Playing for Liverpool and living by a street made famous by the Beatles, Whitney Engen immersed herself in the culture of one of the world’s great soccer cities. It was an educational experience on and off the field for the Dash star, who last year become a regular in the U.S. national team.
Allocated to Houston in January, the 26-year-old defender finally arrived in Texas last month after her stint in Europe and is set to make her fifth NWSL appearance in Thursday night’s vital home game against the Washington Spirit (8 p.m. CT; TICKETS).
Engen credits her time abroad as a major reason for her recent progress. After a loan spell at Swedish club Tyresö FF in 2011 she joined Liverpool Ladies for the 2013 FA Women’s Super League season, then returned to Tyresö for a 2013-14 campaign that saw the side reach the UEFA Women’s Champions League final.
“My two-and-a-half years abroad really helped me grow as a person, as a player. When you move nine timezones away from your family you really have to evaluate what you’re doing there every day. Not to say that you don’t take practice seriously when you’re in the States, but it kind of adds an extra level because you’re committed, you’re all in at that point,” the Californian told HoustonDashSoccer.com.
“I loved it, I felt like I’m only young once and it was probably going to be the only opportunity in my life where I was going to go live and experience the culture in that way, and it was awesome.”
Liverpool Ladies overhauled their squad for the 2013 season and developed closer ties with the men’s team, whose American ownership group also owns the Boston Red Sox. They brought in several foreign players, including Engen, who was excited by the chance to wear the famous red jersey. “An opportunity to play for Liverpool, it was really hard to pass up, so it kind of made the decision easy,” she said.
“Obviously we weren’t on men’s team salaries but we were treated as close to the men’s team as you could get, we traveled on the first-team bus all around England. I wasn’t there for this because I was with the national team, but [men’s manager] Brendan Rodgers held a training session where the team participated with the men’s team, a joint-training session, kind of a fun kickaround.”
Engen lived just off Penny Lane, a part of Liverpool immortalized by the 1967 song written by Paul McCartney and John Lennon and still popular with Beatles tourists. “The Magical Mystery bus tour made three stops daily by my house,” she said.
Liverpool’s investment was rewarded with the league championship. “After we had won the title they had breakfast for us at Melwood [the training ground] and the men congratulated us and shook our hands, and they put our trophy up in the Anfield museum. As much as you can feel part of the club, they definitely went above and beyond to make sure that we felt that. And for me coming from just a very general women’s soccer background it was incredible, absolutely incredible,” said Engen.
“Every league that I’ve played in is different. Different styles of players, you obviously have a different base to pull from. In Sweden they’ve got a certain way of bringing up kids, they’re focusing on a lot of technical work. In England there’s a lot of tactical work and here in the U.S. it’s a lot of athletic work.”
After following her career since she was a stand-out at the University of North Carolina, Dash head coach Randy Waldrum believes that Engen has returned to America a better player after her European adventures.
“I think she’s made huge strides,” he told HoustonDashSoccer.com. “If you look at where she was with the full national team before and what kind of a part she was playing, she was just kind of breaking in and playing a more minimal part with the full team; and you see her now, she’s pretty much starting most of the time for them.”
Engen decided to return home and throw her support behind the NWSL, in part since she remembers how crucial the league’s predecessor, WPS, was to her development. “I think it’s really important that we have a league here in the U.S. If we hadn’t had WPS when I graduated from college I probably wouldn’t be standing here right now,” she said.
“I had another life plan in mind and I loved soccer, I did, but I wasn’t ready at that point to move overseas and pursue a career. Having WPS allowed me to continue my career and eventually make the national team. Putting my support behind our domestic league here was important: I want other people to have the opportunity that I had.”
On the theme of opportunity, Waldrum is pressing home to his players the importance of taking their chances this Thursday when the Spirit visit BBVA Compass Stadium. As the Dash enter the final third of their inaugural NWSL season, they know that three points against Washington is crucial to keep the team in the playoff hunt.
The last time the sides met, on June 28, the Dash had plenty of the play but failed to make first-half pressure tell and lost 1-0 on a goal scored by Jodie Taylor, an English striker born only five miles away from Liverpool’s famous Anfield stadium.
Waldrum added forward Melissa Henderson to the roster last week and the former FC Kansas City player impressed on her debut, lasting the full 90 minutes as Houston beat the Boston Breakers 2-1 last Friday with a pair of excellent goals from Kealia Ohai.
“I was really, really pleased with [Henderson’s] performance,” said Waldrum. “The ability that she had to hold the ball up for us was good up front because we’ve lacked that. She brought in the game what I hoped she would bring to us and what I knew she could based on her days with me at Notre Dame.”
Tom Dart is a contributing writer to HoustonDynamo.com and HoustonDashSoccer.com. Former editor and reporter for The Times of London and reporter for SI.com, Dart currently freelances for The Guardian.