Press could be next U.S. soccer star

While playing in Sweden, Christen Press rediscovered "the joy of being part of a team and contributing to everybody's success." Michael Campanella/Getty Images

As a metaphorical condition, cold feet were nothing new for Christen Press, a Southern California native so fond of her home and family that even leaving for college within the same state tested her tolerance for change. But as she stood in a locker room in Gothenburg, Sweden, in the middle of winter two and a half years ago and watched her new teammates blow dry not just socks but toes in preparation for a frigid practice, the plight was only partly existential.

Soon burrowed in as many layers as she could borrow in advance of her first practice with the team in Sweden's top professional league, the next challenge came when she took the field and tried to figure out what the Swedish-speaking coach wanted in a drill. Relying on visual cues, she aimed at what appeared to be targets. Time and again the ball found its mark.

This was going well, she recalled thinking. Sweden just might work out.

Only after the drill concluded did a teammate manage to explain that the point had been to avoid the targets.

The inner monologue continued. This might, she mused, be a long year.

The year in Gothenburg turned out to be a good one. So was the time that followed in Stockholm. She figured out how to manage winter practices. She figured out what coaches wanted. She figured out a lot of things.

And finally, Press is back playing soccer on this side of the Atlantic. It is a welcome homecoming for a Chicago Red Stars team that spent much of the early season near the top of the NWSL table but slipped back to the playoff bubble as goals dried up in recent weeks.

For someone who remains one of the sport's rising stars at 25 years old, what began as a trek of necessity turned out to be a necessary absence from her home country.

"It was, I think, the pivotal part of my career," Press said of her time in Sweden, the start of which predated her first appearance with the U.S. national team. "When I left the U.S., I sort of left that frustration and that pressure to make the national team behind me. I was living halfway across the world in a place I had barely ever heard of and I felt like, 'You know what, I'm not going to make the national team right now. This isn't my moment. So I'm going to go and find my love for the game and be a pro and find out what else is out there for me.'

"I went to Sweden and I kind of turned my game around. And I actually started to improve so much being able to play in that spirit and that freedom that I had found."

Red Stars coach Rory Dames told Press early on that he didn't expect her to be a savior. She didn't need to live up to what he deemed unrealistic expectations that awaited a player who not only scored 12 goals in her first 24 games for the United States but also became the first American to lead Sweden's Damallsvenskan, the professional league, in goals. Not that Dames was skeptical of her abilities. He knew firsthand what she could do.

A decade ago, the youth team he coached faced her team in a national championship game. His team lost 3-2. You can guess who scored all three goals.

"I would say that obviously her intelligence level and her sophistication level with her movement and her understanding of the game have greatly improved," said Dames, whose Red Stars played their first 12 games of the season without Press. "But she scored goals. She was a game winner."

U.S. national team coach Jill Ellis knows the feeling. Press scored two goals in Stanford's 3-0 win against Ellis' UCLA team in the 2010 NCAA tournament. It was the second time the Cardinal beat the Bruins that season, and Press was responsible for three of the five goals.

Ellis had tried to convince Press to come to UCLA and had ample respect for her skills. But like everyone in college soccer, she was interested to see how Press responded that season, her first in Palo Alto without All-American and Hermann Trophy winner Kelley O'Hara -- much like some are now curious about how Press will fare without Marta, Boquete and others.

"Kelley was a very dynamic player, and not to take anything off Christen, Kelley was the senior and the team relied on her," Ellis said. "I think Christen's role was more of a complementary role at that point. But certainly with Kelley's departure, I think Christen, she grew into being a leader and the goal scorer for the team."

Press matched O'Hara by leading Stanford to the College Cup after an undefeated regular season and gave the school back-to-back Hermann Trophy winners. What she couldn't earn was a look from the national team, not after her success at Stanford and not after she played well as a rookie in 2011 for Florida-based magicJack in Women's Professional Soccer. With Sydney Leroux, Alex Morgan and Amy Rodriguez all among those in her peer group, a logjam existed at forward and her own future seemed uncertain, if not stalled outright.

"I think my senior year and my rookie season in WPS were really difficult for that reason," Press said. "A lot of my peers and people who were younger than me were already getting called in, so I think I was dealing with an enormous amount of pressure coming out of college and then my rookie season."

