While for many people the chance to live and work in the USA is but a dream, it is something former German internationals Inka Grings and Conny Pohlers were able to realise this year.
Grings laced her boots for Chicago Red Stars in the National Women’s Soccer League’s (NWSL) inaugural campaign, and Pohlers, who played for Atlanta Beat in 2003, donned Washington Spirit’s colours on loan during her second spell stateside.
“I didn’t want to miss out on playing here these two months,” Pohlers told FIFA.com. “It was the best thing I could have done. In footballing terms it wasn’t very satisfying as we finished bottom, but the whole experience will stay with me. The team, the coach, the city, the place I lived: everything was wonderful.”
Pohlers’ former Germany national team colleague Grings was equally enthusiastic about her time in the NWSL. “Chicago is beautiful and a fantastic city,” she told FIFA.com. “I was happy that we played there [Sonja Fuss also joined her on the team]. It was a great experience for me and in football you always learn something new.”
The differences between the styles of play in Europe and America became apparent early on. “In the USA they put a lot more emphasis on athletic ability before getting down to football-specific training,” Grings continued. “It’s exactly the opposite back home. That was noticeable in the matches.
Team moves didn’t develop as I wanted them to. As an attacker you need to receive passes and you need your team-mates. But it seems they learned to play the long-ball game in college and have continued to play that way in the professional game. Fitness-wise it was a huge challenge for me and I must say that I feel physically really good now.”
A veteran of the German women’s Bundesliga, Pohlers was likewise unaccustomed to the new approach, and even more unused to the match scheduling. “It really takes it out of you to cram in as many games into six months as we normally play in a year,” said the treble-winning Wolfsburg attacker. “You always have a midweek fixture - I played 13 games in eight weeks. In the USA they focus more on athleticism and strength and their technique suffers a bit as a result.”
With the NWSL still finding its feet, glitches are an inevitable part of the learning process, especially in the opening year. Nevertheless, the chances of the league enjoying long-term success look good. “Women’s football is huge in the USA,” said Grings. “I think the concept they’re currently following, of carefully managing the finances, is the right way to go and it’s sustainable for future years. I think they’re on the right track.”
That said, Grings believes a more European mentality would also benefit the NWSL, especially in terms of establishing a club identity: “In Germany and Switzerland we have a uniform dress code whether we’re playing home or away, but in the USA the players all wear their own clothes.
Women’s football is huge in the USA. I think the concept they’re currently following, of carefully managing the finances, is the right way to go and it’s sustainable for future years. I think they’re on the right track.
"Of course, that’s just a minor detail but I think it’s got something to do with your attitude, identifying yourself with your club and only concentrating on the game at hand. At home it’s not acceptable to go sightseeing or go on a shopping trip the day before a match.
"Those are the things that need to change, even if it only marks a 10-15 per cent improvement in performance. In sport it’s vital to be extremely disciplined.”
Yet there was one aspect of the American mindset, often seen at major international tournaments, that stuck with both Grings and Pohlers after witnessing it in action first-hand: the determination never to give up.
“It was fascinating the way the team would keep going right until the last second,” said Grings, the record goalscorer in German women’s club football. “Their attitude is to keep fighting and running, even in extreme temperatures. In Germany you only have a couple weeks when it’s really hot and you start to feel how difficult it is.
"Over there it’s 40 degrees out on the pitch for four or five months and it’s incredibly humid too. To overcome that the way they did and to do it every time really impressed me. Now that I’ll be playing at 1. FC Koln, it’s something I’d like to introduce there as well. If I ever become a coach, I’d like to try to teach the boys or girls that in football anything really is possible right until the last second.”
Pohlers wholeheartedly agrees: “They motivate themselves even if they’re at the bottom of the table and have lost nine games. They gee themselves up again every time. You’re a team, irrespective of your league position.”