[THE PITCH]Now wakes the Owl ... Now sleeps the swan ... Behold the dream ... The dream is gone.” -- Pink Floyd
I have never been less excited to write a blog post. After two and a half years sharing stories about my journey through Sweden as a professional footballer, how could I possibly skip over the biggest game of my career and the final goodbye? Well, other than a country western composer, who wants to write about a heartbreak? That is what May brought: a heartbreaking loss in the Champions League final and and sad ending to the best chapter of my soccer life.
It seems that my journey in Sweden led me to this final ... Falling in love with the city of Gothenburg ... and then giving it up to surround myself with some of the best players in the game ... Then ... falling in love with Stockholm and the small suburb of Tyresö. Losing titles and teammates and friends ... Struggling to stay afloat amongst a sinking ship that once was one of the top clubs in the world in the midst of an exciting Champions League run. So many games leading to that final game. Hello Lisbon ... Goodbye Sweden!
I've played in finals before. Heck, it's been four USYSA club championships, two CIF high school championships, two NCAA championships, two Super Cups, and one Swedish Cup ... The experience of playing in those games I’ve carried with me, but in the preview of the CL final, they seemed like recreational games. There is something about a final. In this tournament, where in each round you're given 180 minutes with each opponent, the likelihood that the better side will advance is increased. But there is just one shooting star 90-minute final, where anything you can imagine can happen. And, for us, on that day, the unimaginable did.
We stole the first half with certainty and flair, but we played at just 75 percent of our capacity, giving away too many balls and with a palpable tension in our game. Still, it was more than enough. We had the majority of possession and when we ran at their back line, it seemed to dismantle them. We went up 2-0 on Marta and Vero goals.
Half two was a whirlwind. They scored a great goal within the first two minutes and we took it like a punch in the gut. Deflated, we tried to keep the pieces together and defend our lead. Marta and I switched spots as she was nursing a hamstring strain, and out of position, we lost our pressure on their back line. As much as the first goal against rattled us, it was nothing compared to the second. In just 10 minutes, we lost our lead and all of our confidence. I looked at the faces of my teammates. We had so much experience on the field, but faces seemed stricken with panic. So many our fittest players began to cramp halfway through that half. It was chaos.
Against the run of play now, we scored to make it 3-2! We encouraged each other. Fight back!! It's our game now!!! We did fight, but it wasn't our game at all. Minutes later, our right back Meghan Klingenberg went down with a charley horse turned total leg cramp. We played the ball out of bounds so she could get medical attention. While the play was stopped, Tony subbed our right forward Malin Diaz out for Madde Edlund, but nobody came in for Meg. Wolfsburg threw the ball in and went straight up our right side to their unmarked forward: 3-3.
When their forward scored the final goal unmarked inside the six yard box with just 10 minutes to go, we didn't give up, we kept fighting until the end ... until it was over. I was in shock because it was so little about soccer and so much about emotions. After everything we had been through, this was not how it was supposed to end. Yes, Wolfsburg deserved to win. They were resilient, strong and tactically smart. As they raised the cup under a downpour of confetti, I thought: soccer is a cruel, cruel game.
I've tried really hard the last few years to be less attached to winning. I would like to fight as hard as I possibly can in each and every game, and win or lose, leave it at that and move forward. I know in my heart that that is the mindset I need to be a successful and happy athlete. But still, I knew that this game had taken a piece of me. With the team ending and my time in Europe over, it is a piece that I will not get back. Once again, I looked into the stands, and there they were: my mom, dad, and sisters, where they always are: on their feet, clapping their hands, and crying. In the end, I'm the same girl I was when I was 14, just wanting to make them proud. I saw my dad take out his handkerchief. A few hours later, as my family held me in their arms, through a flood of tears, I thanked them for coming to all of these heartbreaking finals. I assured them that one day we were going to win ... and there was comfort in knowing that they are foolish enough to keep coming back...
Just two days later, we were expected to fly home and play against our toughest Swedish rival: FC Rosengård (formerly know as FC Malmö.) So that's exactly what we did. For some of us: me, Meg, Whit, Vero, and Seger, this would be our last game with the team and a sort of send off... A swan song. For the rest, not knowing just what the future held at the club made the game totally meaningless. After our embarrassing loss, what would have been the biggest game of our Damallsvenskan season now seemed dimly lit. There was no motivation to play. Points didn't matter as we suspected that we wouldn't finish out league. We weren't getting paid.
What actually happened was a reminder of everything I love about athletics.
Our team -- broken bodies and spirit -- played exactly how we wanted everyone to remember us. Two days after a strain and cramps in the final, I watched Lisa Dahlkvist make tackles and spray balls like few other women players can. I witnessed in awe, Vero, who had not practiced in a month due to injury, play the second of two back-to-back battles, picking up balls and unchaining Malmö's defense at full speed. And me? I was re-invigorated by the freedom of playing solely for the love of the game. I never felt more confident on the field. My heart insisted that we would end this on a happy note. And so, tied 1-1 in the 85th minute, when I shot from range, empowered by my team’s display of courage and integrity, I knew, the moment it left my foot, it was going in. After the ball whipped right and brushed the back of the net, the team huddled together one last time. In the corner of my eye, I saw Tony unabashedly celebrating on the sidelines.
Now, a few weeks later, I can hardly remember the Wolfsburg game. When people ask me what happened, I struggle find the words. But these final images of my teammates overcoming against all odds stay with me and continue to inspire me.
Was it redemption for our loss? Not even close. But perhaps it was something bigger than that. Since then, the club has pulled out of Damallsvenskan, all of the players were released as free agents, and all of our results deleted from the standings. Still, that final ultimately meaningless performance is what the beautiful game is all about for me: getting back in the ring and fighting the next fight ... with style and class. I used to think that losing titles made me a loser ... But as I packed my life back into my luggage, I knew that although I was losing everything -- not just the title, but also my team, my training environment, my life, my friends -- I had won something more.