Christen Press was a high school all-American, a college all-American, winner of the Hermann Trophy as the college player of the year and rookie of the year in her first season as a pro. And then she began to hate soccer.
Her inability to score more, win more and make it onto the U.S. national team roster was making her loathe the sport. And when the Women’s Professional Soccer league folded in early 2012, her career seemed over.
Fate forced her hand. With the European transfer window closing, she had five days to make a decision. So off she went to Sweden. It was a fortuitous choice.
“I really have a fondness when I think about European soccer, because it’s where I re-fell in love with the game,” Press said. “And I re-found my passion and it led me back to this national team.”
The 26-year-old Press, with the infectious, never-ending smile, has become a focus for Team USA at the FIFA Women’s World Cup in Canada. She scored the winner in a tournament-opening 3-1 victory over Australia a week ago and likely will figure prominently as Team USA faces Nigeria Tuesday night in its group finale in Vancouver, British Columbia, as it looks to clinch a place in the single-elimination second round.
Press started in midfield against Australia and then moved into a tandem with Sydney Leroux at forward for a 0-0 draw with Sweden on Friday.
It was a journey she wouldn’t have predicted three years ago. Burdened by 1-0 losses in the College Cup final in her junior (2009) and senior (2010) years at Stanford, a sense of blame for not scoring in either game and an inability to get considered for a Team USA roster that already had Abby Wambach, Alex Morgan and Leroux — in an Olympic year, Press questioned her commitment to soccer.
“I know that I needed to get out of here,” she said. “The American sports culture, was, had completely ... I had lost my love of the game, and I had lost my way playing here. I was really focused on results. I felt like I wasn’t good enough. And when I went there, when I went to (Sweden), I had the freedom to play for myself, and to rethink my passion.”
She first played for Göteborg, in Sweden’s second largest city by the same name, and then Tyresö.
“My whole game transformed,” Press said. “My style transformed. How much I enjoyed playing soccer completely changed. I owe Sweden a lot. It was the 2½ best years of my life.”
She became the leading scorer in the Swedish women’s league in 2013 for Tyresö and finally received her call to Team USA.
Press was the United States’ third-leading scorer in 2013, behind Wambach and Leroux, and again last year, behind Wambach and Carli Lloyd. In 47 games for Team USA, she has scored 21 goals.
|Christen Press kicks the ball in the second half againt Sweden in the FIFA Women's World Cup Canada 2015 match at Winnipeg Stadium on June 12, 2015 in Winnipeg, Manitoba.
Her pairing with Leroux against Sweden wasn’t entirely to the liking of Team USA coach Jill Ellis, who said she would consider her options against Nigeria.
“As far as quality looks and quality chances, we could have (been) better and more productive,” Ellis said. “We’ve dealt with a lot of different things in our forward pairings. We haven’t had Alex (Morgan) available for a long, long time since she’s been injured. So we’ve had different pairings up there.
“What I’m confident (about) is looking at what I need for a specific game and then being able to look at the partnership.”
Team USA sits atop Group D at the Women’s World Cup with four points, one ahead of Australia, two ahead of Sweden and three better than Nigeria. Still not assured of advancing, Team USA could reach the second round without a win should Sweden and Australia tie.
Group D is considered the “Group of Death” by some because not only is second-ranked Team USA included, but also relatively strong opponents. Sweden is ranked fifth among women’s teams by world governing body FIFA. Australia reached the Women’s World Cup quarterfinals in both 2007 and 2011, and Nigeria, a nine-time and reigning African women’s champion, has played in every Women’s World Cup and reached the last eight in 1999.
With Nigeria having been outscored 5-3 in two games so far, Ellis could return to the formation Team USA used against Australia.
Regardless, whether coming from wide midfield or parked up front, Press smiles all the time. Having returned to the United States, Press is playing for the Chicago Red Stars with a rediscovered fun.
“When I’m playing with the national team I think that I’m more comfortable playing from the wide spot, because that’s where I’ve been training and that’s where I’ve developed the relationships,” she said. “But if you ask me what position I am, I say I’m a forward, because that’s what I am.”
Brian Trusdell has covered four FIFA World Cups and six Olympic Games during his more than 30 years as a sportswriter, mostly with the Associated Press and Bloomberg News. He is a freelance contributor to TeamUSA.org on behalf of Red Line Editorial, Inc.