Christen Press on Rio: "I’m So Excited and Motivated.”
May 18, 2016
WATCHING CHRISTEN PRESS play the first few weeks of the 2016 NWSL season, it would be nearly impossible to tell that she is coming off one of the most difficult chapters of her career. After all, only five games into the campaign, Press is tied for the league lead in goals, has already won the Goal of the Week award twice, and has taken on a new role this year as captain of the Chicago Red Stars.
One year ago, Press looked destined for international greatness at the World Cup. She had become a near-automatic starter for the United States women’s national team—starting 19 of the team’s 24 games leading up to the tournament—and frequently displayed an impressive array of technical skills on a team oft-criticized for an overreliance on pure athleticism.
However, things didn’t go as planned for Press in Canada. In the spring the goals had largely dried up for her and the U.S. offense. Dealing with a stagnating attack, head coach Jill Ellis struggled to find the right combination of players and often forced Press into a wide midfield role. Carli Lloyd couldn't find the goal. Alex Morgan, following a series of injuries, couldn’t find her form. Abby Wambach, now 35 years old, didn’t look the same.
At the World Cup, Press started the U.S.’ first two games, but then missed out on the final group stage match against Nigeria completely. She came off the bench in the Round of 16 and the quarterfinals, then didn’t see the field at all in the semifinal against Germany, or as the team won the championship against Japan several days later. In a tournament that looked primed for Press to become an international sensation, she finished with only two starts in seven games and scored only one goal.
Speaking to American Soccer Now, Press characterized that period as “one of the most difficult experiences of my life.” And while she is proud of how she handled the situation and helped her teammates push on to win the tournament, she confessed, “it was a surprise to see how much things changed during the course of the seven games.”
“A lot of players' roles changed—mine probably the most drastically. In the end, you have to stand by your coach and your teammates and the changes that Jill made ended up with victory. It was very challenging, personally, to accept that and to not be defensive and not recoil, but to embrace whatever role I had and keep pushing myself and my teammates in training and be as supportive as I could.”
Despite the setback, Press—ever the optimist—has since used those events to change her outlook on the game.
“The [World Cup] experience has changed my role on the national team since then significantly, and I don’t think it’s a bad thing,” she admitted. “The experience taught me that no matter what happens, how much I play, where I play, I need to bring my best attributes to the field for whatever minutes I have. Leading up to the World Cup, I was trying to be a player I wasn’t and I was trying to fit a role I didn’t feel comfortable in and then it ended up being a little bit of a fail.
“Now, whenever I’m playing, however many minutes, I have to be me, and being me is my best self and [knowing] it is good enough. If that means I’m not going to go to the Olympics as a starter, or if I am, it really doesn’t matter. My focus is about bringing that passion and fire that you have when you lose the expectation [of starting].”
Since Canada, it would tough to argue with her mentality. Press scored eight goals in six appearances during the national team’s Victory Tour and already has four tallies for the Americans in 2016. Of those 12 goals, many were simply jaw-dropping, including her strikes against Trinidad and Tobago, China, Costa Rica, and Colombia.
Returning to Chicago this spring for the NWSL season, Press’ remarkable form has continued, and she’s taken on some new roles as well.
During the preseason, Red Stars’ head coach Rory Dames told Press she’d be captaining the side in 2016. So far this season, Press had stepped up in her new leadership role, accounting for 75% of the team’s offense and helping lead the team to a 3-1-1 start—good enough for second place in the league standings.
Press has embraced her new position on the team and feels she has something unique to offer her teammates.
“Even before the season, even before I knew I might have that responsibility, I definitely saw an opportunity here in Chicago to take on a bigger role than I have on the national team and have had on past club teams,” said the California native.
“Our team is really young which makes me one of the oldest players—which is definitely different. Just having a little bit of international experience and a few years with the Red Stars, it gives me a great opportunity to lead this group and help some of the newer girls get acclimated to this environment—show [them] why I love the game, what it means to be a professional, and that fight and drive [needed] to chase after a championship.”
