LOUISVILLE, Ky. — Racing Louisville FC forward Cheyna Matthews's phone has the 2023 FIFA Women's World Cup logo as her screensaver. The Jamaican national player was born in Atlanta, but her mother is from Jamaica, where Cheyna visited often to see relatives. And she wants to represent the country on that stage again.
"That's what I have my mind set on," Matthews said.
There are countless practices, training sessions and matches to come before it. But there was a time where all of those didn't really seem likely. Because those commitments pale in comparison to the biggest one of all: being a mother.
"It's a 24-hour commitment," Matthews said. "As long as I live, I'm a mom."
Matthews has two young boys: Josiah and Lionel. Her husband is Jordan Matthews, an eight-year NFL veteran currently on the practice squad for the San Francisco 49ers after switching positions from wide receiver to tight end.
As many parents know, the balance between parenting and working is often challenging. But the Matthews knew early on what kind of commitment it would take.
"We would always try and make sure that if there was something that needed to get done, we would just do it," Jordan Matthews said. "We'd never keep score."
The game was on when they were both student-athletes at Vanderbilt University. Jordan was a junior on the football team, eating lunch in the cafeteria. A freshman soccer player walked in wearing a Commodores soccer shirt, slightly flooding sweatpants and a pair of Nike Shox.
"That was Cheyna," Jordan Matthews said. "And I kind of knew then that she was different."
From there, the two built a strong friendship. Cheyna, who's admittedly more reserved, noticed how observant and vocal Jordan was while he enjoyed how they had the same taste in music. They balanced each other out and became best friends.
"We talk about all the time how we're just so glad that we were able to start as best friends because now, it makes a lot of our relationship easier," Cheyna Matthews said.
Their first test came when Jordan, who left Vanderbilt as the Southeastern Conference's all-time leader in receptions and receiving yards, was going to the NFL. As the Philadelphia Eagles drafted him in the second round at 42nd overall, Cheyna was transferring to Florida State. They spent a year apart, talking often on FaceTime.
After Cheyna scored 24 goals over two seasons to help the Seminoles win their first national championship, the Washington Spirit took Cheyna seventh overall in the 2016 NWSL Draft and made the club's first appearance in the NWSL Championship that season. Jordan had just finished his third season with the Eagles and went to Cheyna's first professional game.
"At that point, we're only like two hours away from each other," Jordan Matthews said. "And everything went from there."
"After that, it was kind of like, 'Yeah, let's be serious about this,'" Cheyna Matthews said. "And the rest was history."
They dated for nine months, with Cheyna turning down better-paying opportunities to play professionally overseas to stay in the United States and travel back and forth to spend time with Jordan. Their seasons didn't overlap, so one could train for theirs as the other's was getting started and the couple could spend off days together. Eight months before their planned wedding, they eloped on June 10, 2017.
"We didn't even want people to know we were married until we had this big wedding, which we had to wait to have until our offseason," Cheyna Matthews said.
Jordan, who the Eagles traded to the Buffalo Bills in August 2017, took the responsibility of planning that wedding. The two pros traded their own uniforms for traditional ones, wearing all white for their wedding just like each of their parents did in 1988.
"We both really held the institution of marriage in high regard," Jordan Matthews said. "Both of our parents are still together."
And the responsibility of parenting was next. Six days after their celebration, Cheyna announced she was pregnant and would miss the 2018 NWSL season with the intention of returning in 2019. She had seen multiple players return from pregnancies and sought advice from one in the Orlando Pride's Sydney Leroux.
"I wasn't really concerned if I was going to be able to play physically," Matthews said. "It was more just situationally with the family, making sure I keep that first."
The two had Josiah as Jordan prepared for another stop in his pro career, joining the New England Patriots. While joining a new team requires plenty of attention, Jordan knew he was really needed at home with the newborn.
"It can be easy as a football player to be extremely selfish," Jordan Matthews said. "But I wanted to show her as best as I could that I was wanting to do what it took to help out the family in any way possible. People always ask me, 'What's it like taking care of a newborn?' I feel like the newborn needs Cheyna to eat and sleep. So really, I spent the bulk of my time taking care of Cheyna."
While she might not have been concerned about bouncing back physically, Jordan was a reliable resource to see her through the process the first time. He knew how strong her mental fortitude was, but the then wide receiver had endured multiple injuries and surgeries himself. While those can't compare to birthing a child, they think a two-way willingness to listen was crucial.
