There is a small stadium 30 minutes southeast of Stockholm—tucked behind a strip mall and a Boston-themed sports bar called O'Leary's—known as the Tyresövallen. The team that plays there, Tyresö, is currently one of the best women's soccer clubs in the world, but we can't even find it when we get off the bus. It's already dark, and the parking lot is almost empty. I thought we would just follow the crowd into the game, but there isn't a crowd. Eventually, someone points us in the direction of generator lights in the distance. They've been brought in for tonight's game—the first match of the 2013–14 UEFA Women's Champions League—Tyresö vs. Paris Saint-Germain.
The stadium, with seating for 1,100 people and standing room on the terraces for 1,600 more, is sold out. In fact, it's over capacity tonight, with 3,300 fans. We can hear them as we hurry up to the gate, running late for kickoff. We scan our tickets, and a couple of retired security guards give us a cursory once-over. My two Swedish friends joke that it takes half of their country's special forces to police a men's game—and the men's league here isn't even good.
Tyresö is heading onto the field as we enter the stadium. We rush to the players' entrance, hoping to catch Tyresö's star player, Christen Press, as she walks out. We wave to her excitedly before heading to our seats, those faded silver bleachers used for the visitor's section at high school football stadiums. We meet up with the Press family in the stands—they've been here since warm-ups. We shuffle past her parents, Cody and Stacy, and her oldest sister, Tyler, and slide into our seats a few rows back at the midfield line.
Before we go any further, I should mention that I know Press. I came to Sweden to visit her and Ali Riley, who plays for LdB Malmö. We all met on Stanford's soccer team in 2007 and they soon became two of my closest friends. (In fact, I'll call them both by their first names from now on, since using their last names feels weird.)
Just below us sit the PSG superfans: five men in their late 20s who occupy the front row seats and stand shirtless in the near-freezing air for the full 90 minutes. They're singing and cheering, stomachs jiggling, despite the dozens of families and children who surround them. We huddle beneath blankets as the female referee blows the whistle, signaling the game's beginning.
Behind me, a group of a dozen Brazilian women in their 30s cheers every time their compatriot, Marta, touches the ball. In the 20th minute, the five-time FIFA World Player of the Year receives a pass on the left side of PSG's box. She's facing two defenders but cuts back so sharply that one loses her footing and the other is unable to block a beautifully bent cross that swerves behind the two center backs. Christen jolts between her markers and finishes with one touch. The metal bleachers lurch as the Tyresö fans leap to their feet, screaming and waving their red-and-yellow scarves.
It's Christen's 22nd goal of the season, the most in the league. Together with Vero Boquete, the Spanish striker who was named the Women's Professional Soccer (WPS) Player of the Year in 2011, Marta and Christen have been punishing teams all season. The attacking trio is probably the most talented on any club in the women's game right now, akin to Luis Suárez, Zlatan Ibrahimovic, and Cristiano Ronaldo all playing on the same team together, and the coach actually finding a way to make it work. The biggest difference, really, is that more than 3,300 people would come to see the men play.
Here are some of the basic things you should know about the Damallsvenskan, Sweden's top women's league: There are 12 teams. It has a promotion and relegation system. When you factor in the Women's Champions League and the Swedish Cup, its teams play almost year-round, with a short break during the winter's most unbearable months.
Aside from being much, much colder, the 10-month season and international competition set the Damallsvenskan apart from the National Women's Soccer League, the third iteration of a U.S. league, which launched in 2013. There are only eight teams in the NWSL that play over the course of a six-month season without any games outside the U.S. Average attendance in the NWSL this season was around 4,000, but games in soccer-crazed cities like Portland drew as many as 16,000 fans.
Tonight, Tyresö and PSG have a total of five Americans in their starting lineups. Christen is joined on Tyresö by Meghan Klingenberg, Ali Krieger, Ashlyn Harris, and Whitney Engen, while Tobin Heath is on the field for PSG. Another American player, Lindsey Horan, sits injured on PSG's bench. The 19-year-old made news last year when she turned down a scholarship to the University of North Carolina in favor of a reported six-figure contract with the French club. It was an astonishing bit of news. Horan earned her first two caps with the national team this year. She seems wise to have bypassed the ACC.
Fifteen minutes after her goal, Christen is back in her own box defending a free kick. The ball comes from the left and bounces twice along the top of the box, somehow bypassing everyone in the middle, to the far right side. As Tyresö players scramble to clear the broken set piece, Christen lunges for the ball and clips the legs of a PSG player. The referee has no choice but to call a penalty. PSG's kicker places it perfectly in the left side netting, just beyond the grasp of Harris, an American goalkeeper whose contract with Tyresö started at the end of her season with the NWSL's Washington Spirit and extends only for the duration of the Champions League. The score is even after 45 minutes.
