2. Happy Feet

Thursday, January 31, 2013

[THE PITCH] I hear the whistle: a penalty kick in double overtime. I see two of my teammates both go for the ball. It’s the same thing that happened before! They fight to take the PK. But now, one girl takes the ball out of the other girl’s hands, and turns and gives it to me. She looks in my eyes and says, “This is yours.” At that moment, I know I score it for sure. It’s the biggest game of my career. This is the most important moment. Back home, my mom locks herself in the bedroom and tells my father to only come get her if we win the game. “If not, just don’t come in.”

I shoot, and the keeper takes it. I can’t believe it. I turn around to meet someone’s eyes, anyone’s eyes, but nobody looks at me. The bench is crying. The people in the stands are crying. My teammates on the field are crying.

Normally, I would just start crying too. It’s over! There is only one minute left. But something tells me there is going to be one more chance. So, I just run and run and run. I see the ball in the air coming across the goal. Everything freezes. I think “This is it,” and I just shoot and score. And then, I just keep running and running and running. And my teammates are running. And I slide to the ground. The referee blows the final whistle right then. I think, “This is the best feeling in the world.” I know I only feel like this once in my life.

-Verónica Boquete on scoring the winning goal in the final play of the game, qualifying Spain for this summer’s European Championships

One day on the bus home from training, she recounts this event. “In that moment my luck changed. I went from losing everything, to winning everything. I went from being dead to the feeling of most being alive.”

Vero smiled the whole way home. I’ve only known my new roommate/ teammate for a week, but even a stranger could see the sparkle in her expression when she talks about that goal. I can hear her passion for the game in her words, spoken in a thick Spanish accent—always   in the present tense—but I can feel her football fervor even stronger in  the words that were not said.

Just three years ago, Vero could be found in Spain, playing in the Primera División de la Liga de Fútbol Femenino (scoring 39 goals), but unknown to most the football world. In 2010, she came to the USA to play for a month for the then second-division WNY Flash. After being scouted in the WPSL final, she was picked up by the Chicago Red Stars and simply, “couldn’t believe it.” The next year, she would go on to be a star player for WPS finalist Philadelphia Independence, earning the Player of the Year award and the ample, well-deserved respect from the professional women’s football world.

Flash-forward to today. Vero is coming off of a championship season last year, where she was honored as Damallsvenskan’s most-valuable midfielder. There isn’t a women’s pro player in the game that doesn’t know her name and her quick feet. Not a bad three years! She is an attacking midfielder with rare technical prowess and an authority over the game at a mere 5’1”. I can still see her running up the field, seemingly moving faster with the ball at her foot, when I played against her at both Magicjack and Göteborg. 

Before my arrival at Tyresö, I got a message from my soon to be teammate: “Are you ready for the penguins?” And when I walked through the door at the House of Happiness she pointed to the snow, “Here, only the penguins can live.” But Vero, like the little penguin Mumble, has managed to thrive with her “happy feet.”

I found her in the locker room the other day, lathering her leather cleats in body lotion. In response to my quizzical look, she explained, “These are THE cleats…” (meaning the cleats she wore when she scored that Euro-qualifying-luck-changing goal)… “They love the lotion. It’s very great for you to come to this team. Because you have me, and I have the lucky cleats. And so, we win everything.”

I smile, a knowing smile…I have lucky cleats myself. Their studs are worn down, their soles full of holes, and they are a size or two too small. I don’t have them with me anymore. My father has kept them over the years for sentimental reasons. Looking at Vero now, massaging her “lucky cleats” I cant help but wonder…just how much time she spent in those boots, running, juggling, finishing, and lotioning to make them so lucky.

[Stoppage Time] The below freezing temperatures here in Stockholm don’t keep us from training, running, lifting, and meeting in full-swing, pre-season mode. Our possession-oriented sessions with this attacking-minded team keep me on my toes and my head on a swivel. The ball moves quickly and smoothly. I’m enjoying learning our style of play as well as my new team’s personality. The ‘new’ is always fun and the football here is serious, just the way I like it. My feet are happy here, too.

We have our pre-season opener at home this Saturday against the Norwegian team Stabaek FK. I leave for camp with the USWNT squad early Sunday. 

Rookie For Life,

1. Bouncing Back To Sweden.

Monday, January 21, 2013

[THE PITCH] I spent the first half of my short off-season traveling and the latter half at home for the holidays. Everywhere I went, indecision and insecurity accompanied me like my passport; what to do in 2013…Every person I talked to asked me about my plans for the upcoming season, and their dogged inquisitiveness rattled me. When I was living abroad, I felt like I had come so far toward solidifying my self-confidence, but once again I found myself standing in the same place that I was in a year ago rifling through the same bag of uncertainty. The hopeful but uneasy little girl inside me searching for a sign of what to do…

So, in a period vulnerability, I backslid and resorted to the most basic form of therapy I know. To quell my anxiety I trained. But, unlike last year, this time I cross-trained. I pushed weight, I jumped rope, I swam, and, most notably, I played tennis. While my goal in all of these exercises was to make physical progress, in playing tennis I actually received an even more important payoff: mental progress.
Working out in an unfamiliar domain is a mind gym. In this case, however, the gym was a court, green and lined like the pitch, but that is where the similarities end…or is it?

I began each game handicapped…While there is something liberating about playing just “for the fun of it,” there is also a prohibitory feeling for a professional athlete playing against opponents with “nothing to prove.” So, as my body pushed and shoved, huffed and puffed to master that which it had not attempted in years, my mind chased and stretched like a true rookie trying to keep up.
Just keep it in play!