"I think sometimes it's hardest to listen to the people that talk to us every single day," Jordan Matthews said. "I know a ton about recovery. When it comes to acupuncture, dry needling, hyperbaric chambers, you name it. Cheyna was the number one soccer player in the state of Georgia, a national champion at Florida State, first-round draft pick in the NWSL and on the Jamaican national team. She just had it.
"I didn't. I was a two-star recruit. So I did everything possible to get to this point. And so when it came to her recovery, she used to be so stubborn when I said, 'Hey, try this, think about this or you might want to do this right now.' After having two kids, her body changed a lot. So I think her willingness just to be like, 'Yo, I'm going to trust you. And I'm like, 'There's not going to be anybody looking out for you more than me.' I think her willingness to do that meant a lot to me because it showed that she trusted me with her body. I've never been pregnant, but I know that I care about her and want her to be the best she can be."
As she navigated her way through it, she picked up more from Jordan. Cheyna started doing 10 minutes of meditation at the beginning of her days to take control of them before they got hectic, like she saw her husband do when he'd occasionally get up as early as 4:30 a.m. to clear his head.
"Watching him do that, I think he's helped me be a better mom and athlete because of his discipline in day-to-day life," Matthews said. "I noticed a huge difference in my mood, even though I wasn't sleeping. Ten minutes is really not a lot of time. But it's a lot of time for a mom."
Matthews got back to training for a return to the pitch just four months after childbirth. She scored three goals in 17 appearances during the 2019 season. Three was also the number of outfits Josiah blew through before they even made the plane for a road trip once.
"I had one thing left and it was a t-shirt," Cheyna Matthews said. "And so he had to fly in my t-shirt, rolled up with some of my teammates' and no pants. But you kind of just deal with it. Kids have really helped me be more flexible in my thinking. I don't typically get too flustered."
It was also the year that saw Cheyna represent Jamaica as the country competed in the 2019 FIFA Women's World Cup for the first time. A year later, the international stage would also be the place she realized she might have to take a break.
Cheyna had Olympic qualifiers for Jamaica while Jordan bounced back and forth between the Eagles and San Francisco 49ers. She went straight from qualifiers to the 49ers' Super Bowl loss and back to qualifiers. The difference in time zones also made communication difficult for the two and Jordan was due for two surgeries in the offseason. With the Spirit's preseason coming, Cheyna was at a crossroads.
"I had to be a mom and wife first at that point," Cheyna Matthews said. "I was really not sure if I was going to be able to continue to play, just because I knew the surgery that my husband needed to get. I knew I had a toddler. I knew I would be expected to be in D.C. at the end of that month. And so I was honestly not sure if I was going to be able to play."
That's where Jordan stepped in. He encouraged her to stick with it.
"I'll never forget what he said," Cheyna Matthews said. "He's like, 'You should play as long as you possibly can because you clearly still love it. We can sort everything out as we go. I would expect the same from you if I wanted to continue to play.' So just getting his encouragement, it kind of sparked me to have conversations with the front office of the Spirit and kind of help them see my situation, which wasn't received too well by the coaching staff."
Cheyna said unlike the coaching staff, Spirit owner Steve Baldwin was very receptive. She took a paid leave of absence from the club, who honored her contract and knew she could end up playing elsewhere when it was done.
"It ended up being a really fruitful situation where I didn't have to retire because I had a league that supported me taking time to take care of my family and Jordan, who was also very appreciative of the time that I was able to take off to help him kind of get back on his feet," Cheyna Matthews said.
The coronavirus pandemic ended up causing the NWSL to just hold Challenge Cup matches in June and July as well as a Fall Series in September and October of 2020, meaning Matthews didn't miss a lot of soccer. Once October rolled around, she became available to find a new team through the re-entry wire as part of the league's end-of-season process. But she was also due to have her second child in December.
Knowing that, Racing Louisville FC signed the forward in November. At the time, Jordan had been rehabbing from surgery in nearby Nashville and also helping Vanderbilt football as a volunteer assistant coach.
"It was a no-brainer for me to get here, having Nashville as our home base," Cheyna Matthews said.
It was also a more convenient move for the entire family. Their parents often had to fly to see them when they lived in the D.C. area, with Jordan's living in Huntsville, Ala. and Cheyna's in Atlanta. Now, they are all within driving distance and often help with watching the boys.
