By Chapin Landvogt – Earlier this year, the women’s department of the worldwide famous German soccer club Bayern München (Bavaria Munich) acquired the services of forward Sarah Hagen and defender Niki Cross, both of whom hail from the United States. They are only the second and third U.S. players Munich has ever acquired, the first since Michelle Demko back in the ‘90s.
For Hagen, this is her first full-time pro engagement since having graduated from UWM (Wisconsin). She introduced herself to the German soccer scene by netting two goals against Freiburg in her first appearance for the red, black and gold.
Cross, on the other hand, is no stranger to the international scene and is already making her third stop in Europe after having previously played in Norway and Sweden. Due to an injury, she only just made her first appearance for the Bavarians to complete Wednesday’s 1-1 tie with the HSV in Hamburg. After the game, Our Game Magazine had a chance to chat with the two players.
OGM: Sarah, this is your first tour of duty outside of the States. How have things been going these first two months?
Sarah: It’s been a blast. Playing with some of the best players in Germany and in the Bundesliga, which is such a great league, it’s been a terrific experience. It was a hard, hard decision for me to decide whether I would stay in the States and play or come over here. The instability of the WPS played a crucial factor in my ultimately coming over here.
OGM: So do you feel a bit confirmed in your decision at this point?
Sarah: Yep, definitely in light of the league deciding to suspend operations. But after my first two months here, I have to say that I just love it and have no regrets.
OGM: That’s good to hear. Seeing as how both of you joined the team at the same time just a couple months ago, Niki, what has been your take on things so far?
Niki: So far, it has been interesting. Sarah and I have definitely taken different paths to this point. Coming into this situation after the Christmas break, I’ve actually been dealing with an injury for a little while now, so my substitution late in the game today was my first action of the season for Bayern.
OGM: OK, so that was your first introduction to Bundesliga play?
Niki: Yep, and it was pretty exciting. It’s my fifth day back with the team, and it’s been good to get back into a regular practice rhythm and the swing of things. But “Apple” (Hagen’s nickname) here has really taken off and done well for herself.
OGM: Apparently, especially in light of those two goals in her first game with the team. Now you’re both technically coming into the league at the halfway point of the season. Has it been difficult joining a team that has pretty much already been constructed?
Niki: I think they were really looking for a bit of a change; otherwise they wouldn’t be bringing in players at this point of the season. Our team has been very welcoming and they’ve made it very easy to come in here and be part of it all. Everybody from management to our coaches to our teammates – it’s just been spectacular for us.
OGM: And Sarah, this has been your experience as well?
Sarah: Yeah, I mean the folks here have truly been very welcome, without exceptions. This is my first professional team, and I didn’t know what to expect, but they’ve accepted me here with open arms.
OGM: And what about a language barrier… have you encountered one?
Niki and Sarah: Oh, yes.
Niki: It’s been massive. For example, the letters ‘p’ and ‘f’ next to each other… that’s been a problem.
Sarah: Yep, and some of these ‘sch’ constructions. Those can be terrible.
Niki: But I think this has been an entertaining aspect to our joining the team, also for our teammates. They’ve been trying to teach us things along the way. They like to introduce us to words they think will sound funny coming out of our mouths.
Sarah: We’ve been trying to learn though. We’ve been taking a language course. It’s only once a week, so we’re definitely trying to speak as much as we can outside the classroom and with our teammates. But they usually just laugh at us.
OGM: So you’re both actively participating. That’s of course part of the process and experience. Niki, you’ve been in a number of countries to play ball. How would you compare the German Bundesliga to some of the other leagues you’ve experienced?
Niki: I think it’s right up there with the Swedish league. I’ve played in Norway and Australia as well. The lifestyle in Australia was quite different and not too shabby either. I lived about two minutes from the beach and enjoyed my summer there, but I think the quality of soccer is simply better in Sweden and Germany.
OGM: Um, pratar du svenska or snakker du norsk?
Niki: Uh, well, that’s a lot more difficult to understand.
OGM: Surely less common. But did you have a chance to learn parts of those languages while playing in Scandinavia?
Niki: To be honest, I found them to be extremely difficult to speak.
