By Graham Hays | Oct 30, 2013
COLUMBUS, Ohio — Whitney Engen has reached her destination just in the nick of time on too many occasions to remember, lungs on fire as she made an all-out sprint to snuff out an opposing team’s goal-scoring opportunity.
A defender makes it in time and saves the day or watches the goalkeeper pick the ball out of the back of the net and glare at the guilty. That’s the harsh reality of a defender’s life, whether playing for the University of North Carolina, Liverpool, Tyresö or even the United States. The scoreboard doesn’t credit you for how many times you almost got there.
Which is why the last thing she wanted to hear from the gratingly sympathetic gate agent at Newark Liberty International Airport was that she and teammates Meghan Klingenberg, Ali Krieger and Christen Press had missed their connection from a Champions League game in France to national team training in Texas by only a matter of minutes.
It’s a job, professional soccer player, that spans that world for all involved at the international level. Even in a year without a major tournament or World Cup qualifying, the U.S. national team has played games in five countries, seven states and the District of Columbia. And that’s a slow year.
But for American players based professionally in European leagues like Sweden’s Damallsvenskan, their workplace is even more regularly global. Wednesday night just happens to be Columbus and a friendly against New Zealand.
For those mapping at home, that’s Sweden to France to Texas to California to Ohio in the past two weeks.
Teammates with the Swedish side Tyresö, Engen, Klingenberg, Krieger and Press are in the midst of their first extended stretch with the national team since June. That means it’s also the first time in a long time U.S. coach Tom Sermanni has a chance to see them up close, unlike players based in the National Women’s Soccer League whom he saw on a weekly basis all summer. The same is mostly true for Yael Averbuch, who plays for a different Swedish side but had a brief opportunity to join the national team in September while home for a wedding.
“I think that the benefit that a lot of our players have had from going overseas has been both a soccer benefit and, if you like, a life benefit,” Sermanni said. “They’ve had to go into an environment that’s a little bit different, a culture that’s a little bit different. They’ve then had to play a kind of soccer that’s a little bit different. Coaching is a little bit different. So they’ve had to improve in a lot of skills both on and off the field, and I think that’s really benefited them.”
Fresh off a goal and an assist in Sunday’s 4-1 win for the United States against New Zealand, Press is among the most intriguing players in American colors at the moment. Since earning her first cap earlier this year, she has scored eight goals in 11 appearances, a heady pace but one in line with her exploits in Sweden, where this season she became the first American to lead the Damallsvenskan in goals.
It isn’t easy for a forward to find room among Abby Wambach, Alex Morgan and Sydney Leroux, but Press offers an intriguing tactical complement to their varying degrees of speed and power. In part, she feels, that’s because her time in Sweden forced her to expand her approach.
“I think that just the style I’m exposed to and the team that I’m on, it’s so different from the American soccer I was raised with,” Press said of the Swedish league. “Just stylistically and the priorities and how the pace of the game, everything, is so different that I think it has been such a great learning experience for me to have had one experience and then see a different side of it.
There also is something to the experience off the field, as Sermanni suggested. Soccer players who end up being good enough to play professionally spent a lot of their young life, not surprisingly, playing soccer. Being dropped in a different place with a different language right out of college can literally serve to underscore that there is a world beyond the white lines.
Not that the same thing can’t happen in Boston or Seattle, but have you tried the smörgas in Stockholm?
“I think the really cool thing about our job, if you can call it a job, is we work really hard for one practice, two practices a day, and then you have a lot of down time because your body needs that time to recover,” Klingenberg said. “That opens up a lot of free time. I can spend it however I like, and being pretty close to Stockholm has been a really eye-opening opportunity for me.”
It has been for Press, too. Some of the experience is what you might expect for someone in her early 20s — she loves Scandinavian styles and admits she spends a fair bit of time shopping. But there’s more than clothes to culture.
Among her favorite activities is simply lingering for hours over coffee in a city cafe. It’s a small thing, but lingering is an often overlooked activity on this side of the Atlantic, especially for someone who found enough time in the day growing up to emerge as both a Stanford graduate and a Hermann Trophy winner.
“It’s the kind of thing you don’t necessarily do in the United States when we’re just a little bit more of fast-paced culture,” Press said. “It’s more of a patient culture [in Sweden]. It’s a culture that really prioritizes enjoyment of life. In the United States, my upbringing was more about enjoying success. It was more driven, more motivated, but also more stressful. That’s something I think I’ve taken as a human being from living in Sweden.”
But for all the personal and even soccer growth for the players based in Sweden, there still is the matter of the 2015 World Cup. It’s hard to argue that playing with or against players like Marta and Caroline Seger is a bad thing. It just may not be a good thing with a World Cup looming and the United States looking for as much cohesion as possible. Unlike the French league where Tobin Heath and Megan Rapinoe currently play in addition to the NWSL, the Swedish schedule offers no such flexibility.
Would it be better for those players, and for their chances of making the U.S. roster, to be based at home next year?
“There’s no 100 percent answer here,” Sermanni said. “Yes, in a sense that it’s great for the NWSL. It gives me much better and easier access to the players and it helps me see the players week in and week out. So that’s a big benefit, both for the national team and for those players to be seen. There are benefits, as I pointed out before, of going overseas, as well. But when you start getting nearer to the World Cup, the opportunity to have the team together I think outweighs the fact of them being overseas.”
To that end, Press on Tuesday reiterated an inclination to play some NWSL role next season once her current Champions League commitment to Tyresö is complete. For others, it will continue to be a choice with drawbacks and benefits to both sides.
Sweden is a good place to be a young professional soccer player. Even if those 23-hour commutes through Newark can be rough.