She was still not part of the national team when WPS folded prior to the 2012 season, leaving her effectively unemployed. With only a few days to look for work elsewhere in the world, she reached out to anyone she knew who might have contacts overseas. That was how she ended up on a plane to Sweden only days later. Moving to Florida had been out of her comfort zone; Sweden tenfold so.

Her most well-documented accomplishments in Europe came after she moved to the Stockholm-based Tyreso club in 2013. Part of a star-laden roster assembled to compete for the Champions League title, a group that included the likes of Marta, Vero Boquete and fellow Americans Whitney Engen and Meghan Klingenberg, Press led the Swedish domestic league in goals in 2013 and helped Tyreso reach the Champions League final this past May. But her time in Scandinavia shaped her well before the move to Tyreso from the team in Gothenburg, even before she finally earned that look from the national team under Pia Sundhage in time to be an alternate on the 2012 Olympic team.

On and off the field, she found herself in a culture where, in her words, people weren't looking over their shoulders or focused on getting ahead. They weren't complacent, but they were willing to be themselves.

"In the U.S., my whole life I felt like I had to be the best and score more goals and run with more fitness so I could be the one in the limelight," Press said. "I think that when I went to Sweden, I found the joy of being part of a team and contributing to everybody's success. Winning alone means [a fraction] of what winning together means. If you don't have teammates to hug and celebrate with when you win and cry and commiserate with when you lose, I think that it takes all the value out of the sport for me.

"I think that it didn't take long for me to feel that and experience that."

She grew as a soccer player during her time in Sweden, honed her touch on the ball and her sense of space on the field. She grew in less tangible ways, too, whether from the meditation routine she started while overseas or everyday exposure to a different culture and different way of looking at the world. One needn't necessarily influence the other -- a person's technical skills can improve without a worldview expanding, but for someone who is introspective in a way that is not entirely common in the phylum of elite athletes, the soccer experience and life experience are intertwined.

"I think that's even hard to distinguish at this point because although soccer's not my life, soccer really mirrors my life," Press said. "So a lot of the changes I go through as a player reflect the same ones I go through as a person. I think the lessons always apply to both. Of course I imagine having many things outside of football -- I couldn't be happy with just football. But at the end of the day, if I had everything else, I couldn't be happy without football."

It's a different style of football she now finds herself playing in NWSL, faster and more physical with less time on the ball than she had in Europe, but it didn't take her long to adjust. With Chicago behind 2-0 in Portland on July 4, Press scored two goals in little more than six minutes to salvage a draw and a valuable road point. Both were world-class finishes, the first with her left foot after she took an extra touch to gain the necessary angle to beat charging Portland goalkeeper Nadine Angerer at the near post, and the second with her right foot on a blast toward the far post that even the reigning FIFA player of the year had no chance of reaching.

The performance won't do much to temper expectations as Chicago tries to complete a playoff push, but so be it. Pressure isn't a bad thing, not as a World Cup cycle heats up and positions and playing time are on the line. Should she see the field in Canada next summer, there will be pressure there, too. Her time in Sweden wasn't about escaping that or competing less.

Perhaps it was about enjoying herself more. There is, after all, plenty to like.

"She asks good questions, she's committed to getting better," Ellis said. "She's very, very good inside 18 yards. I think she's a natural finisher. I think in the past two [United States] games against France, and I said this to Christen, I've been pleased because we have to have wide players that can come inside and get the ball, play off the line, and we have to have players that can penetrate without the ball and obviously players that are good faced up. I think she has those qualities, so I've started to see a little bit more about what she is capable of doing."

Ellis had another conversation with Press some years earlier at a training camp for members of the youth national teams hoping to catch then-coach Pia Sundhage's eye. Press wasn't part of the picture for the full national team at the time, and that wasn't likely to change regardless of what she did in that camp. But walking off the field with her one day, Ellis had a message.

"You have all the pieces," Ellis told her old Pac-12 nemesis. "The things right now you don't have is just the experience. You belong in this environment, and I think your time will come."

It has come, which is why it was time for Press to come home.