Ten Squads, Ten Stories is a series that concentrates on one team in the National Women’s Soccer League (NWSL), and highlights a player or theme. This installment features Katie Stengel of the Washington Spirit, who recently returned from a year-and-a-half stint with the German champions Bayern Munich in the Frauen-Bundesliga.
“It was a chance for me to grow up and mature as well, because in college you still have a bit of structure. But going into a new culture and a new team, I was completely by myself and didn’t know anybody.” — Katie Stengel
Whether you’re playing professional soccer or working in another profession, choosing to stay in your comfort zone or venturing out to try something new is always a challenging decision.
In the years between failed women’s professional soccer leagues in the United States, the only option available to non-national team players who wanted to continue their careers after college was to play overseas.
By late 2013, the landscape of women’s professional soccer had again changed and Katie Stengel had an additional option to consider after concluding her career at Wake Forest: she could stay in the United States and play in the National Women’s Soccer League that had recently completed its first year. The Demon Deacons’ career goal-scoring record holder, however, wanted to go elsewhere to fine-tune her craft.
The place turned out to be Germany with FC Bayern Munich in the Frauen-Bundesliga. Bayern announced the signing shortly after Stengel participated in her first camp with the senior U.S. Women’s National Team in April 2014.
While Bayern is a respected club, it’s far from the eyes of the coaching staff of a USWNT in which most of the players were based domestically. Stengel’s mission, though, was to evolve her game and return to the United States as a more seasoned player to increase her chances of breaking into the national team.
After a strong year and a half playing consistent first-team soccer, Stengel has returned to the United States with the Washington Spirit and is part of a strong striking unit for a team that currently sits at the top of the NWSL table.
For some younger American players, it may be better for them to begin their careers on domestic soil. But Spirit head coach Jim Gabarra believes Stengel made the right choice going to Europe.
“It depends on the individual player and in Katie’s case, it helped her [playing for Bayern]. She went to a really quality club and was involved in a quality environment and she was able to grow and learn a lot within a competitive team.”
An American in Germany
“I was debating which option I wanted to do [play in the NWSL or go overseas],” said Stengel, “and honestly, I wanted to head overseas because I wanted to challenge myself to learn from these different cultures and to branch out and try something new.”
After her senior season at Wake Forest, many thought Stengel would have been a high draft pick in the 2014 NWSL College Draft. Although Stengel’s final collegiate campaign was cut short while she recovered from blood clots in her legs, she was still considered a top candidate for teams that needed a strong forward who could play as a traditional attacker and a target striker.
Instead, she elected not to declare for the draft and played for the LA Blues in the USL W-League, both of which are now defunct, and helped the Blues win the league championship by scoring a pair of goals in both the W-League semifinal and final.
But Stengel’s main goal was to play overseas in the coming fall. Her preference was to play in Germany, in one of the strongest overall leagues in Europe. In addition, getting away from the United States gave her the chance to grow her game even more, especially coming off of a call-up into a USWNT camp in 2014.
“Going into my senior year [of college], I wanted to find the best place I could develop the most as a player and help my chances to get into the national team,” Stengel said. “So I knew that going kind of ‘off-the-radar’ and far away from national team personnel was a risk, but in the long run, I think it will pay off. And it was always my goal to go play overseas and challenge myself.”
Early into the summer, FC Bayern Munich came calling, as the Frauen-Bundesliga stalwarts needed forwards to bolster its roster for the upcoming season. After the W-League final concluded, Stengel packed her bags and headed to Germany to join her new squad and the team’s new forwards, including Dutch international Vivianne Miedema and Japanese international Mana Iwabuchi. On arrival, however, Stengel was immediately hit with culture shock.
“I tried to take a crash course — like, I downloaded some German language apps on my phone and tried to learn that summer but I wasn’t really motivated and diligent with the studies,” Stengel recalled. “I came over and didn’t know much at all and the first day in, it was all German, on the field, off the field, and I was completely lost.”
