At the heart of it, Christen Press’ meteoric rise to the pinnacle of her sport is a love story.
And like many love stories, the ebb and flow of emotions reached extremes.
Press fell in love in Sweden a couple years ago, when times were simpler. There weren’t cameras and microphones and sponsor appearances and scouts at every turn. There was simply a fresh slate for a young woman who needed a change from the commotion and the pressures she found omnipresent in the United States.
When the previous iteration of a professional women’s soccer league in the U.S. folded in January 2012, Press had five days to decide what to do with her life. The Los Angeles native packed up her life and flew halfway around the world to Gothenburg, Sweden. Her initial purpose was to escape. But three years later, it is clear that the move actually brought her back closer than ever to the love of her life: soccer.
“I knew that I needed to get out of here,” said Press, now swarmed by microphones in a New York City hotel, eight days ahead of her first World Cup. “The American sport culture, I lost my love for the game.”
See, Press had done just about everything she could at that point, about a month after her 23rd birthday. She dominated the Southern California youth soccer circuit before smashing scoring records at Stanford University and winning the MAC Hermann Trophy, given annually to college soccer’s best player. Then she turned professional and scored eight goals en route to being named rookie of the year.
But the ultimate goal was to play for the United States national team, the most storied women’s program in the world. Her résumé was, at her age, as impressive as any of her peers, many of whom were getting regular looks from then national team coach Pia Sundhage.
Press, however, couldn’t seem to break through on the international level. It wasn’t that she wasn’t good enough – the evidence post factum clearly shows otherwise – but, more frustratingly, she just wasn’t getting the chance. Was she good enough to play for the United States? What skills did she need to work on? What was holding her back? These are the types of questions that ran through Christen Press’ mind every day – every hour. The pressure of it all – of trying to win every game, every tackle, every header not just in matches but in practice with her own teammates – it took away from the very reason she played.
Enough was enough. Press wasn’t anywhere in the mix for the 2011 World Cup roster. And while she was an alternate for the 2012 Olympics, she still didn’t play in a senior international match for the U.S. until 2013. The dream of playing for her country would have to wait, despite the reality that her next step could eliminate the possibility altogether.
“I made that decision, I believed in that decision and I went to Sweden with an open mind,” says Press, now 26 and one of the best players in the world.
She came back from Sweden not long after with a clean slate and a chance at the very thing she had been chasing.
Press played for Göteborg FC for a year before moving to Tyresö FF, on a side that was a who’s who of world all-stars — including five-time FIFA World Player of the Year Marta. Press was the top scorer in the league, finding net 23 times in 26 games.
She tallied a brilliant assist in the UEFA Champions League final last year, which Tyresö lost, 4-3, before the club soon went bankrupt due to funding drying up, a common story in women’s soccer. Press was already set to return home to the National Women’s Soccer League, now in its third season, at the directive of U.S. Soccer, which wanted its national team players in the league it funds to help develop talent.
Now Press is a sure-fire starter on a team of world-beaters. She scored six goals in her first seven appearances for the United States and she has scored 20 international goals to date. Her path is the one far less traveled; few current U.S. players plied their trade abroad for any extended amount of time and all 23 on the World Cup roster currently play in the NWSL. Press now plays for the Chicago Red Stars. Her time in Sweden, however, was life-changing.
“I think that Sweden was the biggest blessing of my career,” she says now. “Just learning and understanding the game on another level and now being able to apply those different perspectives and different ideas on a very truly American team has given me an advantage. And also adopting to the cultural differences that they have in Sweden and accepting myself. Not always looking over my shoulder and seeing who is coming after me and knowing that my best is good enough, I think that had a huge impact on my life as well.”
United States teammates Meghan Klingenberg and Whitney Engen both played with Press at Tyresö and lived with her at different times there. Engen grew up 15 minutes from Press in the picturesque Palos Verdes region south of Los Angeles. Engen played with Press on her first club team in AYSO.
“I’ve seen Christen grow and mature and maybe get passed over on a few call-ups that she should have gotten years ago,” Engen said. “Christen’s an amazing person. You sit down and you spend 10 minutes with her and you realize she’s got her head on straight and she knows what she wants and she is going to go after it. I think that she’s shown that she is a world-class footballer.”