OGM: And surely the Scandinavians tend to speak English as well as anybody, so…
Niki: The Scandinavian countries definitely speak very good English and being so close and connected to their Scandinavian neighbors, who speak slightly different languages or of course Finnish, they place importance on English in order to be able to communicate with each other easily and on a regular basis.
OGM: Definitely. Now getting back to the soccer side of things, have you two been able to join this team and immediately recognize “Whoa, I can help this squad! There’s definitely a role for me to take on this team and I can help them achieve their second half goals”? Are these things you could identify right off the bat?
Sarah: Well, my role as a forward – and there’s only one to three of them at a time depending on the tactical formation – is to come in and make an impact. I think there are so many players on our team that can make an impact, so it’s challenging for me to come in here and feel I have a particular spot locked up, because that’s not necessarily the case. I’ve been fortunate enough to start the last three games, but it’ll remain a challenge for me to maintain that position.
OGM: What’s been your take on the level of play here? Niki, you’ve been around and played in as many leagues as anybody. Sarah, this is your first time in a pro league. Have you been surprised by how good the level of play is, or had you maybe thought it would have been better, seeing as how Germany traditionally one of the most soccer-strong nations on the planet?
Sarah: Oh, there’s definitely a good level of play here. The play here is comparable to my experience with the U-23 U.S. national team. I don’t see a drop-off in international play at that level and what I’ve been experiencing here. And the league is definitely a step up from my college team and the conference my school played in. We recently played against Wolfsburg, one of the stronger teams in the league, and already there I noticed a big difference to the first game against Freiburg.
OGM: So you are noticing a difference between the bottom-feeders in the standings and those at the top?
Sarah: Yep, there is a noticeable difference.
OGM: How about the individual players. Any you’re encountering now who you have encountered in the past? Niki, you told us you just saw your first action, but you’ve probably taken a look at the lineups around the league. With your experience, there must be some names you recognize there?
Niki: There are definitely some extraordinary players who dot the map of the German Bundesliga. Most of them are clustered onto teams like Potsdam and Frankfurt, but we’ve yet to really play those guys yet. We’re only three games in and our experience is that everything is new. We have to get to know the routines, the opponents, the travel, etc. It’s not just so much that any one player here or there sticks out. Everything is kind of just overwhelming.
OGM: But you’d say it’s definitely an adventure?
Sarah: Oh, of course.
Niki: Definitely. And it’s a different style of play, too. Things here are more technical than the American style of play. It’s been a pretty good experience already.
OGM: In comparison, there’s WPS. Sarah, you were drafted, but you’re now here. Niki, you’ve had experience in the league. How do you feel about the developments that have been taking place?
Niki: I’ve always played for teams that have been pretty unstable. I started off with St. Louis and then they folded. I then played for the Bay Area and they folded. Then I played with Boston.
OGM: Well all that surely wasn’t your fault.
Niki (laughing): Uhhh, no, no. I’ve had the opportunity to play with players like Marta and Hope (Solo). Those are some higher end, highly recognizable players who deserve to get paid the way they do. They can be marketed well. Their names draw people in. There are lot more people going to the stadium to see Hope than to see someone like me. So they’re of course going to be getting more dollar bills in their bank accounts.
OGM: Sure, a player like Hope has some real star power.
Niki: Yes, and that’s great, particularly for the sport in general. It draws people and any kind of exposure of that nature that we can get the sport is simply great for the sport.
OGM: Most definitely. Now Sarah, again this is your first station in your pro career. It’s in another country to top it off. Has it been of great benefit for you to come over with another American player, particularly a veteran like Niki?
Sarah: It’s helped so much. I can’t really imagine what it would have been like without Niki. She’s helped me so much with not only soccer things, but in acclimating to a pro’s living style. It would simply be a totally different experience if it weren’t for her.
Originally from Virginia, Chapin Landvogt spent his childhood playing organized soccer everywhere from California to Florida to the greater Washington D.C. metro area and finally in high school a few hours south of Boston. A Siena College grad, he spent the better part of the past 15 years living and working as a professional translator in Germany, where he’s been able to remain more than just an avid observer of one of the world’s most passionate soccer cultures. You can follow him on Twitter @Csomichapin, where he enjoys sharing occasional commentary on primarily soccer, ice hockey and some of his favortie music.