Interviews

Christen Press plans her next move, with the poised perspective of a veteran

ISI Photos-Brad Smith

Press' spurning of the Houston Dash and abrupt return to Sweden brought on déjà vu, but the USWNT forward's next club is one she knows has to be the right fit – and she's willing to search for it.

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Christen Press never thought she would play in Europe again. In truth, she never thought she would go to Europe in the first place.

But here she is, two months into her second stint playing for Goteborg FC in Sweden, a transition which once again had to happen under time constraints. Six years ago, she joined the club because Women’s Professional Soccer folded as transfer windows were closing, and an entire league of players had to scramble to find teams. In 2018, the time crunch came after Press decided not to play for the National Women’s Soccer League’s Houston Dash, where she had been traded by the Chicago Red Stars in January. Many European transfer windows had already closed, and another trade within the NWSL to a preferred destination didn’t develop.

There was a time when I had to do certain things in order to be seen or be available, and now I feel like the only thing that matters is that I’m in form, I’m fit and that I’m ready to go when called upon. Everything else is kind of background noise.

- Christen Press

So Press signed a three-month deal with Goteborg FC, bringing her back to the place where her professional career turned a corner for the better in 2012, launching her international career. This time, like the last, it at the very least gave her a place to play immediately.

“If I were to characterize the last few months, I would say, ‘wow, it was such a crazy few months, starting in January when I was traded,” Press tells FourFourTwo. “But if I look back at the rest of my career, I don’t think there have been very many times where I haven’t felt like it wasn’t a wild period in my career. Playing in the Olympics, world championships, you feel like you are failing when everyone else thinks you are doing great; you’re doing great when you weren’t supposed to be. It’s a ride, you know?”

Press declined to speak specifically to her decision not to play for the Houston Dash, where she was dealt in a blockbuster trade which saw Sky Blue FC acquire U.S. teammate Carli Lloyd and Chicago acquire 2017 NWSL MVP Sam Kerr. Dash personnel insisted that they had assurances that Press would play there. Where that information came from and how communication broke down between parties remains unclear.

She did, however, allude to her reasons for needing an initial change of scenery after three-plus seasons in Chicago, as well as her decision in April to head back to Sweden.

“Coming into my late 20s – ending my 20s, essentially, this year – I feel very grounded in the player that I am and the person that I am,” said Press, who turns 30 in December. “I feel clear in the goals of what I want to achieve in my personal game and also in more team goals. I feel that’s clearer than I have ever have [been]. Now it’s, what am I going to do to get there? I think that for the first part of my 20s, I put so much on myself – how I was training, the offseason, what types of drills I was doing, my fitness. I made strides with that, and I just got to a point where I feel like I want to play a certain type of soccer, and I’m willing to search for it.

“And I want to be in a certain type of environment that I feel like I can get better. I can play the type of soccer that I want to play; I can have a coach that can push me and teach me new things. It’s not easy for any player to find a good home, a good fit, but I think it’s worth searching for. A lot of ambitions that I’ve had with the national team, I’ve fallen short in those. So, I don’t think that continuing to do the same thing, you should expect different results. So, I think this is my way of kind of searching for what I think can propel me to the next level.”

What’s next is the big question for Press. She scored four goals in her first three games for Goteborg, winning the Swedish Damallsvenskan’s April player of the month award. Her contract with Goteborg ends on July 8, and the options seem endless. Logically, those options look to be somewhere other than Goteborg, a young team which sits in the middle of the table in Sweden.

Press was able to leave freely from the NWSL because of the way contracts are structured for U.S. national team players, which sees the federation – not the teams – pay players, contractually obligating them to U.S. Soccer and not any specific team. NWSL teams merely hold players’ rights should they choose to play in the league. Players forfeit their NWSL salaries – but not their national team contracts – should they decide to play overseas.

A lot of ambitions that I’ve had with the national team, I’ve fallen short in those. So, I don’t think that continuing to do the same thing, you should expect different results. So, I think this is my way of kind of searching for what I think can propel me to the next level.

- Christen Press

Houston still holds Press’ NWSL rights. A move within NWSL for Press, assuming her view of Houston does not change, would require the Dash to agree to trade her rights elsewhere within the league. And there are rumors of interest from big European clubs, where Press might have the ability to win the Champions League title she fell minutes short of with Tyreso in 2014. The elephant in the room is the looming 2019 World Cup, and U.S. Soccer’s long-known preference for Americans to stay in the NWSL. It’s the reason Press was more or less forced to come home in 2014 despite her career taking off in Europe. But with the wisdom of a player who has spent the better part of a decade in search of what makes her a better player – of what makes her happy – that isn’t necessarily a current pressure Press feels.

“I’m still in the finding-out-what’s-available phase of it,” she said of her current options after her Goteborg contract ends. “I’m casting an open net; I’m very open to anything. The opportunity has to be evaluated individually, so I’m not thinking that I have to go to this team or this team. I’m very open in that mindset and once I have viable options, it becomes a different conversation.

“I think also when you’re a younger player for the national team, there’s a different perspective that you have. I think I have learned – and I feel supported in my decisions by the national team – that whatever I can do to optimize my performance is what’s going to get me on the field. There was a time when I had to do certain things in order to be seen or be available, and now I feel like the only thing that matters is that I’m in form, I’m fit and that I’m ready to go when called upon. Everything else is kind of background noise.”

Press receives the Damallsvenskan Crystal Ball Award on May 27

Press finds herself back with the U.S. women’s national team for two matches against China in early June after being left off the roster for a pair of friendly matches against Mexico in early April. Press, who has scored 44 goals in 98 caps for the U.S., had at that time in April already declared that she would not play for Houston, but hadn’t yet signed a contract with Goteborg. Ellis stated at the time that “our expectations are that a consistent training and match environment for a professional is an important factor for selection into women’s national team rosters.”

Press says she has a clear idea of what Ellis wants from her going forward.

“I do have to grow a little bit in terms of certain tactical things like aerial presence in the box, making sure that I’m organized in setting the defensive pressure,” Press says.

Her goals for her international career seem simplistic for a seasoned veteran: be on the roster for World Cup qualifying and the 2019 World Cup, and play a bigger role in the team. Those are realistic, though, when you look at the current U.S. landscape. Megan Rapinoe, Mallory Pugh and Alex Morgan have consistently been the team’s three starting forwards and, right now, look like sure starters. The forward position is also incredibly deep.

And despite the team’s 2015 World Cup triumph, it was a disappointing tournament individually for Press, who after scoring in the opening game settled for a reserve role in the knockout rounds and didn’t play in the semifinal or the final. That was supposed to be her breakout tournament. Her missed penalty kick in the quarterfinal shootout loss to Sweden at the 2016 Olympics remains a memory she hopes to erase.

Those struggles weren’t part of the plan, but neither was the Houston drama nor a return to Goteborg. Press, long one of the most cerebral American players, is far removed from her days as the rising star at Stanford, the standout rookie for magicJack or even the player who won the Damallsvenskan golden boot in 2013. She knows that life doesn’t often follow the expected path, but she remains centered in finding her way, well, her way.

“It’s a little bit of a funny thing to me, because I am a planner and I think I know the direction I need to go, but my life has constantly challenged that and constantly disrupted that plan,” she said. “Every change I’ve made has helped me tremendously.”

Press’ next decision, like each before it, will be her most important yet.

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