At halftime, as we wait in line for lukewarm horse meat burgers, I start to compare this experience to going to a professional women's game in the U.S. I'm handed my burger and I walk back to my seat, passing several grown men who don't appear to have brought daughters, a rare demographic. The stadium is small but it's full. Best of all, it isn't shared with a local college or on loan from a men's team. It's their own.
"I didn't want to be part of an experiment again," Ali Riley tells me as we sit in her apartment in Malmö, 380 miles south of Stockholm at the southernmost tip of Sweden. It's Sweden's third-largest city but feels like a beach town. Ali's place is outfitted almost entirely with Ikea furniture; big windows in the living room let in the dwindling daylight. Ali's team, LdB Malmö, is on the brink of winning the Damallsvenskan this year. This is her second season with the club and she recently signed on for two more. Malmö is now truly her home.
Ali could be playing in the NWSL. She won back-to-back WPS titles with FC Gold Pride in 2010 (which folded shortly thereafter) and then with Western New York Flash in 2011. She had extended her contract for a second season with the Flash when she learned, in January 2012, that the WPS was suspending operations for the upcoming season. It's never good for a professional athlete to hear that her league is being suspended, but this was especially bad timing. In six months, she'd be playing in the London Olympics for the New Zealand national team. (She has dual American and New Zealand citizenship and started playing for New Zealand when she was 18 years old.)
She left right away for Germany, arriving in mid-February, but she just missed the signing window for the German league. Luckily, Caroline Seger, the Swedish national team captain and her former teammate with the Flash, mentioned her name to the head coach of LdB Malmö. Three weeks later she was living in Sweden.
"After my experience and heartbreak in the WPS, with teams folding and the league eventually folding, it was nice to finally be in a really supportive and stable environment," she said. "This team, even though it has changed names, ownership, and sponsors, has been around for decades."
Ali was fortunate to find a good team in a good league leading up to the Olympics, but many players who were counting on the WPS season were limited to national-team training camps and a few friendly matches. For national teams with a sizable budget like the U.S., this wasn't much of a problem. But for smaller countries like New Zealand that can't afford to train together as frequently, it was a huge blow.
More than 80,000 fans crammed into Wembley Stadium to watch the U.S. women win gold in the final. Back home, more than 4.4 million viewers tuned in—the most in NBC Sports Network's history. It was further proof that the U.S. women's national team commands a following unlike any other women's national team in the world, even though the country has failed to sustain its first two professional leagues.
The Damallsvenskan, by contrast, is a picture of small-time stability. The Swedish women's league began play in 1973. A little more than 10 years later, in 1984, a player named Pia Sundhage scored 30 goals in one season. In 1985, she scored 35, a record that has only been topped once in the ensuing three decades. Sundhage is just one of the women to come out of the Damallsvenskan. (The league took this name in 1988; dam for "female" and allsvenskan for "all Swedish.") It has had a global influence on women's soccer; Sundhage herself would later become the head coach of the U.S. women's national team and is now the head coach of the Swedish national team.
There are a couple of reasons women's soccer has been successful in Sweden. The country experienced major cultural changes in the 1970s—a shortage in the labor force led to more working women and changing gender roles.
"The increasing number of women employed outside the home as well as the shift in social values, particularly those that had to do with attitudes toward what was 'feminine' and 'masculine' ... inspired women to overcome traditional norms within sport," Swedish scholars Jonny Hjelm and Eva Olofsson wrote in a 2003 essay entitled "A Breakthrough: Women's Football in Sweden." In 1970, there were 728 licensed women's soccer players in Sweden. By 1980, there were 26,000.
Three decades later, the Damallsvenskan remains one of the most competitive women's leagues in the world. One team, Omeå IK, won the UEFA Women's Champions League and its predecessor, the UEFA Women's Cup, in 2003 and 2004, and finished second three more times. Another, Djurgårdens IF, has also finished second. "It has been a long time since any team from Damallsvenskan played a final in the UEFA Women's Champions League, but I do believe that we can reach that level again," Jonas Eidevall, Malmö's head coach, told me in an e-mail. ("Long time" is relative; it has been only five years.)
I asked him if the league has ever been on the brink of collapse. "Damallsvenskan can never fold as a league," he wrote. "If one club would fold, another one would be promoted. Maybe not all clubs would be professional, but the league would always live on." I wondered if he had any thoughts on why the U.S. has struggled to sustain its own attempts to professionalize women's soccer. "No idea," he answered bluntly, as though the idea of a league shutting down, simply ceasing to exist, didn't even seem possible.
