How do you steal the show from names like Alex Morgan and Abby Wambach? If you’re Christen Press, you do what you’ve always done – what you’re getting better at seemingly every game. You score goals.
The Stanford alum did that on Saturday, marking her senior national team debut with two goals in the first 32 minutes of the U.S.’s 4-1 victory over Scotland. In the process, Press vindicated everybody who called for the 2010 MAC Herman (soccer Heisman) winner to have a bigger part in the national team. Under Pia Sundhage, that never happened, but in the first game of the Tom Sermanni era, Press got the call.
That she started at right midfield underscored the problems Press has faced. She may be accomplished, and with 17 goals last year in Sweden, she may be prolific. But the United States has Alex Morgan. They have Abby Wambach. They have Sydney Leroux and they have Lauren Cheney. The line at forward is long and entrenched.
But with Megan Rapinoe a late arrival from Lyon, there was an opening at right midfield, a spot that would have usually gone to Heather O’Reilly. Yet in the first eye-opening decision of the Tom Sermanni era, the uncapped, overlooked forward from Tyreso got a start wide. The result: Two goals in the first 32 minutes and message sent. Press is ready for senior team duty.
As you’d expect from anybody playing out of position, it wasn’t a perfect night. Press failed to create opportunities when matched one-on-one with Scotland’s left back, and her first four crosses failed to connect. She clearly is not a right winger at this point in her career, but she also pretty clearly deserves to be in the team. At some point, her overall ability has to win out.
Press’s stellar performance raises two interesting and potentially sensitive issues:
First, it would be safe to assume Press didn’t become good overnight. Tom Sermanni may prove to be a miracle-worker, but for now, it’s much more reasonable to assume Press has been very good for some time and is only now getting a look. In two professional seasons since leaving Stanford (between WPS and Sweden), she has 25 goals in 40 games. Why is this the first we’ve seen of her in the red, white and blue?
We know why. Continuity was a strength of Pia Sundhage’s teams, but it was a weakness for the larger program. Even Ali Krieger, one of the best full backs in the world, had trouble breaking into the team before performance and fitness issues forced Sundhage’s hand on Heather Mitts. Without a doubt, Sundhage’s ability to maintain a delicate U.S. Women’s National Team ecosystem helped the team win gold in London, but it also meant players like Press were neglected.
What other players could help, if they were given a chance? Yael Averbuch showed a flash on Saturday. What about Kristie Mewis as a more advanced option in midfield? Is Julie Johnston ready to be a senior team regular? Maybe somebody like Becky Sauerbrunn could benefit from being looked at with new eyes.
Christen Press was the big winner on Saturday, but her immediate impact could open doors for others. It could also spur new competition for spots that were previously off limits.
Second, Press seems like a better player now than she was when she left for Europe. I say “seems” because one game is not enough to know for sure; however, it would make sense that a top player has improved between ages 23 and 24.
What also makes sense is seeing a young player improve with steady reps against top competition. The moment-to-moment technical quality we saw from Press on Saturday was striking. That’s the kind of game you develop when your talent meets the regular training, games, and expectations of higher level club soccer. You don’t get that in college, and Press didn’t quite get the in a final WPS season played in the wake of a World Cup. The only way you learn to constantly be “on” is to be around a bunch of players who can take advantage of when you’re “off.”
It’s still unclear whether the National Women’s Soccer League will meet that standard. But Press is in Sweden. So are Yael Averbuch and midfielder Meghan Klingenberg. Tobin Heath and Megan Rapinoe are in France, where U-20 prospect Lindsay Horan is based. Sarah Hagen is in Germany.
Will the NWSL be able to provide the same opportunities that France, Germany and Sweden give players like Press? It better hope so, because with so many U.S. internationals playing domestically, the program can’t afford a league that’s not fully developing players. If part of Press’s improvement can be attributed to the Damallsvenskan’s virtues, you can be sure the U.S.’s closest competitors are also reaping the benefits.