"Josiah and Lionel, those are our legacies," Jordan Matthews said. "So who better to watch our children than their grandparents who made sure we were well-equipped to go into this lifetime? I think the biggest thing though was to be able to play close to home. It meant a lot to Cheyna because it just makes her feel that much more comfortable."
Matthews started training back into game shape with Racing in April of 2021. At the end of that month, Jamaica called her back up to its preliminary roster for a summer series of matches. She made her Racing debut on June 5 in a loss at Portland, subbing on for six minutes.
"It's extremely incredible to have two children and still be playing professional sports," Jordan Matthews said.
So is the schedule the two have stuck to with another boy in the house. Before Jordan went to training camp, he'd get up with Josiah while Cheyna took care of Lionel. Josiah is a fan of Jordan's pancakes.
"He doesn't want me to make them," Cheyna Matthews said with a laugh.
Then, they all washed faces and brushed teeth before Jordan took Josiah to school as he went to train. Once Jordan left for training camp, Cheyna had to take over the routine for both boys. She gets Josiah ready until Lionel wakes up. A babysitter then comes by, Cheyna drops Josiah off at school on her way to practice and picks him up on the way back.
Their parents will often help watch the kids when they're away for games or even go a step further, with Cheyna's mom meeting her in whatever city Racing played in to help take care of Lionel when he had to travel with her. Jordan also wakes up at 5 a.m. to talk with Cheyna before she goes to practice and the two talk again before the boys go to sleep, which is usually before a walkthrough for the 49ers.
"They know on weekends, we go to games," Cheyna Matthews said. "They know dad plays football and they understand that. But they also understand when we're away that we're working. And so it's always cool to hear Josiah when he sees his dad on FaceTime is like, 'Oh Dad, you're working.'"
"I don't want to act like our situation is that much harder than anybody else's because I know everybody has their own things they have to deal with," Jordan Matthews said. "I'd actually say I'm quite thankful for what we're able to do: the way me and my wife live, the opportunity we have to play professional sports. I think that's going to go a long way in helping to teach values to our children. So us having to be apart from each other on separate missions, but still supporting each other from a long way away, I hope that my boys see that and understand that they can do the same thing too."
As a three-year-old, Josiah is a little more aware of what his parents do. But Racing matches usually go past his bedtime. So he'll watch the first halves of most of them on TV before going to sleep.
"A lot of times, he hasn't been able to see me play unless it's a playback because I hadn't been starting, so I'm not playing until the second half," Cheyna Matthews said.
An August 8 match against Kansas City started at 3 p.m. though. Josiah got his first jersey and Jordan's parents were in attendance. Cheyna subbed on in the 69th minute with Racing ahead 2-1. She played a season-high 21 minutes and broke free to find the back of the net for the first time since having her second child.
"For the game to be at three o'clock and for him to be able to be there, actually see me go on and see me score a goal, I thought that he would mention it when I saw him," Cheyna Matthews said. "But all he said was that I was really sweaty. So he's also my little humble reminder that all that work, it means nothing to him. I'm mom."
You could tell it meant everything to her. Matthews buried her head into teammates on the field before running over to the sideline to hug more.
"I've gotten so much encouragement from the staff and my teammates, telling me about my progress," Cheyna Matthews said. "But to actually have it all come together and actually put our team at a more comfortable result, it just it made it all kind of worth it. I thought about the moment that I didn't know if I was going to play again. To be able to then score in for a new team and to have my teammates celebrate me like that, it was one of my favorite goals for sure."
Since then, she's had both of the boys and the rest of her family in attendance for Racing's Women's Cup win over FC Bayern Munich. The forward has averaged 32 minutes per game in her last four matches while Jordan is working on the practice squad with the 49ers in his new position as a tight end.
As the two continue to make it work, Cheyna has learned a valuable lesson.
"My team is always saying, 'You're always in a good mood,'" Cheyna Matthews said. "Because I know I don't have to be here if I didn't want to be here. And that's a good place to be. But it's also a huge privilege because I realize a lot of people would love to do what I'm doing. And I was almost that person on the outside looking in."
Now, she just looks at that World Cup screensaver.
"My goal is right in front of me every day," Cheyna Matthews said. "To have this kind of environment here in Louisville, and this training facility, all of these resources to help me not only prepare myself for individual goals, but to be a part of a new team that has team goals and club goals, it's just a perfect storm. And so I just know it's a privilege to be out here."