Three Americans will be playing in the Champions League final this week, but not for Atlético or Real Madrid.
Christen Press, Meghan Klingenberg and Whitney Engen take to the field Thursday with Tyresö FF against VfL Wolfsburg in the UEFA Women’s Champions League title match. Tyresö became the first club from a nation other than France or Germany to reach the final in the past four years. The three United States women’s regulars and their teammates cut a swath toward 19,000-seat Estádio do Restelo in Lisbon, defeating their four preceding opponents by a combined 19-3 score.
“In all the other rounds, there was the expectation to get through, to outplay the other team, to beat the other team — often by a lot of goals,” Press told SI.com by phone from Winnipeg, Canada, where the U.S. tied Canada, 1-1, on May 8. “That kind of weighs on you with the expectations, but coming into this game, obviously, we're playing such a quality team — the defending champs, a team that's more established in Europe — so I think that we'll get to play with the freedom of being underdogs.”
Press has played a major role in Tyresö’s romp through the competition, scoring at least two goals in each round for a total of nine. Brazilian star Marta added five goals, and Engen also scored one.
The final marks the end of an era for Tyresö, a club in a financial crisis that has not received its Damallsvenskan license for the 2015 season. As the women’s side of a fifth-tier men’s club, Tyresö doesn’t have as much money trickling down from the men’s team as a club connected to a first-division team, including European women’s powerhouses Wolfsburg, Lyon and Paris Saint-Germain.
“This is generally unseen in the Damallsvenskan,” Engen said of the situation. “When we were hit with all of this, we were pretty shocked, because they've set things up in such a way that there is stability, and they typically don't overreach their bounds. Teams seem to have a way to figure it out. It's been kind of a perfect storm of a lot of different things, and obviously, it's a slippery slope, and once one sponsorship deal fell through, and then another and another and another, the hole was too big to climb out of.”
Tyresö officials failed to submit the required paperwork to allow the federation to review the club’s finances, so it will not play in the top division beyond the 2014 season. As such, the players who are able to have found ways out.
Press will join National Women’s Soccer League franchise Chicago Red Stars after Thursday’s final. Engen and Klingenberg are off to the Houston Dash, while Spanish striker Verónica Boquete is also transferring to the NWSL, to the Portland Thorns. U.S. international Ali Krieger also played for Tyresö on loan but has since returned to the Washington Spirit.
“We don't have the resources and the little financial advantages that you would get that we'll be facing, no matter who the opponent is,” Press said. “We travel really close to games. We cut corners when we can.”
However, Tyresö’s situation is unusually dire. At times, the club has failed to pay salaries, and even the Swedish government intervened to help the club. Part of it may have been signing a flood of new players to compete in the Champions League, even at the expense of slipping in league form — “We kind of put all of our eggs in one basket,” Press said — as much as losing sponsorships.
“We know no matter what we do, there's nothing that can help change our situation, so it's something that, as a team, we've decided not to focus on,” Klingenberg said.
American women’s soccer fans and players are no strangers to financial crises, considering the NWSL’s two predecessors that folded. The stability of the new league and support from the American, Canadian and Mexican federations has seen the majority of the three nations’ players join teams in the U.S., and an influx of international players has begun with the relaxing of transfer restrictions in 2014.
“One of the benefits of WPS [Women’s Professional Soccer, the second U.S. league] was that we had a lot of international players, and I think that international players brought up the level of the league. I think that NWSL is obviously still in its infancy, and it's getting there,” Engen said. “I think that's the one thing that leagues in Europe have to offer: they're able to draw from a much larger selection of people.”
All three Americans on the Tyresö roster consider the Swedish Damallsvenskan to be among the top leagues they have played in. Julie Foudy, Michelle Akers and Kristine Lilly also played for Tyresö in the 1990s.
Press in particular has been able to use her success in Sweden as a springboard to the national team. After WPS dissolved in 2012, she joined Göteborg, playing in her first Champions League and defeating Tyresö in the Swedish Cup final before joining her current club in 2013.
“Being a new member of the national team and not having so much experience here, these experiences that I'm getting in Europe are helping me catch up a little bit. Playing on a big stage with a lot of people watching, those are lessons that otherwise I couldn't be learning,” Press, 25, said. “I think that it's important for me because then when I have opportunities with the national team, it's less of a shock. It's less of a situation of nerves, and it's more like, ‘This is the job.’ Week in and week out, this is the job, and this is what it's going to be like.”
All three players pointed to the depth of the Swedish league, where all of the 12 teams in the top flight are difficult to beat. Still more Americans ply their trade in Europe, with other top leagues in France, Germany and England. The lower-tier leagues in Scandinavia are also filled with recent college graduates looking for their break.
One final American connection on Tyresö lies in its Swedish coach, Tony Gustavsson. He was a finalist for the head U.S. women’s national team position that recently went to Jill Ellis. Gustavsson, 40, is not far removed from his own playing days in Sweden’s lower leagues, and he was Pia Sundhage’s assistant at the 2012 Olympics.
“I think that he's a brilliant tactician, and he's an incredible coach, getting everybody to buy into the goal and getting the team to work together, to play in the same style,” Klingenberg said. “He's always trying to review games and be hands-on and talk to the players and talk about what he wants from them and talk about what he wants from the team. That's nice to be around because it makes everything easier and the goals clearer, and everybody can buy in and be on the same page.”
Based on their comments, all three Americans would welcome the opportunity to work with him again. Gustavsson could still find himself on Ellis’ staff as an assistant should he also be ready to jump ship when Tyresö’s season ends in October. “He's just a world-class coach and really knows how to get the best out of his players,” Engen said. “If he gets the opportunity to come work with us here, I'd be thrilled.”