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Christen Press is a thinker. She is introspective in an athletics world full of clichés. Much like the recently retired Landon Donovan, Press lets you into her thoughts so as to fully understand them. She isn’t afraid to challenge conventional wisdom.
She sporadically writes about all of that, too.
“[My website is] an opportunity to decompress and look more deeply into my life and my game and have to understand it better in order to explain it to a vast audience,” she says about her blog.
That is the type of reflection that defines Press. United States coach Jill Ellis says Press is constantly asking for feedback to assess her performances. Press is not a perfectionist, but she is meticulous. She is always planning, always studying.
And therein lies part of her dilemma; Sweden liberated Press to play with a sense of freedom, but now she is in the spotlight more than ever, appearing in commercials and giving constant interviews in both English and Spanish while trying to prepare for her first World Cup. She is right back in the spotlight. And with that comes the pressure of the single thing that defines success for the United States women’s national team: winning.
“Coming into this environment, it’s sort of passed down as a tradition, learning how to train to win, how to feel like you’re a winner every day, competing so fiercely and ferociously every day in practice,” Press said.
The Americans have played in and won the most games in Women’s World Cup history. They have scored more goals than any other country and they have twice lifted the trophy. Despite being the three-time reigning Olympic champions, the U.S. hasn’t won a World Cup since 1999 — which was on home soil — a drought that is only getting longer and harder to end as the rest of the world gets better.
Media attention, fan support and pressure on this team are all at historical highs.
Pressure, however, doesn’t seem to faze Press, who figures to be one of the most important players for the U.S. in its quest this summer. Her greater challenge is re-adjusting to an American style of play that is often more about physical ability and brute force than the artistic, thoughtful play in Europe that shaped her into the player she is today.
“In 2012 I got my first national team call-up and I really felt that liberation of playing just for me,” she said. “So adjusting back to the United States absolutely has been difficult. It’s kind of a reverse culture shock when I’m in it all the time, I’m in that American culture all the time. But less because of the pressure that comes with American athletics and more because the style of football is really chaotic; it’s really fast-paced. I appreciated all the things that I learned in Europe so much and I actually have a really hard time applying them in the NWSL, because it is sort of like I’m on an island some times in terms of what I want to do.”
Press often uses the words “journey” and “freedom” to describe her time in Sweden. Ellis is her current coach but has been involved in U.S. Soccer for over a decade and previously coached at UCLA, a conference rival of Stanford’s. She watched Press progress from her teenage years to now, and Ellis remembers a moment on the cusp of 2012 when Press had just come into a camp of younger players to be evaluated. Ellis told Press to keep working and, when the opportunity comes, grab it and don’t let go. Little did player or coach know that the opportunity would inch closer by Press going so far away.
“That’s where I think she realized, it’s going to take a slightly different route maybe to get to this team,” Ellis said of that time in Press’ career. “I think that was the choice to go to Sweden. And at the time I didn’t really know it, but she was on a personal journey. I think the personal journey and the soccer needed maybe to hit reset. That was the choice and the chance to go to Sweden and fade into anonymity just as a player who would really commit to her craft. I think that helped her. Now, she’s ready to take on a bigger role.”
Exactly what that increased role entails varies by game. Press is tenacious in front of net. She recently scored a viral goal against France that saw her pick her head up and accelerate through three defenders on a 40-yard dribble. But she is also valuable in a playmaking role or out wide, where she has mostly played for the U.S. over the past six months.
“My position is actually a perfect example of showing how we have built in waves,” Press said. “Now it is at my discretion. Do I need to get wide and provide the team that width, or do I need to come in and provide some more support, be more of a connecting player? If we go direct, where do I need to be? If we’re building through our lines, where do I need to be?”
There’s that freedom Press covets. The freedom to play her way. The freedom to think and self-reflect. the freedom that helped her rediscover her love for soccer. And of course, freedom that has her on the plane to Canada for the World Cup as one of the United States’ most important players.