The name Whitney Engen should mean something to you, but it probably doesn’t. Three years ago, she was the first defensive player picked in the Women’s Professional Soccer draft, a stature earned while contributing to four national title teams at the University of North Carolina. A year later, she was voted the league’s best defender as her team (Western New York Flash) won the title. At 24 years old, she’s right on the cusp of regular duty with the U.S. Women’s National Team, her ability to play in the middle or wide giving her multiple means of impressing whomever replaces Pia Sundhage. Among women’s soccer diehards, she’s more than well known. She’s part of the future.
She’s also the type of player who needs to look at options overseas, which may be the biggest reason why Liverpool LFC have made a minor splash, luring the twice-capped U.S. international to northwest England. As the club announced on Tuesday, Engen will join the team in January for the 2013 season.
Her thoughts, from Liverpool’s website:
“I have always been very interested in playing in the WSL so when the opportunity arose, I took it.
“Joining a club with such a legacy and impact in the world of football made the decision easy. I want to thank everyone at Liverpool who worked hard on my behalf to make this happen. I am very excited for next season.”
That it’s Liverpool signing Engen makes this move a surprise. The big names in English women’s football are Arsenal, Birmingham City and Everton. Liverpool, last place finishers in this year’s WSL, are not on the same level, but that may be about to change. That Engen “had various offers from other teams around Europe” (according to her agent) makes this signing is a mind coup. Liverpool’s stepping up.
For Engen, getting to play strong clubs on a regular basis is huge, particularly at this point in her career. She’ll be playing for a big organization, in a good league, in a place where the culture won’t be a significant obstacle. Even before considering the (likely modest) money involved, Liverpool’s a great opportunity for 24-year-old who lacks the same outlets as the national team’s established stars.
But this is also a small warning for U.S. Soccer, who are busy trying to put together a domestic, professional league for the 2013 season (the WSL, like other women’s leagues, is semi-professional). Particularly for players in Engen’s situation – talented, young, still establishing themselves professionally, and looking for some some stability – Europe’s going to be a temptation.
For players willing to leave home, it’s difficult to fault their decision to jump to Europe. The leagues are established, stable, and offer a level of competition the possible U.S. league may not be able to replicate. If a player is lucky enough to land with one of the continent’s bigger clubs, they’re likely to have a professional lifestyle that can’t be matched in this country. For players whose games are still developing, jumping to a high-caliber league might be the best way to improve.
Even after the U.S. league stars, there’ll still be players like Ali Krieger, who’s done her career so much good by playing in Germany’s Frauen Bundesliga. There’ll still be players like Sarah Hagen, who has had success after going from UW-Milwaukee to Bayern Munich last year. And there may be more Lindsey Horans, who was lured by Europe’s money before she’d even made it to college.
And now, there will be the Whitney Engens – a national team hopeful whose career could get a boost from her time in England.