World Cup Stars Shine in Spite of Long Odds for Women’s Sports
Christen Press woke up one morning in February 2011 to troubling news that a lot of people faced during the Great Recession: She was out of a job. Friends and colleagues were lighting up her phone, and when she checked her email she saw the message sent to her and all her fellow players in Women’s Professional Soccer: “Sorry, but the league has folded for financial reasons and you won’t be able to play in the U.S. next season,” it read.
Unlike most pink-slipped professionals, Press had virtually no other option for employment doing the thing she was best at. With no other league in U.S., and not being on the national team, the only way she could get paid to play soccer was to leave the country.
Press had dominated at every level she’s played. Her club coach in Irvine, California, Ziad Khoury, can’t remember a game in which she didn’t score. “I’ve never seen another player like Christen, male or female,” he said. “We knew we could always count on her to make those big plays.” In college, she led her Stanford team in scoring. She was Rookie of the Year in the WPS.
Now she had four days to sign with a team in Europe before the leagues there set their rosters for the season. “There was never a question of if I was going to continue to play—it was where and how,” Press says. “I wasn’t going to let someone else tell me that I can’t play soccer anymore.” She contacted everyone she knew in soccer to help her get on a team in Europe and soon received an invitation to play for a team in Sweden. Press quickly packed her bags and headed over.
That first night in Gothenburg, a city on the frigid Skagerrak Sea, was particularly hard. She got on Skype with her family and friends and cried through the night wondering if she had made the right decision. “If you are going to take such a big risk, you have to have someone who is going to catch you if you fall,” Pres ssays. “I was lucky enough to have the support from my parents and the rest of my family.”
“We would support her [playing] anywhere,” says Tyler Press, Christen’s older sister. “That’s how much we believe in her.”
Press woke up the next day, put on her cleats, and gave it her best. Figuring she was no longer on the radar of the U.S. national team scouts, Press felt—for the first time in years—that she was playing just for herself and the thrill of the game. At the same time, she was having a blast traveling around Europe.
Two months in to her stint with Göteborg Kopparbergs FC, Press got a call from the new coach of the U.S. national team, Pia Sundhage. She had played for Sweden’s national team and continued to follow the premiere league there. Sundhage saw that, just like everywhere else Press had played, the American was a standout. (Jillian Ellis has since taken over as manager of the U.S. national team.)
Press was named to the 2015 U.S. Women’s World Cup Roster in April. Teammates say they are excited to have her.
“She has a very high soccer IQ,” says midfielder Heather O’Reilly, a three-time Olympic gold medalist. “She is incredibly analytical about the types of plays she makes on the field. She’s quiet, but very pensive and then will make a play that no one thought of and score.”
Meanwhile, a new pro league got off the ground in the U.S.—the third such attempt at professionalizing women’s soccer in the United States since the Americans won the World Cup before 90,000 at the Rose Bowl and an audience of 17 million watching on TV, in 1999. Christen will return to her National Women’s Soccer League team, the Chicago Red Stars, after the World Cup ends in July.
Press is just one of many talented, hardworking athletes who have struggled to earn a living in their chosen profession despite being among the world’s best. Julie Foudy, the two-time World Cup champion and 2-time gold medalist, who works for greater equity for the women’s game says, “Imagine all of the girls out there who don’t get the chance to play soccer because of the lack of resources?”
Press and her Red Stars teammates, along with the rest of the NWSL, hope to blaze a trail for today’s club and college stars, so that when they are ready, they get that chance.