[The PITCH: Blog 14]“And what it all comes down to is that I haven’t got it all figured out just yet. ‘Cause I’ve got one hand in my pocket and the other one is giving the peace sign.”
Last month, the USWNT did a “friendly” tour through San Antonio, San Francisco and Columbus. While European countries have begun their World Cup 2015 qualifying group play – a 6-team, 10-game ordeal that spans over the course of a year -- the U.S. has begun the countdown to the two-week qualification tournament: 11 months!
It’s interesting to note how the system of qualification highlights one of the differences between American soccer and European football. When discussing the topic of qualifications here in Sweden, I might remark how difficult it is for a team to be at their absolute best, or as we like to say in the U.S. “the peak,” for an entire year-long season; while my European friends would surely mention how unfortunate it would be to get injured if it happened to fall during the two week-tournament, or how one bad referee or a single “bad bounce” could shatter your World Cup dreams.
Eleven months away, and the team is gearing up physically, mentally, emotionally. The United States World Cup Qualifying squad will enter the tournament in top shape and peak condition after 150-plus days together in 2014 alone. If one “bad bounce” could change everything, then the only option is not to leave it up to one bounce. There is little room for error! But in case you haven’t heard… Pressure makes the USWNT. Well… I can attest that the pressure, that the exciting style, and the exhilarating nature of do-or-die tournaments has built an un-paralleled fan base for the team… After the USA’s electrifying World Cup (ie: Brazil quarterfinal) and Olympic (ie: Canada semifinal) performances, people are still coming out and lining up to watch games and meet players. In this most recent three-game tour, we saw 52,000 people. WOW!
Through it all, the team never takes its eye off of the prize: World Cup gold, a feat that has eluded us since 1999. Being the first year under head coach Tom Sermanni and officially an “off” year with no major world championships, it was certainly, and quite naturally, a time for uncertainty. While trying out different lineups, formational systems and playing styles… we are, perhaps, a team without a defined identity. Of course, making the team, a game roster, or even a camp roster is unpredictable, so I write the word “team,” let alone the words “my team” with tentativeness But that’s not necessarily a bad thing. I wrote a blog at the end of last year called To Build Me Up, Break Me Down, and I still feel that way today. If I were to replace the word “uncertainty” with “freedom” stating, “It is certainly a time for freedom,” then, the benefits would be obvious and … we’ve got a whole different ball game.
While I cannot say exactly what the coaches and staff are intending, I would be surprised if this exercise of freedom was not intentional. In my observations, individuals, like teams, progress marginally if left on a straight course. But when they encounter some tough situations and decisions along the way or some forks in the road, even if they chose the wrong path, they learn, and usually emerge stronger. In this way, the team would probably benefit from a few setbacks and/or shake-ups, as tougher competition both inter- and intra-squad make for a better team overall.
Perhaps there is more room for a possession-based style in the USWNT future. Perhaps you’ll see some new faces emerge on the world stage. But whatever way it goes, I’m quite certain that this team will always work to keep its greatest strengths: intensity, high work-rate, athletic prowess, and a winning mentality. A shift in playing style, tactics, formation, priorities or players will never come at the expense of this proven edge. Sometimes we are so focused on improving, changing and moving that we forget to see the power, importance, and effectiveness of what’s already there.
This is true for me on an individual level as well. While shifting back and forth between two very different teams, I often find myself wondering exactly how to adapt. To find success with the national team, should I forget the tools that have given me success in Europe? For example, the high-paced and direct USWNT game rarely affords the time to position myself on a defender’s blind side. Should I forgo the tools that I’ve garnered in an attempt to fit into the American system? I also know that it is really not possible or even savvy to try to play high-pressure alone … So, to be successful in Europe, should I neglect the traits that I know have made American soccer produce the most winning women’s team in the world?