There was also the shock of getting used to playing German-style soccer, which for Stengel, was a big change — transitioning from the methodical pace of college soccer to a fast-paced, counterattacking style she found at Bayern.
“The majority of the time, [Germany teams] play with five in the back and like to counter. That was a style that I was not used to. At the same time, they have a lot of emphasis on playing out of the back. That was also different. So I had to learn a lot about countering and making better runs off the ball and combining with some of the best midfielders in the world.”
Finding Her Stride and Winning the Title
As Stengel settled into her new digs in Munich, life was made a bit easier during the 2014-15 season on the field. Bayern kept winning matches and were closing in on the possibility of winning its first Frauen-Bundesliga title as well as earning a spot in Champions League the following year. Stengel was also leading her team on the goal-scoring front, bagging nine goals during league play and finishing in the top 10 across the league.
Off the field, in addition to gelling with the team and meeting with a tutor once a week to work on her German, she also had time to travel throughout Europe.
“Everything in Europe is relatively close, so a couple of my friends came over and visited, and when we had an off weekend or a bye weekend, I would find a cheap flight or a train ride and I got to explore a lot of places,” Stengel said.
Her favorite side trip was a trek to Verona, Italy, with one of her teammates and was immediately immersed in the Italian culture and society.
The voyage on the field was capped off with winning the club’s first title on a dramatic final day last May. With a 2-0 win at home over Essen and Wolfsburg’s 1-1 draw with 1. FFC Frankfurt, the Bavarians clinched the title by one point and finished the campaign without a loss, winning 17 of 22 league matches and drawing the other five.
“It was really huge for us to win because it was such a tight race,” said Stengel. “It came down to the final day where we had to win and we had to get help elsewhere, but it was awesome to finally win and to be a part of that history.”
Stengel ended her stint in Germany after playing in the first half of the 2015-16 season and in Champions League, which saw Bayern’s title dreams come to an abrupt end as they lost on away goals to FC Twente in the Round of 32.
Coming Back Home
“There were a lot of decisions that went into it,” Stengel said of returning home. “Mainly, my contract was coming to an end with Bayern and I had an option to come back, but it was good timing to come back now since I missed two seasons of the NWSL; so I might as well get back and try to get back into the national team picture. Being closer to home and closer to family was also big.”
The Washington Spirit’s signing of Stengel right before the new year bolstered an already strong attacking group the team possessed. Adding depth was a major focal point for head coach Jim Gabarra, who believed Stengel was the perfect addition.
“The primary needs when I came in was to bring in a true number nine,” said Gabarra. “We had Crystal [Dunn] playing up top and Laura Del Rio within the cycle of forwards, and I didn’t think coming into the club that there was a player that had the assets and the abilities that Stengel has, where she can hold the ball up, be a good goal scorer, and has the ability to make players better around her. She was a primary target and the first need that I wanted to fill, which is why she was the first player to pop up on the board.”
Knowing she was coming into a team that had a strong group of forwards, Stengel knows that she will need to bring all of that experience to the table and fire on all cylinders for a starting spot. Stengel notes that having strong intra-team competition is positive for the team going forward.
“We have a lot of competition in a lot of different spots so it’s great. We have great strikers and it is an honor to play with and against them everyday in practice and get to learn from some of their experience that they already have.”
Through four matches, the Spirit are top of the league table and in goals scored. Stengel scored her first goal of the season in a 3-0 win against Western New York on April 30. Though Gabarra feels she still has plenty of room to continue growing her game, the goal against the Flash is a sign of what’s to come and she will be a key part of the Spirit’s long-term plan,
“I think [Katie] is in a group that I consider rookies or first-year players, and I think she has a lot to learn and has to get accustomed to the speed and athleticism in this league,” Gabarra said. “I think she has done a really good job of that so far and I was glad she was rewarded with a goal [in Western New York]. I think she has done well and has plenty of room for improvement, like all of us at the club, and I think she will continue to improve as we go along.
“By the end of the year, she will be someone that we will need to rely on to score goals, set up our press, and be an integral part of the team.”