There's nowhere to buy frozen yogurt in Malmö in October. After the summer season, the beach town prepares to hibernate. Ali and I spend five days biking around the cobblestoned streets of downtown Malmö, and it feels a lot like the nights we pedaled around Stanford's campus together. Finding froyo in California was never a problem, but 6,000 miles away, as we ride our cheap rental bikes by the beach, I begin to understand the allure of life here for a professional female soccer player.
What Sweden lacks in soft-serve it makes up for in friendliness and fika, the Swedish verb for having coffee with a friend. Ali typically has training or weights in the morning, followed by practice later in the afternoon. In between, she coaches, goes to classes, and meets her friends in the city for fika. In my week here, the people have been welcoming to the point of overaccommodating. Nobody waits smugly while I ask for my coffee in garbled Swedish; everyone is glad to help me in English.
American players are drawn to the Damallsvenskan for the quality of soccer, but they're staying because adjusting to Swedish life doesn't require much adjusting at all. "It's an easy transition, culturally," Christen says, telling me that the league benefits from "good word of mouth in the players' circle. People are having good experiences here, so more players want to come."
The morning after Christen's game against PSG, we meet at the Swedish Museum of Photography in Stockholm. The Press family has flown in from Los Angeles, and they're feeling the jet lag, but this family wasn't designed for quiet, confined spaces. Cody Press, Christen's dad, is making a ruckus over the photo exhibit—mostly nudes—while Christen's mother, Stacy, tries to hush him. Christen and her sister Tyler laugh uncontrollably in the otherwise silent gallery. We decide to head up to the café, on the top floor, for the sweeping views of the city and to fika.
Cody flies out for Christen's games regularly, to Stockholm and London and Paris; Stacy, Tyler, and Christen's youngest sister, Channing, have made the trek a few times, too, to see her play. Of course, it would be easier for them to watch if she were playing in the U.S., Stacy says, but they see how much she's grown and developed while playing in Sweden, and so they continue to chase her around the world.
Along with the lifestyle changes, players say the on-field transition isn't too drastic, either. "In terms of the playing and coaching and running and gym, the Swedish football style lends itself a little bit more to Americans looking to play somewhere else," Ali says.
The players I speak with agree that the Swedes play a faster, more technical game, but it's generally less physical than they're used to in the States. "You have a bit more time on the ball, but players are much more savvy," writes Meghan Klingenberg, Tyresö's American right back, in an e-mail. "They understand the game in a more sophisticated way."
In addition to the five playing for Tyresö, there were two other Americans in the league until this year, and both played for Kopparbergs/Göteborg FC: Yael Averbuch, a member of the U.S. women's national team, and Camille Levin, who plays for the U.S. U-23s and is also a friend from Stanford. Averbuch returned to play in the NWSL this season and Levin is currently playing in Australia. Eidevall was interested in signing USWNT defender Kelley O'Hara before she underwent ankle surgery in August. He characterizes American players as "having a great attitude, communicating a lot, [and being] hardworking and physically fit."
With the talent available to the U.S. women's national team, it isn't all that surprising that coaches in foreign leagues covet American players. What is perhaps unexpected is that some American fans and pundits think the elite American players should shun those opportunities for the fledgling NWSL.
They offer two reasons for this. First, the league won't grow without the best players available, and the American women are duty-bound to grow the league. Of course, this train of thought reveals the double standard that exists for the best American men, who are criticized if they don't move abroad. It also ignores the fact that the organizers of the Women's United Soccer Association in 2001 and Women's Professional Soccer in 2010 were able to attract much of the world's best talent but still failed to turn those leagues into sustainable ventures.
The second reason is framed in terms of the players' own self-interest: How will they make the 2015 World Cup squad if national-team coaches can't watch them play every week?
In October, the Sweden-based players fly to the U.S. for two friendlies between the U.S. and New Zealand in San Francisco and Columbus, Ohio. Back in the Bay Area, Christen and Ali start against each other for the first time as internationals. Ali is a longstanding member of the New Zealand squad, as well as a five-time New Zealand Nike National Women's Player of the Year. Christen, on the other hand, just cracked the U.S. roster this year, and the game will be her fifth start. USWNT head coach Tom Sermanni has a mixed lineup of veterans like Abby Wambach and new players like Christen. There are four Damallsvenskan players on the field—Press, Krieger, and Klingenberg for the U.S. and Ali for New Zealand. Two more, Averbuch and Engen, sit on the U.S. bench.
During the game, Kate Markgraf, a former player turned commentator, speaks about the "bubble players" who are currently signed on with teams overseas. "Proximity is key," she says, because it allows Sermanni to see players on the cusp more regularly. "In Europe, in general, it's a slower tempo," she adds. "The level in the NWSL is higher."
