Christen Press: how did a World Cup winner end up at a club she didn't want to join?

The saga of an unwanted trade highlights the complicated balancing act between the National Women’s Soccer League and the US national team

Christen Press is one of the world’s best footballers: she has a nose for goal and the skill to take on defenders. So how did she end up at a club she refuses to play for?

The situation seemed typical at first: the Houston Dash acquired her from the Chicago Red Stars in a trade involving Carli Lloyd, the sort of swap that happens all the time in American sports. But it quickly emerged something was amiss. She did not acknowledge the trade on social media and the Dash didn’t immediately make her the face of the club.

As it turned out, Press had no interest in playing for Houston and she was willing to stand her ground, something the Dash only learned after the trade was executed in January. Instead, the 29-year-old continues the standoff by refusing to report to the Dash’s preseason camp in hopes of prompting a trade elsewhere.

Now the Dash, who have lost a superstar in Lloyd with nothing to show for it, and Press, who needs regular minutes ahead of Women’s World Cup qualifying this fall, are stuck in limbo. Neither side appears willing to budge, but the start of the NWSL season on 24 March rapidly approaches. Neither Press nor the Dash have publicly commented on the unresolved ordeal, but several sources confirmed the details of the unusual stalemate to the Guardian.

The saga of the unwanted trade highlights the complicated balancing act between the fledging National Women’s Soccer League and the US national team, which is the source of much of the league’s star power. For many stars, lucrative paychecks await at Europe’s powerhouse teams – but both the players union and US Soccer have made a concerted effort to grow the NWSL, now in its sixth year, by keeping their talent in the league.

That’s why after the 2017 season, US internationals were invited to list their preferences if they wanted to be traded within the NWSL, according to multiple knowledgeable sources. Many players got exactly what they wanted this offseason.

Lloyd wanted a move out of Houston and landed in New Jersey, where she lives with her husband. Crystal Dunn would only leave Chelsea for the NWSL if the Washington Spirit traded her league rights so she could head to North Carolina. Sydney Leroux joined Orlando, where her husband, Dom Dwyer, plays for the same club. Allie Long went to Seattle while Kelley O’Hara landed with the new Utah Royals franchise.

But Press, who sought a move to the west coast, was traded to Houston in a surprise twist. Houston apparently thought they couldn’t contact Press beforehand due to anti-tampering rules, but a league source says Houston could have asked for and received permission to contact her, which they didn’t. At the time, Press did not have a dedicated agent the Dash could contact and sources in Houston insist they sought assurances from others close to Press.

Though player-side and Houston sources say they feel Chicago may have been misleading in trade talks about her willingness to play in Houston, Red Stars owner Arnim Whisler flatly denies that and says Chicago were upfront and forthright. What is clear is that the Dash knew Houston wasn’t on Press’s list of preferred destinations, which included Seattle, Portland and later Utah. Despite a post-trade visit with Press and the front office in Houston that included a tour of the Dash facilities, Press’s mind remains unchanged and she has not joined Dash preseason camp.

While player moves in Europe come in the form of transfers for money and players have final say in where they end up, player trades are popular in American sports. The trades can be bundled with other mechanisms that help teams acquire players, such as draft picks or international roster spots, which would allow teams to carry more than the NWSL maximum of four non-Americans. Top-tier players often negotiate no-trade clauses in contracts to avoid being uprooted, but that isn’t the case in the NWSL.

Trades also often happen abruptly without the player knowing anything about it beforehand. Press was traded to Houston in a three-way trade involving Chicago and New Jersey’s Sky Blue FC – it gave Lloyd the move she requested, but Press said it came as a surprise, which isn’t unusual.

The Dash have little recourse other than to hope Press changes her mind or try to trade her for assets within the NWSL. Allocated players whose salaries are subsidized by US Soccer – which includes every national team regular – do not sign contracts with individual clubs. The Dash only have Press’s NWSL rights, meaning she is free to play in another league. Most European transfer windows are closed, but Sweden, where she played until 2014, remains open.

The Dash have received trade offers from other NWSL clubs for Press, but none have been able to match the star power and quality Houston would give up in Press. They also have enough attacking depth on their roster that they can afford to hold firm. Less than two weeks from the start of the season, the standoff has shown little progress.

It not unheard of for players to make demands about where they want to be – consider Dimitri Payet’s refusal to play for West Ham last year or Lee Nguyen’s ongoing campaign to leave the New England Revolution after years with the team. But female soccer players often have fewer viable options and paychecks a fraction of the size than they are for men, who may put up with less ideal circumstances for the lucrative compensation involved.

For Press, who may have sacrificed better-paying options to stay in the NWSL, it’s apparently an issue worth standing her ground on – but it is not without risk. If she can’t be traded out of Houston and refuses to play, she could end up with few good options until the summer transfer windows open back up in Europe. With the Women’s World Cup next year, Press will want regular minutes to prove she belongs in USA manager Jill Ellis’s plans since roster competition is fierce.

For now, though, the NWSL regular season inches closer to opening day without Press. Until either the Dash or Press flinch first, the standoff continues.