It's ironic that after a year of soccer globetrotting, U.S. defender Whitney Engen would end 2013 training just 25 minutes from where she grew up.
As the U.S. Women’s National Team wraps up the year with a training camp at the U.S. Soccer National Training Center in Carson, Calif., just down the hill from her hometown of Palos Verdes, Engen admits it has been a crazy and successful year. You could even call it crazy successful.
In the fall of 2012, before the announcement of the National Women’s Soccer League, Engen signed with the Liverpool Ladies in the FA Women’s Super League. As she was studying for the LSAT at the time (“I was a nerd. I didn’t leave the house for six weeks,” said Engen), she didn’t travel to Liverpool until Jan. 17 and became part of a team that would break Arsenal’s 10-year stronghold atop English women’s soccer by winning the WSL.
The WSL season runs from March to October and Engen marshalled a defense that helped the club win the title on the last weekend of the season, holding off Bristol Academy, to finish four points clear. And if you think taking a SoCal girl and dropping her in Liverpool in January was not the easiest transition for the now 26-year-old, you would be correct. However, two months spent in Sweden in 2011 playing for Tyreso (more on closing that circle in a bit) helped her adjust quickly.
“I left L.A. when it was 80 degrees to go to snowy Liverpool, but I had the fortunate experience of living in Sweden for a few months, so I sort of knew how playing in a foreign environment would feel,” said Engen. “When I first got off the plane in Sweden, I was terrified, but this time around I was more up for an adventure, and the opportunity to be a part of such a huge club was exciting.”
Even more exciting was that for the first time, the Liverpool women’s team would be under the auspices of the men’s team, which meant excellent training facilities, comfortable travel (on the Liverpool first team bus!), great gear and most importantly, a feeling of real connection and importance to the world-famous club. She got to play in several of the green cathedrals of England – Anfield and Arsenal’s Emirates Stadium – and came out of the experience as a better player and person.
“It was so cool to be able to play in famous stadiums, and the soccer and the league were quality,” said Engen. “Historically, it’s been a one-to-three team race for the title there, but now it’s a four-to-five team race, which made the competition better and more fun.”
Engen had quite a bit of down time in England, something she doesn’t necessarily enjoy, so she set out to experience a city that has a reputation for being a bit grey and industrial. Engen didn’t find it that way. She was pleased to find an up-and-coming city, and amazingly, a lot of sun.
“I found the people in Liverpool to be extremely nice and welcoming, although sometimes I felt like an animal in a zoo,” said Engen.
She relates a story about how she was in a grocery store looking for popcorn and a woman asked her about her accent. She answered that she was from America and then when prompted for a city, answered Los Angeles.
“So this woman yells to her husband, ‘Kevin, come here! This girl is from Los Angeles!’ I don’t like to draw attention to myself so I was so embarrassed. Sometimes my teammates would even ask me to say words or phrases and they would say ‘your accent is so cool!’ so that was a bit different.”
Speaking of accents, she admits to having real difficultly understanding the locals.
“I don’t want to offend anyone, but it can be difficult to understand a Scouse accent,” said Engen. “Sometimes I would get on public transportation and someone would strike up a conversation with me and I would continually say “no” because I didn’t want to agree with something when I had no idea I was agreeing to! One time a guy – who was at least 60 years old -- asked me out, although I didn’t know it, and I said ‘no, thanks.’ And then later I was able to process what he said and I’m glad I said no!”
As her team trained at 7:30 p.m., and Engen soon found that “there’s only so many episodes of Mad Men I could watch before I had to do something with my life,” she spent her time working on a cookbook, practicing her Spanish, seeing the city, enjoying brunches, window shopping (“Too expensive to shop! Which killed me because I love to shop, but the pound to the dollar is so bad.”) and as she lived near Penny Lane, visiting the Beatles Museum. She even took a side-trip to Paris to hang with U.S. and former college teammate Tobin Heath.
After the English season ended, Engen signed again with Tyreso, which is located outside of Stockholm, to play in the UEFA Women’s Champions League. Although an administrative snafu kept her out of what would have been her first match in the first leg of the Round of 32 series against French power (and Heath’s club) Paris Saint-Germain, she started against PSG in Paris and played a key role in helping her team gut out a 0-0 second leg tie to win 2-1 on aggregate. She then played every minute of both matches in the Round of 16 series against Fortuna Hjørring of Denmark, a series that the Swedish club would win 6-1 on aggregate, bolstered by a spectacular back-heel half-volley goal from Engen that kicked off the 4-0 second leg victory.
“It was easy to decide to extend 2013 abroad because four of my U.S. teammates were already playing for a club and city with which I was very familiar,” said Engen, who actually lived in a castle during her short stint in Sweden. Engen also knew almost all the players at the club from either her previous experience in Sweden or playing in the WPS, and the allure of Champions League sealed the deal. “After coming from England, it felt like a homecoming of sorts as Stockholm is one of my favorite cities in the world.”
Now Engen is back in her original home. Although she will return to Sweden for upcoming Champions League quarterfinal matches, U.S. fans will see her in the NWSL next season, something she’s looking forward to after a year in Europe.
“Playing abroad has given me so many new tools and experiences as each league in the world has something different to offer, but I’m excited to come back and help my country grow this league that gives young American players the opportunity to continue playing at home,” said Engen.
And being able to sneak away for lunch with her parents during training camp is just an added bonus.