When consulting my Tyresö coach Tony Gustavsson on the subject, he made clear that the answer is the same for a team as it is for an individual player. “Everyone needs to grow, to improve, to adapt, to change, and to absorb. But always stay true to your identity as a player. For you that means staying sharp inside the penalty box. Keep focused on your strengths because in the end, scoring goals is your forte and also your job.” Maybe I have the time in Sweden for little opposite movements to create space for myself, while in America I need to rely more on speed and fitness. Patience is key in my footboll, while focus and readiness is key in soccer. So yes, I can adjust the details of my game to thrive in different environments. But whether I’m wearing the red, white & blue or yellow & red, come hell or high water, I need to finish. That is uncompromisable. That’s my edge. The USWNT can change jerseys, players, styles, and all… you can change your runs, your first touch, your outlook… go ahead! Adapt, add, try- out, trial-and-error. But find your core and believe in it. All the rest is just icing on the cake.
I think this lesson rings true off the pitch as well. Surprise, surprise!! A theme at last! As I move from country to country and team to team, I have tried to hold on to my own truths… or as Tony put it: my core. Most important to me is that no matter what country, what house, or even what job, I want to always be on a path toward happiness, to accept happiness as my personal responsibility and challenge, to fight for it, and above all, share it with others. If that means sharing joy with fans and teammates through hard work on the field or just sharing laughter among friends, I know that’s important in my life. I take that quest with me everywhere I go and in everything I do.
The shake-ups make life exciting. Embracing them is how I stay the course. Maintaining my true self keeps me grounded and provides the balance I need to keep progressing. Going forward as player means trying to thrive at the club and national team levels… and for that I intend to use everything I’ve got! Like they sing in the Girl Scouts: “Make new friends, but keep the old. One is silver, and the other’s GOLD.” And after all, doesn’t it always come back to gold?
I have to admit that coming off of the bench has to be one of the most mentally fatiguing parts of the game. SO much so, that I find myself more exhausted after a USWNT game where I played in the final 15 minutes than after a full 90 minutes.
Most of my comrades on the USWNT bench are in the same boat, as we don’t normally find ourselves on the sideline in our club careers. So… it’s not uncommon to hear chat about just how tough it can be. In most of my Stoppage Time sections, I’ve tried to give you an insider’s look onto what it feels like inside the paint… well this time, I’ll share what it feels like on the pitch, but out of the paint.
1) We “stay warm” the entire game. This consists of periodic dynamic movements up and down the sideline. However, up and down from the cold bench only seems to bring attention to just how tight your muscles have become over the last 10 minutes…
2) Watching the game means you don’t get the benefit of the distraction of playing. I’m a major victim of my own thoughts. HELLO MINDFULNESS, WHERE ARE YOU? Athletes often say that they feel nervous just until they touch the ball. Well, if that’s not until 70 minutes after the game began, nerves can build up a whooooole lot! When you’re playing, the crowd is a blur of energy, the coaches’ comments are often unheard, and you are somewhat oblivious anything that’s going on around the game. However, on the bench, it’s not like this. I’m keenly aware of every scratch or bruise on my body and I can hear even the slightest screech. From the bench, I can see just how many people came out to support us. I can absorb the energy from the fans, and from the bench, I get chills during the national anthem.
3) It’s difficult to maintain the necessary balance between staying calm and collected while simultaneously ready to go in at any moment. While I’m so hyped up watching my teammates, I have to contain my energy should I be needed on the pitch.
4) After an hour of trying to remain calm and stay warm on the sideline, if you are lucky, you go into a high-intensity, high-paced game that doesn’t afford you the luxury of taking a few simple touches to get your feet wet.
Now, this is not a letter to the editor about how horrible it is to sit on the bench. I’ve spent a long time working to get called in to this team, and when I’m there I am proud of my place on the bench. This is, on the other hand, a way of taking a moment to acknowledge the efforts of all the subbed-in soccer players in the world. This list of hardships is born of the wonderful challenge and incredible opportunity. There are “super-subs” who enter the game with energy and immediately have an impact. So every time I find myself on the bench, I think of that. How can I go on and raise the level of play? What does the team need? How can I make the most of my time on the field?
Because whether we are tied, up or down a goal…when the 4th official raises a neon green 23 into the sky, it’s go time!!