51414_isi_engen_uswntmj041014156 Michael Janosz/isiphotos.com
U.S. Women's Team

Whitney Engen Gearing Up For Champions League Final

The 26-year-old Tyreso defender spoke to ASN's John Halloran about her role on the U.S. national team, the Champions League final, and her coming move to the Houston Dash.
BY John D. Halloran Posted
May 14, 2014
5:39 PM
FANS OF THE UNITED STATES women’s national team who haven’t been paying close attention to the squad since the 2011 World Cup or the 2012 Olympics might not even know the name Whitney Engen.

But they should.

While the team was busy creating iconic moments like Abby Wambach’s stoppage-time equalizer against Brazil in 2011 or Alex Morgan’s extra-time winner against Canada in 2012, Engen—not on the squad for either tournament—was forced to watch from afar.

In those two tournaments, the preferred pairing at center-back was Christie Rampone and Rachel Buehler. And in those few instances when cover at the position was needed, Becky Sauerbrunn filled the void.

But while Engen sat in the shadows in 2011 and 2012, out of the limelight, she was working hard to achieve her dream—one that is now becoming a reality. And as the transition between the old guard and new guard of the U.S. women’s squad continues, Engen’s time has come.

Rampone is now 38 years old and Buehler has missed a number of recent games and camps with injuries. Engen’s star, on the other hand, is on the rise and she is now the one routinely trusted to clean up the messes in the back for the U.S. In 2013, the California native played in eight of 16 matches for the squad; so far in 2014, she's featured in seven out of 10 games.

Her ascent with the U.S. over the past two years has been coupled with a run of form at the club level that most other U.S. players (men or women) can only dream of—winning a title in England with Liverpool and helping her current club, Tyreso, to the Champions League Final. Now, with only five months before the Americans enter World Cup qualifying, Engen has put herself in a position to win a starting spot on the talent-laden U.S. women’s team.

Playing for the U.S. "is a dream come true," Engen told American Soccer Now. And considering the fact that she wasn’t a part of the 2011 World Cup and 2012 Olympic squads, Engen has an added appreciation for what it means to represent her country. She said, “I tell people any time you suit up for this team it’s not only an honor, but a responsibility. I know how hard it is to get on the field here. When you get the opportunity to represent your country, it’s important that you do everyone else justice that didn’t make the roster on that day."

"Anytime I get the opportunity to wear the U.S. jersey," she added, "I’m just going to do the best that I can and am hoping to make my country proud.”

Over the past two years, the U.S. has been a team in transition. After the 2012 Olympics, a new generation of players—Engen among them—have begun working their way into the team. But new players aren't the only changes the U.S. is going through. After the team's 2-0 victory over China last month, U.S. Soccer announced that head coach Tom Sermanni had been fired. But Engen says that for the U.S. squad, things haven't changed that much.

"This is a pretty resilient group," said Engen. "Things have been business as usual. We are very dedicated to what we’re doing. We take our job very seriously. Losing Tom and not knowing who's going to be our next coach, there’s been some uncertainty, but it really hasn’t changed much."

In the interim, former assistant Jill Ellis has taken the reins of the U.S. squad, but U.S. Soccer has yet to decide on a permanent replacement. One of the candidates for the job is Engen's coach at Tyreso, Tony Gustavsson—someone Engen thinks would be great for the job.

"I’ve thoroughly enjoyed my time playing for Tony," she said. "He’s one of the hardest working coaches I’ve ever played for. I can't say enough good things about how hard he works, how well he knows his players, and his ability to put together a full and complete team. Every time I go into a match with Tony I feel completely prepared and I know the team is ready to give their best on that day. If Tony were to get the coaching job [for the U.S. women], I think that would be really exciting for us."

Besides the coaching change, the U.S. has also been experimenting with a new formation, moving away from the 4-4-2 preferred by former coach Pia Sundhage into a 4-3-3. Engen has enjoyed the shift.

"It’s been really exciting," said Engen. "We've got such great players on our team. We are at our best when we have the ball. We switched to a 4-3-3 high pressure. It enabled us to win the ball higher up the field and have more of the ball throughout a game. I've thoroughly enjoyed it in the back."

Before working her way on to the national team, Engen was a highly decorated player at the University of North Carolina. After college, she played in the Women's Professional Soccer league, winning a title for the Western New York Flash and earning Defender of the Year honors in 2011. After the WPS folded, Engen eventually made her way to Europe, first playing on loan at Tyreso and then going to Liverpool.

"Liverpool reached out to my agent," Engen said. "They worked on my visa. The opportunity was presented before me—a chance to go play for a storied club like Liverpool was really tough to pass up. I had played in Sweden for a few months in 2011 and I got a taste of the international lifestyle."

With Liverpool, Engen helped the team to the title in 2013 and speaks fondly of her time at the club.

"I cannot say enough great things about that club. From top to bottom, we were treated so well. We were given almost everything the men were given. We were included like it was a family. We were invited to almost every appearance. If there was a men’s player, there was a women’s player representing our side of things. It’s so different than anything I’d ever experienced."

Playing in England also brought Engen a new perspective on the game itself.

"Being part of a city that bought into football the way Liverpool does—there are rivalries there that go back 100 years," Engen said. "I didn’t understand it until I got there and felt the emotion of it. I thoroughly enjoyed it."

While at Liverpool she became a fan of the men's side and has enjoyed their success this season, saying, "I'm so proud of what they’ve done this year, the season that they've had. Brendan Rodgers is a class act. I’m happy to see him succeed."

She did admit, however, that it has been difficult to watch them slip at the end of their 2013-14 campaign.

"It’s been tough. I know how much work they’ve put into it. At the end of the day, they’re still in the top four spots and going to grab a spot in the Champions League next year. It’s something to build on and go forward."

Engen herself has much to look forward to. In addition to her budding U.S. career, she will be playing in the Champions League final in less than two weeks. Along with her teammates—including fellow Americans Christen Press and Meghan Klingenberg—Tyreso will face off against Wolfsburg for the title on May 22. Although the German team is the defending Champions League winner, Engen says that may actually play into Tyreso's hands.

"Obviously, they have the advantage of having played in the final last year and knowing what that looks like. At the same time, they have the added pressure of being expected to repeat. For us, we’re just going to come in as the underdogs and do the best we can and, hopefully, we can snag a title."

Win or lose in the Champions League final, Engen won't have much time to rest. After her season in Europe is complete, she will head back to the U.S. to join her new team, the NWSL's Houston Dash. Without Engen, the Dash have struggled and are currently last in the league in points. But Engen is excited to be able to come home and help her new squad.

"Since day one, there’s been a real investment from the Dynamo organization into the Dash," Engen said. "They’ve put together a quality environment for the girls and I’m excited to get my feet wet and jump right in."

Considering Engen's success with every other team she's played for, the Dash will be lucky to have her.

John D. Halloran is an American Soccer Now columnist. Follow him on Twitter.

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