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Americans in Sweden

Three players at the U.S. Women’s National Team training camp in Arizona used their breaks to play in one of the best women’s leagues in the world, traveling to Sweden to hone their games and expand their horizons.

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IN THE IMAGE: Whitney Engen, Becky Edwards and Val Henderson played soccer in Sweden during the break between the end of the WPS season and the U.S. WNT November camp.

The time between the end of the WPS season and the start of the USA’s November training camp in Arizona – aside from two September games against Canada – was a time of rest for most U.S. Women’s National Team players.

Not so for Whitney Engen, Becky Edwards and Val Henderson.

For players on the periphery of the U.S. Women’s National Team player pool who are looking to get call-ups to camps, make game rosters and work their way into the mix for a run at making the Olympic qualifying team and then possibly the Olympics themselves, there is no rest for the weary.

Immediately after the WPS season, the trio – Engen and Edwards from league champion Western New York Flash and Henderson from the Philadelphia Independence – headed to Sweden to join clubs for the end of the Damallsvenskan, the domestic league that is regarded as the third best in the world behind the USA and Germany.

The Swedish season ends in the fall because, well, it’s difficult to play soccer in two feet of snow, so each of the Americans got in seven or eight matches over about two months.

Engen joined Tyresö FF, which is located just outside Stockholm, and would help the club to a fourth place finish in the league. She also played in the Swedish Cup Final, but her side lost to Kopparbergs/Göteborg FC on penalty kicks.

Penalty kicks were fresh in Engen’s mind, as her Flash team defeated the Independence in a shootout for the WPS title on Aug. 27, and the following Wednesday she was suiting up for Tyresö against KIF Örebro in the Swedish Cup semifinal, which featured none other than Henderson in goal.

Long time no see, Val.

“If you had asked me a year ago, I would have said no way would I go overseas,” said Engen, a former North Carolina star who has two caps for the USA. “But the opportunity came up and I started talking to people about it. I bounced it off (U.S. WNT teammate) Tobin (Heath) and she said, ‘Why wouldn’t you go?’

“I knew that I would have 10 weeks off between club season and the national team, and in the end it was a great opportunity to go to a different country and stay sharp, and the soccer was a lot of fun.”

Edwards, who is in her first-ever full Women’s National Team event, signed with Hammarby IF on the south side of Stockholm. The club is one for which U.S. Women’s National Team head coach Pia Sundhage played eight seasons and later coached.

Unfortunately, Edwards could not help save Hammarby from the drop as the club was relegated after finishing second to last in the league table.

“I went over because I knew that the WPS season was a little shorter than the first year,” said Edwards. “Last year, I knew I was going back to school, but this year I just wanted to keep playing. I didn’t know this national team opportunity would come up, but since it did, I’m even happier that I went, even though I was a bit tired at the end of the WPS season.”

All the players enjoyed their on-field experience and the adventure of living in a new country in which they understood very little of the language, which of course at times produced some issues, especially for Engen, who being stationed outside Stockholm didn’t have as cosmopolitan an experience.

“I didn’t learn very much Swedish, just simple words, enough to kind of communicate,” said Engen. “My practices were one-hundred percent in Swedish and so were the pre-game speeches and the post-game speeches. During training, I would just pick someone and follow them to see what the drill was. I never knew if it was one touch or two-touch or what! We would literally have 30-minute team meetings where I wouldn’t understand a word and I would ask someone after and what they would tell me in English lasted a minute.

“I was like, ‘He spoke for 30 minutes!’ and my teammate would say, ‘Yes, but I told you all you really need to know.’”

Henderson’s club was located two hours outside of Stockholm so she didn’t see Engen and Edwards all that often, but the two Stockholmers hung out almost every day.

“On the field, it was a different style than WPS, but it was great to see a different league in the world,” said Edwards. “I thought the experience would make me better as an individual and get me out of my comfort zone. I could get to know new people, a new culture and a new language. I hoped it would be good for me to grow as a person and a player, and it certainly did.”

The Tyresö and Hammarby players got along quite well, says Engen, so much so that when Engen got the idea to organize a Christmas party in October (because the Americans wouldn’t be there in December), it was like a meeting of the United Nations.

Attending the party were the Americans, two Germans, one Japanese, one Dane, two Dutch, and of course the requisite Swedes. Engen asked everyone to choose a secret Santa and to bring a traditional dish from their culture. That led to some conversion issues for Engen and Edwards, who made popcorn balls with marshmallows and sweet potato casserole, respectively. Seems it’s hard to covert the metric measurements in recipes.

The report, however, is that everything was delicious, from the Japanese rice balls to the German Wienerschnitzel to the Danish Aebleskiver (basically pancake balls covered in sugar and jam).

Henderson’s KIF Örebro (a club that Sundhage also coached in 2005-2006) finished fifth, just below Tyreso, but for a goalkeeper 90-minute games are gold and Henderson feels like she benefited quite a bit from the additional match experience. She was also astounded by the Swedes’ passion for mushroom hunting.

“It was definitely a positive overall experience and I’m glad I went,” said Henderson, the most Swedish-looking of the three Americans with her striking blond hair. “It was different, but I’m always up for adventure. I rode my bike everywhere. We went mushroom picking in the forest and we climbed trees to get apples to make apple crumble. It always tastes better when you pick it yourself.”

Engen and Henderson both had Swedish National Team players on their teams, and all three should be familiar with the Swedish squad coming to play the USA on Nov. 19 at the University of Phoenix Stadium.

Interestingly enough, none of the trio has tried any Swedish on Sundhage yet (although all three agree that Henderson, who speaks excellent Spanish, picked up the most), but they might get brave enough to give it a try before camp is over.

“I got really good at faking that I spoke Swedish,” said Engen. “I sort of said a few words and then kept quiet (anyone who knows Engen knows that wasn’t easy). But I’m sure that won’t work with Pia.”

For now Engen, Edwards and Henderson will just say “tack så mycket” (thank you very much) to the Swedes for a great experience.

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