FC Wisconsin alum McKenna Meuer recently signed her first professional contract to go to Sweden and play for Ravasens IK Karlskoga this spring. Before taking off "across the pond" in a few weeks, she spoke to us about this decision and her soccer career in college and youth soccer.
What made you want to play professional soccer?
Professional soccer was something I never really thought about as a possibility for myself. I grew up thinking that I would play club soccer, develop technically as much as I could, play in college and perform to the very best of my ability, and then that was sort of it. My junior year we had an athletic trainer that had recently worked with the Western New York Flash, and for the first time someone asked me if I'd every considered playing professionally. He sparked the idea in my head, but I still didn't really think that a girl from Wisconsin who had made her career being the "hard-worker" would be able to play professionally. But things change during your senior year of college , because you begin to realize that your soccer career is almost over and life comes at you really fast. All of a sudden I was done with the sport I had played for 20 years of my life, and had never given one true thought to what I would do when that time actually came. I spent the first 6 months after I was done playing a little lost and it was during that time when it dawned on me that I not only missed being a student-athlete at the University of Wisconsin, but I truly missed playing the game. I also realized that if I really didn't want to be done with competitive soccer, I didn't have to be. I knew that my senior year of soccer had been some of the best soccer I'd ever played, and I knew I had potential to get even better from there. So I made up my mind that in my next 6 months (which I'd be spending in Madison to take my 5th year and graduate, anyway) I was going to start practicing with the girls again and put myself in the best possible position that I could to get a contract to play professionally.
How did you select Sweden (and the club) as the place you wanted to play?
Finding a country and a club is a difficult process, because there are so many, and being in America made it really difficult to find connections. I reached out to an agent that a former UW teammate of mine had worked with, and he was a big help in getting information on different countries and leagues it would be realistic for me to get in to. I had a few offers from different teams, but I had to consider what is best for me as far as size of the city, league, # of international players, etc. In some ways, it's really similar to the recruiting process because the team has to pick you but you also have to pick the team, and know what you need from them. I had heard from a lot of different former coaches and teammates that I'd reached out to that Scandinavia was a great place to start playing professionally for Americans because almost everyone speaks English, and there are multiple divisions in each country. Ultimately, I signed with Ravasens IK because it's in a good size town, and in division that I knew I could find success.
What are you looking forward to most about playing?
The thing I'm looking forward to most is the unknown. I grew up playing for coaches who had all coached my sisters as players before me, and knowing I wanted to follow in their footsteps to play at UW. I had always known what to expect at each level because of the example they had set, and while Christian and Paula have challenged me and pushed me out of my comfort zone in so many ways, they had both known me before playing for them, and knew what to expect of me and how to push me. So what I'm really looking forward to in professional soccer is playing with no expectations, and being able to be whatever type of player I want to. Taking everything I have learned in the past 20 years, and putting all the pieces together to be the best soccer player I can be. There's more freedom but more pressure, and I think I've been trained to handle that well from Christian and Paula.
How is the Swedish league structured?
The Swedish league has a premier league of 12 teams called the Damallsvenskan, a second division of 12 more called the Elitettan, and then multiple more divisions underneath (div 1, 2, 3, etc) those that are broken up by region, which is where I'll be playing (Div 1 Norra Gotaland, damer). The website for the information on all the different leagues is svenskfotboll.se. Like most European countries, they have u15, u17, u19, and u21 feeder teams that is how most of their native players get into the program.
You are the 4th player from your club team (Walls, Luba, Gonyo, Gonyo) to play professionally. What do you think about that?
We had a really special group. I lucked out by falling in to a great situation with Christian as my coach, and playing a year up where I was surrounded not only by older girls who challenged me every single training session, but clearly high caliber players. We joke about it all the time, but Christian took a group of girls that couldn't even win State Cup at u16, changed our training and culture over the course of the next two years, and we became u18 National Champions. I think we could all say that without the training we got during that time, we would not have gotten where we are today. The environment is set up to constantly push the boundaries of your comfort zone so that you are prepared for anything unexpected that comes at you in the college game. When you move up a level, the game gets faster. But you don't break down and get overwhelmed because you've been trained to rely on execution of details and consistency, since it's demanded of you every training at FC. Because of my club training, I was able to make an impact as a freshman in college at UW, and without the 4 years of experience I gained there, I definitely would not be able to continue on to the next level. But it starts with developing technically and tactically. Christian is a demanding coach and pushed me really hard, but at the end of the day he was tough on me because he knew I could be better. And I'm grateful for that because it shaped me to be the player I am now.
Looking back at your club and college career, what advice would you give to current youth players about soccer, the process, or anything else?
There are two pieces of advice that stuck with me throughout my career.
The thing Christian said to our team at our first team meeting was that you get out what you put in. If you devote yourself to getting better everyday and bond with the girls you play with, you will get so much more out of the experience than if you just show up and go through the motions. Don't be the girl who just shows up to training, gets through it half-heartedly, and leaves the second it's over. Go early with a teammate and kick a ball around, actually talk to your teammates and coaches at team dinners, have sleepovers with the girls, miss the school dances and make your own in the hotel room in whatever city you're playing in that weekend. Because you get out of it what you put in to it. Christian told me that literally 8 years ago, and every single year with any team I've played with, it's become more and more true.
The thing Paula always says is to change your story. The first thing Paula does at training is ask you how you're doing that day. A lot of times you'd say you're tired, sore, or your hamstring hurts, or you have an exam later, you're fighting with a teammate, or whatever it might be. She'd always reply "that's okay, change your story". You get to decide the attitude you bring to training every day. Life is going to happen, and it's never going to be perfect. Soccer is the 2 hours you have every day where you can let go of whatever else is going on and just play the game you love, so remember that. It doesn't matter if you went 0-2 the last weekend, this week you get to change your story. It doesn't matter that you had a bad training session yesterday and you're nervous, because today is a new story and you get to write it how you want. At the end of the day, it's a privilege to get to do what we do, so don't lose sight of that when things aren't going your way.
Competitive soccer can be a really difficult process. Whether it's trying to earn a starting spot, or the recruiting process, or for me these past 8 months of trying to get signed, there will be times when you doubt yourself or maybe when you think about whether or not what you're doing is worth it. In those moments, you have to remember why you play. Don't forget why you love soccer. So the best thing I think I could tell youth players is that believe it or not, your soccer career is going to go by faster than you can imagine. Right now you're in high school, but I promise you that you're gonna blink 3 times and be a senior in college playing your last game. Don't take it for granted. Enjoy every part of it, the good and the bad, cause you'll miss it all someday.