[THE PITCH]A wise man once noted... "Again and again, I am reminded that soccer is, simply-put, 'the game of life.'" Oh wait, that wasn't a wise man ... that was me. Two years ago, when I started this blog, a thread relaying many of the experiences I've chanced upon in my football adventure and the lessons I've learned along the way, I was already aware that football is a microcosm of life. That is, that the ups-and-downs that players experience on the field mirror the ups-and-downs in life for all of us off the field. But never has this been clearer to me than with events occurring over the last few months. Literally speaking, the advent of Champions League has become a metaphor for my life: win or go home! Let me explain…
In the U.S., the sports world thrives on an all-or-nothing, playoff mentality. “Win or go home” is the tagline for the NBA playoffs and also the phrase my youth club coach used every game en route to the national championship. Consistency, stability, and endurance -- the qualities it takes to win a league -- give way to grit, big plays, and the luck it takes to win in a playoff. Of course, there is much more to winning than is visible on the field and, like the effort and commitment required to rear a child, it takes a village…
In 2006 in a small, unknown city in Sweden, a small, unknown, division 2 women's professional club team made a commitment to win the most prestigious title in women’s professional soccer: the UEFA Women's Champions League. The goal was lofty and would take years and more than a few sponsors. Five years later, some of the world’s best players from several different countries joined the journey, and took Damallsvenskan by storm. And so, in the winter of 2012, when I was offered the opportunity to jump into the dream, I strapped up my snow boots and plowed my way into the House of Happiness.
I came to Tyresö one year ago with the dream to win Champions League on May 22, 2014, and winning aside, my two years in Sweden have been invaluable. Outside of the American pressure-cooker environment, I've become much more confident and comfortable with the game and with myself. That being said, when I moved abroad I did it in hopes of one day making the U.S. national team. That dream to play in my country and for my country has not left me for one moment. The main reason for my move from Göteborg to Tyresö last season was for the USWNT. I needed, in legal terms, to be released for any and every USWNT call-up, something that KGFC would not do for me, but TFF would.
Being a part of the USWNT is my number one priority as a professional women’s soccer player. I am grateful to be included in the pool and for every opportunity afforded me by the U.S. federation. I’m relatively new to the team, with only 11 caps occurring all in the past calendar year. Since my move to Sweden ended up being my “round-about rout” to the national team, I never expected my two dreams would become mutually exclusive. Yet three months ago, I got a phone call from the U.S. federation, detailing the reasons why U.S. Soccer wanted me to come back to the NWSL for the 2014 season. There are, in fact, so many reasons to return home to the NWSL and I fully intend to come back for this league. It’s simply a matter of when. I support the NWSL and I respect it. I know how important its existence and success are for the women’s game. I also know that proximity and visibility are important for myself personally, as a player just breaking into the national team.
U.S. Soccer has put a lot of money, energy, and effort into building the NWSL. For them, a strong domestic league is an essential element to ensure future national team success as more and more countries get competitive on the world’s stage. US Soccer is also my employer. And they want their “Americans abroad” to return to the NWSL in 2014 to help promote the league, raise the level, and lure both fans and top international players. The problem is I really feel my time is not quite done in Sweden, that my lessons are not all learned. The federation recognized how important I feel staying in Sweden is to my development, and in consideration of this, a compromise was formed. We agreed that I could stay in Tyresö but only as long as the team was in Champions League: In other words: advance to the next round or say goodbye to Sweden.
Yes, I have the opportunity to make both dreams a reality: to play at home in the NWSL and to play for a Champions League title. I am grateful for that. But the moment I hung up that phone call, "win or go home" took a new meaning in my life. "Go home" does not just mean the end of the Champions League season, but it would mean the end of an era: the clock would run out of my time playing for TFF, the finish of my life abroad in Sweden, the goodbye to all my friends, and the closing of a beautiful chapter in my life.
I had thought that the most powerful lesson I had learned thus far was to separate my life from my sport, my happiness from my outcomes. In Sweden, I had found my identity outside of football. And that identity allowed me to play and live in harmony and composure. But in that moment, it seemed that I was right back where I started two years ago. Soccer was no longer just a reflection of my life. It had tentacles reaching out grabbing and clinging to every aspect of my existence. It once again seemed impossible to see where soccer ended and my life began.
When we drew Paris St. Germain in the first round, a team that had also announced it’s intention to win CL and then backed it up by signing numerous top international players, including two USWNT teammates, I felt the sudden pang of panic.
It was the first of many pangs over the following weeks as we began to gear up for our first Champions League rivalry. The days became colder and colder as October snuck up on us in Sweden, and it became more and more difficult to separate my football outcomes from my personal decisions. The plummet in the outside temperature ran counter to the surge in my heart rate. It was getting harder to distinguish Christen-the-footballer-free-spirited-traveler from Christen-the-over-thinker.
A week before kickoff, team Tyresö met with our general manager. Yes, it was him Hasse who, back in 2006, dreaming of a Champions League title, set the wheels in motion toward that end. He stood before us, surveying the room filled with some of the most notable faces in women’s soccer including players from six different countries and showed us the names of all the players and staff members that had been a part of this seven-year journey. He reminded us how far we had come and how many people shared this dream … and then he begged us not to blow it.
I sat simmering in that pressure cooker until it hit me. I could allow the heat to cook me … melt me away … or I could let it evaporate like the steam it really was. Instead of trying to untangle this jumble of goals and agendas, I decided to crack the lid. I could not separate let alone satisfy all of the dreams, emotions and stakes in that one room. It was far too much for one person to take on, but fortunately, we had each other. We were a team. The only positive thing I could do was to just leave it all there ...
Champions League, 1st Round:Tyresö 2 Paris SG 1
Champions League, 2nd Round: Tyresö 2 Fortuna Hjørring 1
Champions League, 2nd Round:Tyresö 4 Fortuna Hjørring 0
Of course, we are still in the thick of things. Advancing to the quarterfinals in March has bought me some more time in Sweden, but the journey continues with the rules unchanged. As I said before, it’s only a question of when … win or go home … or maybe … win AND go home!