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To Jump or Not to Jump: U.S. Women Think Europe

While a move to Europe to play has often been the road less travelled for soccer-playing women in the United States, recent developments suggest that the route is increasing in popularity.
BY Maura Gladys Posted
January 30, 2013
10:49 AM
It was buried at the bottom of a January 22nd press release from U.S. Soccer: Tobin Heath was getting on a plane headed towards Paris to play for Paris Saint-Germain. Details trickled out afterwards that it was a six-month deal that would return the midfielder to the U.S. in June to play in the National Women’s Soccer League, which starts in April.

The fact that Heath was leaving on a jet was a big deal. It was the second time in just over two weeks that a prominent U.S. women’s national team player had signed with a French team. Megan Rapinoe announced earlier in January that she would play with French powerhouse Olympique Lyon, then return to NWSL.

Unlike the men’s game, where earning a ticket to Europe is a mark of a player’s rising stock, making the jump across the pond for women is a little more murky. Despite the inconsistent status of a U.S. women’s league, not many U.S. players historically played overseas. However, thanks to Heath, Rapinoe, and a solid group of players already overseas, it's increasingly clear that the women’s European leagues might offer opportunities for American women not found in the United States or NWSL.

There are more than 30 players currently playing in European leagues, with 13 in the Bundesliga, and the rest scattered around France, Sweden, Norway, and England. There are many reasons to go. For Heath and Rapinoe, it’s to add another layer to their game and push themselves to the next level of play on the national team. The European emphasis on technique and tactics benefits both players’ styles.

For others, going abroad presents an opportunity for the strongest start possible to a career. Eighteen-year-old Lindsey Horan passed up a scholarship at the University of North Carolina to sign a six-figure deal with PSG, while Amber Brooks signed a contract with Bayern Munich after leading UNC to a national championship.

Finally, some women choose Europe so they can play a bigger role on a squad and be challenged in new ways, with an eye towards working their way into the U.S. national team. Fringe USWNT players like Whitney Engen, Megan Klingenberg, and Christen Press joined Liverpool, Tyresö, and Kopparbergs/Göteborg FC, respectively. (Press joined Tyresö at the start of this year.) The moves seem to have paid off so far, as all three were named to the first national team camp of Tom Sermanni’s tenure in advance of a February 9th friendly against Scotland in Nashville.

The same is true for midfielder Yael Averbuch, who played with WFC Rossiyanka in Russia in the spring of 2012, then with Sweden’s Kopparbergs/Göteborg FC in the fall where she scored six goals in 10 games. That form helped Averbuch earn a call up to Sermanni’s camp.

“I had been on the fringes of the national team for a few years and was just never able to break in to the roster on a consistent basis, so I'm sure that has a lot to do with why I am getting a look to see if I can compete for a spot,” Averbuch said. “But it helps a lot to have a club team where I have a big role and can play well and express myself fully on the field.“

Playing for a European team has unique benefits for players at any stage of their career, but actually making the connection can be a challenge.

“It was not easy for me to find a team overseas,” Averbuch said. “There are limited spots on rosters and for most teams it is more expensive to bring international players over, so unless you are a very established national team player, or have a personal connection, the opportunities are limited. I reached out to anyone and everyone I knew who may be able to help and eventually found a couple teams who were interested.”

But Europe can be an entirely different beast than an American domestic league. The style of play is different. Frequently, so is the language. Players are forced to learn and adapt on their own.

“It's not always a glorious lifestyle overseas, you're away from home, have to learn a new language and culture (which always makes things challenging) and sometimes all you have is soccer,” Tiffany Weimer, editor-in-chief of Our Game Magazine and a forward for Fortuna Hjørring in Denmark, told ASN.

“At times it can be very lonely trying to make a life in a new place,” Averbuch said. “My teammates are all extremely friendly, but it still isn't easy when that is the only group of people I know and I can't just pick up the phone and call a friend at any time.”

Having just made the major decision to play in Europe, many face or have faced the decision of when to come back to the NWSL. Heath and Rapinoe will definitely be back to the States later this spring. But others, including Averbuch, have opted to finish out their contracts in Europe, choosing what used to be an unknown, sometimes blind leap of faith to a new team, language, and country as the clearer option over the still-developing NWSL.

Whether this American wave of players becomes a real trend will depend largely on the success of the NWSL.

“If the league keeps it together and players are treated properly, I'm sure most players would prefer to stay stateside,” Weimer said. “If not, we might see more players across the ponds.”

For those that do choose Europe, Averbuch says the experience will be tough but rewarding: “I think you have to be up for an adventure. It takes a balance of being tough and knowing who you are and what you want out of your soccer career, but also you must be easy going in a lot of ways and learn to go with the flow. Moving across the world to pursue a dream is not for everyone. But I think that there is so much to be learned from living and playing in another place. It just takes being open to that experience.”

Maura Gladys, a featured ASN columnist, works in production for KICKTV. She also runs the goalkeeping blog All You Need Is Glove.

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