It's difficult to compare the level of play in the various European leagues and the NWSL, but the experience of Megan Rapinoe of the U.S. women's national team provides a clue. Until this week, Rapinoe played in France for Olympique Lyonnais (Lyon), consistently one of the best women's teams in Europe. The New York Times reported that she earned roughly $168,000 last season—much more than most players in the American league. With competition from Swiss international Laura Dickenmann and France's Elodie Thomis, she often came on as a substitute or not at all. Rapinoe terminated her contract with Lyon to join the Seattle Reign of the NWSL for the entire season, a move that not many saw coming.
The level in the NWSL is high, but the league is hardly in a position to proclaim its superiority over those in Europe. The NWSL is set up so that each club has at least six internationals: two American, two Canadian, and two Mexican. The European leagues have experienced players, too—from Germany, Sweden, and Norway, to name a few. Unlike Mexico and Canada, each of these nations has appeared in a World Cup or Olympic final in the past two decades.
"I think a lot of players who are in the prime of their careers want to be playing in the top league," Ali says. Right now, she doesn't believe that's clearly the NWSL: "The U.S. is so isolated. You only have your league and you're not going to be playing against more than six or seven teams."
Ali can continue to play wherever she wants, but the federation will push to get members of the U.S. national team who play abroad to transfer into the NWSL next year in preparation for the 2014 Women's World Cup. Their return will raise the level of play, but at what cost? They will no longer go one-on-one against Marta every day in practice. They won't face the physical German teams, and they won't be playing at the highest level for 10 months of the year.
"The U.S. national team has put a lot of money and effort into building a domestic women's league," Christen acknowledges. "They see a domestic league as an essential element to ensuring future national-team success as more and more countries get competitive on the women's side." Christen is conflicted. She's developed tremendously as a player in Sweden, but earning a starting spot on the national team and playing at home has always been her goal. She will finish out this year's Champions League run with Tyresö but will return to the NWSL to play with the Chicago Red Stars this summer.
Perhaps Markgraf wasn't talking about Christen or the Damallsvenskan or the four starters on the field from that league. Before moving to Tyresö, Christen had zero national-team caps. She has now played in 11 of the U.S. women's team's last 13 games, scoring eight goals. You can't say she wouldn't have gotten the same chances without going to Sweden, but going to Sweden clearly hasn't hurt.
Back in the Tyresövallen, we take our seats for the noticeably colder second half, the horsemeat burger idling in my stomach. The play is mostly even, possession by both sides interspersed with moments of brilliance by Marta. Krieger gets knocked hard and has to come off, leaving an obvious hole in Tyresö's back line. Klingenberg switches sides so that she's now playing on the left flank, right in front of me. Around the 65th minute, PSG's right back fails to clear a long ball forward from Tyresö. Klingenberg, playing the high pressure game she learned at North Carolina, comes rushing forward and somehow manages to win the ball.
Klingenberg is dribbling fast toward goal on the left side of the field. As she approaches the goalkeeper, everyone in the stadium is waiting for her to shoot or touch the ball to the side and try to break around. Then, in the periphery, I notice another frame in Tyresö's yellow and red moving faster than anyone else. Klingenberg sees her, too, and slides the ball across the front of the goal. Once again, Christen scores with a single touch.
I'm jumping up and down with Cody. Everyone is yelling in Swedish, so I can't understand, but the look of awe on the faces of Tyresö's fans would be familiar to anyone who watched one of our games in college. Except she's even more impressive now.
A month later, Christen will have captured the league scoring title with 23 goals for the season. She'll be recognized as the Damallsvenskan skyttedrottningar—literal translation: "shooting queen." She'll return home for the holidays, then head back to Sweden just after the New Year in preparation for the Champions League quarterfinals in March. Had Tyresö gone out of the tournament before the winter break, her time in Sweden would have been over.
Like any good expat, Christen has been blogging throughout her time in Sweden. Her entry from Nov. 21 alludes to the difficulty of playing two different styles of soccer. "While shifting back and forth between two very different teams," she writes, "I often find myself wondering exactly how to adapt. To find success with the national team, should I forget the tools that have given me success in Europe? To be successful in Europe, should I neglect the traits that I know have made American soccer produce the most winning women's team in the world?"
There may not be a correct answer to any of these questions, but the fact that she's facing them in the first place is proof that she has made good decisions about her career. How to adapt and develop as a player, how to score more goals or more effectively stop more attacks—these are the issues that should concern a professional soccer player. The women of the Damallsvenskan are thriving. And a little part of that, a small reason, might be the fact that in Sweden they don't have to worry about how to sell more tickets or carve out more time for appearances. They don't have to worry if they'll have jobs come next season. The Damallsvenskan will still be there.
Allison McCann is a graphics editor at Businessweek and contributor to Howler Magazine. She also played in one game in the now defunct Women's Professional Soccer (WPS) league. Twitter: @atmccann. For more Howler, visit howlermagazine.com. Follow the magazine on Twitter, @whatahowler.