However, Press also explained that taking over as team captain this year has presented some new challenges.
“Playing center forward my whole life, it’s an isolated position where I intentionally stay away from the emotional ups and downs of the game the rest of the team might be feeling because my job is to have quality and efficiency regardless of whether the team is playing well, or we’re winning or losing. My whole career I’ve sort of removed myself from the group in order to produce my top quality and now, stepping into a leadership role, you have to be in touch with the pulse of the team,” the Stanford alumna observed. “It’s my responsibility now to get the group on the same page.”
“I’ve spent my whole professional career trying to stay calm and not let my emotions get the best of me,” she later added. “There have been times this season, now that I have allowed myself to be more invested in the group and in the quality of the team and in the quality of the performance, that I’ve been over-the-top angry on the field. I don’t think that’s good for anyone. Right now, my biggest challenge is to remember to keep encouraging the group, to stay connected to the group, and not to let frustration have a negative impact on me as a leader and as a teammate.”
Press took over the Red Stars’ captain role from former club and international teammate, Lori Chalupny, who retired following the 2015 campaign. And while Press fully conceded that her style of play, personality, and leadership approach are different from her former captain’s, she said there is one important lesson she has taken from Chalupny.
“When our team was playing poorly, or things were getting chaotic—she wouldn’t need to say a word. She would always make a big play in that moment—she would take people on, she would tackle—and she could switch the vibe of the game with her play by intentionally stepping up in those moments.”
In 2016, this is something Press has done repeatedly for Chicago, scoring two game-winning goals thus far—both stunners.
Another new role that Dames has asked Press to take on is a positional switch. While Press is a natural forward, she has spent much of 2016 playing as an attacking midfielder with the Red Stars, occupying the space beneath forwards Sofia Huerta and Jen Hoy.
It’s a change Press has welcomed, despite her inexperience as a midfielder, and one she thinks can help the Red Stars be more effective.
“I think it is a really good spot for me in this league and I’m just picking up some new nuances that can really make a big difference in my performance from the No. 10,” Press said. “[Rory] wants me in the midfield to get more touches on the ball to make sure I’m more involved because in our preseason games when I was playing in the No. 9 role, I was a little bit out of the game.”
With the national team, Press has also often played in the midfield, but out wide. Many fans have criticized Ellis for the move, but Press said her positioning on the national team is usually done out of circumstance and that when she is on the field, she’s not playing the role of a traditional wide midfielder.
“[Ellis] is trying to get certain people on the field. In order to do that, some people have to play out of position. Last year, playing as a wide mid on the national team was very different. Now when I play in a wide space on the national team, or in the No. 10 space with Chicago, the roles allow me to do what I’m best at—instead of trying to put a square into a circle. Maybe that’s just me getting comfortable with them, but I actually really enjoy both roles now,” said Press.
“It’s an adjustment that if I’m the player on the field in the wide space, [the national team coaches] want me to get behind the line, they want me to make diagonal runs to get central in front of the goal because that’s where I play best,” she later added. “The role has been slightly adjusted for me so that I could have more success than last year.”
For the next few months, Press will stay focused on her work in Chicago. After qualifying for the playoffs for the first time in team history last season, the team is looking to take the next step forward. Then, if all goes to plan, Press will head off to Rio with the U.S. in August for the opportunity to represent her country—something she is looking forward to after serving as an alternate during the 2012 Olympic Games.
“It would be a huge honor," Press said. "I always think about what it will mean to my friends and family, who will either be there or be watching the Olympics. I learned so much in 2012. I think my experience as an alternate really altered my career path to the national team and to having success with the national team.
"It gives me a huge advantage seeing it [before] to have understood how it works and now to have a chance to get on the field, and play, and be part of such an amazing world event.
"I’m so excited and so motivated.”
John D. Halloran is an American Soccer Now columnist. Follow him on Twitter.