every game here and I don’t have to stress about losing my position or my team signing another player out of the blue. I give major credit to the girls still in the NWSL fighting to make a name for themselves. I personally believe top to bottom, it’s the most competitive league in the world, but for me I couldn’t be happier to be spending my last few seasons feeling like I make a real difference.”

As for playing internationally, it’s something Lofton has an appreciation for after getting the chance.

“Playing internationally has done more for me than I could have ever imagined. It’s done wonders for my playing career and I’ve grown as a person so much in these three years abroad,” Lofton said. “I don’t think any of it would have been possible had I stayed in my comfort zone and remained in America. It’s definitely a different type of atmosphere in Europe. … I have so much respect for my teamamtes here because they do so much and still have so much to give our team.”

Regarding a different type of atmosphere in Europe, Lofton spoke to the crowd sizes her team receives at games, especially in the championship game. But those larger crowds are something Lofton feels are starting to get bigger in the United States.

“There was a great amount of support at the final. I’m not sure the exact number, but definitely a few thousand. I think the amount of support surely depends on where you go,” Lofton said. “I found myself playing in front of 19,000 fans more than once at Portland and the standard for the American league games are in the 3,000, 5,000 range per game now. You’ll definitely find large numbers across Europe, but I think it’s slowly getting better in America.”