My shoddy skills left me no room for mental error. Years of repetitions in football have trained my muscles to do the right thing even if my mind was momentarily failing me. Not true in tennis. If I let my mind wander for just a second…hmmm…Where should I play next year? Back at Gothenburg I will be comfortable and there is much to build upon from last year’s successes. Or, I could move on to a new team with new challenges. Either way, there is plenty of room to grow… I look up only to see my father doing his rooster strut victory celebration.

It was almost eerie how much my state of mind dictated my play. I had to stay completely focused during the point and be so positive with myself just to hit the ball over the net and within the lines. However, the second I questioned myself: bottom of the net… I changed my mind at the last minute: off the fence. And if I chastised myself for a past mistake, I had no chance at all…Hmmm…Chances…How does playing abroad affect my chance to make the national team? After all, what really matters…where I play or how I play?
Dig deep…focus on the next point…But what is the point? Should I sign up for a team where I know the quality of players, level of the league, and resources available will certainly push me everyday? Or is it more important to play at home in front of family and friends to help “grow” the game in the USA? But football is the world’s game…and maybe the best platform for growth in the women’s game is the world…

In tennis, I am a retriever. Lob over my head? I’ll turn and run. Drop shot? I’ll get there to scoop it up. Instinct signals my first step on the court… but why not off the court? Don’t over think it! (I’m pretty sure I’m allowed to scream when the ball is in my court.) One of the differences in tennis and football is the lack of a time restraint in the former. No matter how much you might be struggling, you can’t lose as long as you win the last point. In this way, hope does spring eternal, but staying patient and keeping confident is paramount!
What’s this? My opponent is getting tired.

And that, for me, is where this match ends and begins. In a way, back at square one… all even… and yet so much has changed during those six points.

Being a mediocre tennis player ended up being a blessing in disguise. While repeatedly losing to my non-professional-athlete family members thoroughly frustrated me, it taught me a very valuable lesson.
 When playing recreational tennis it rarely mattered what I decided to do as long as I played the point out. This is also true for my football career. This year, I was very fortunate in that there were no bad options. All this second-guessing over which path to take set up road-blocks where there were none. On the court, I chose to stop stressing over the what and the where and take comfort in knowing I control the how. There is no way for me to see the future. I have no crystal ball. What I do have is my skill, my work-ethic, my state-of-mind, and my resilience… and I’ll take these with me wherever I go. And for 2013 that is Tyresö FF…And you know what? I like my chances there!

[Stoppage time] There is a lot of “new” to adjust to: new home/ city, new teammates/ new leadership, new schedule/ new soccer philosophy… I checked back to my first blog from Sweden last year… “In meditation, I learned that the three most stress-inducing agents in life are change of home, change of relationships, and change of job.” So I guess the one thing not so new to my life is all the newness! Am I making any sense? J

During my first week at Tyresö FF, two thirds of the team was away due to national team commitments. With just a few faces to learn, this week gave me a chance to get my feet wet… and I should mention that here, wet feet freeze solid into ice cubes!!! At -15 degrees Celsius (I don’t think that little symbol does it justice: NEGATIVE 15), I was met with the nice little surprise that the Stockholm area is quite colder (and snowier) than Gothenburg… Brrrrrring it on!!

So, as I bundle up in bed each night, I warm myself up with thoughts of all the exciting new things in my life! For example, I live in what is infamously known as the House of Happiness (HoH) with two of my teammates: fellow American and Olympic roommate Meghan Klingenberg and 2011 WPS Player of the Year and 2012 Damallsvenskan midfielder of the year Verónica Boquete. This year, when I hear a creak in the house, I won’t panic! Meanwhile, HoH is just 15 minutes outside Stockholm, Sweden’s proud capitol, and I am looking forward to experiencing this amazing city.

This week I also got a little taste of a novel (yes, I just looked up a synonym for “new”) challenge that lies ahead of me in football. Tyresö trains a lot! With double days Monday, Tuesday, and Wednesday, time-wise it might feel like I have a normal office job. Throughout preseason we will play an inter-squad scrimmage on Friday and a training match on Saturday. If you see a new blog post next week, then you will know I survived my first back-to-back 90 minutes… But actually, the fotbollsidiot inside me is uber excited to be on the pitch so much! This year will be a big leap towards my 10,000 hours!

Of course it’s hard, and sometimes I really get tired of moving around and starting over again and again and again. I think about how tired and scared I was this time last year, and how great that year turned out to be. So, with a few kronor in my pocket and a few friends just a few hours away, I know it’s going to be a good one. Here’s to 2013!

[Off The Post!I admit it. I’m an addict…a junkie these days, and Starbucks just wont cut it. As soon as I stepped off the plane back home I was on the make for a fix. Jonesing big-time, I hit the streets.

My mother took me to a little spot tucked into a Torrance Strip mall called L’Almonde…Freshly baked Croissant served in a cute ceramic cup? Oui Oui! Coffee? Comme si comme sa! After yoga one morning, I met my sisters in Hermosa Beach for a tasty flat white from Two Guns Espresso House. I had to admit: it was smokin’….as were the fumes coming from a steady stream of cars passing by on the way to LAX. There was talk of a great spot in Silverlake, but that was over an hour away in traffic. Tyler claimed that a Daily Grinds was under construction at the Redondo Beach Pier, but I would be long gone before it opened. It was getting bad.  Under extreme duress I forced my mother to French Press, delicious, but it just wasn’t enough….

Just a few hours after I had landed back in Sweden, I found myself sitting in a coffee shop sipping a strong Cappuccino. With a smile plastered on my face like I’d reached an itch on my back that I’d had for a month, I suddenly realized that what I was addicted to was not the caffeine, but rather the experience: the sublime brew, the pretty cups, the comfy chairs, the laughter of friends…and the passage of time…the sweet time spent enjoying a true Fika!

Rookie For Life,