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Sky Blue FC forward Evelyne Viens (20) drives as OL Reign defender Taylor Smith falls during the second half of an NWSL Challenge Cup soccer match at Zions Bank Stadium in Herriman, Utah on June 30, 2020.

Rick Bowmer/The Associated Press

A prolific goal-scorer in college, Canadian forward Evelyne Viens has kicked off her pro career at the NWSL’s Challenge Cup in Utah.

And after a stop-start pre-season due to the global pandemic, the 23-year-old from L’Ancienne-Lorette, Que., is savouring her time with New Jersey’s Sky Blue FC.

“It was a special feeling, for sure,” Viens said of making her league debut off the bench against the OL Reign. “Being new in the league and just being able to play (soccer), I think it’s an amazing feeling.

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“But with everything (that happened), with the coronavirus, not knowing if we were even going to have a season, just being able to see soccer and play soccer with the best players in the world, it was a great feeling for me.”

Sky Blue (1-1-1) faces the unbeaten North Carolina Courage on Monday at Zions Bank Stadium in Herriman. The Courage (3-0-0) have already advanced to the tournament quarterfinals as top seed.

“Everyone knows how good they are,” Viens said of the Courage, who won the league title in 2018 and ’19 and were runners-up in 2017. “But I think just being able to put a good game plan and just being able to do what we do best and play our style of soccer, we can go there and hopefully win the game.”

The game looked to be a battle of Canadian goalkeepers, pitting North Carolina’s Stephanie Labbe against Sky Blue’s Kailen Sheridan. But Labbe, Canada’s No. 1, was listed as questionable on the league injury report Sunday due to a “general medical” issue.

Sky Blue is coming off a 2-0 win Wednesday over the Houston Dash that saw Viens come off the bench in the 82nd minute.

Viens entered in the 77th minute of Sky Blue’s tournament opener – a 0-0 tie June 30 with the OL Reign. She started the next game, playing the first half of Sky Blue’s 1-0 loss to the Utah Royals on July 4.

Viens was taken fifth overall at the Jan. 16 NWSL draft in Baltimore. Defender-midfielder Rebecca Quinn is the only Canadian to go higher, selected third overall in 2018 by the Washington Spirit.

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Viens’ first crack at training camp lasted just five days because of the pandemic. She rode out the lockdown with other Sky Blue rookies before the teams returned to training.

“When we came back to soccer, it was such a great feeling just being able to do our job and what we love,” she said.

Viens turned heads at the University of South Florida, scoring 73 goals in 77 career games to set school and American Athletic Conference all-time records. Her 25 goals as a senior also set school and conference single-season marks.

She showed time and time again that she can beat defenders and score from distance with a powerful shot.

Her career 169 points and 360 shots were also school and conference records. She also set conference records for points per game (2.19), goals per game (0.95) and shots per game (4.68).

Viens, a three-time All-American and 2019 Scholar All-American, was named AAC Offensive Player of the Week a conference-record six times in 2019.

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It’s all the more impressive given Viens’ English was limited when she started school in Florida.

Former roommate Aubrey Megrath described Viens’ English as “zero.”

“Every time we would talk like ‘Hey, how are you?’ every (answer) was, ‘Good.’ Anything you’d say to her, ‘Good,”’ Megrath told the Tampa Bay Times.

Hard work and help from the school changed that.

She had not planned to go to a U.S. college but caught the eye of a USF assistant coach who saw her play while scouting a player on the opposing team. They invited her to come see the school.

“One visit and I was like ‘I think the Florida’s the place for me.’ It was a great chance to develop as a person and as a soccer player. It really turned my life around.”

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Part of the reason Viens flew under the radar was she was not part of Quebec’s provincial team, because it would have meant leaving her family to go to Montreal.

Viens was selected for Canada’s provisional roster for the CONCACAF Olympic qualifying tournament in January but did not make the final roster. She hopes she can play her way into a Canadian camp invitation.

“I would like to represent my country but at the same time I just want one chance in camp, just to be able to learn from the best there and be able to compete with them. That would be a great opportunity.”

North Carolina defeated Sky Blue 3-2 when they met in the 2019 regular-season finale.

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