Going into her collegiate career at North Carolina, Whitney Engen was a center midfielder. What she didn't realize, however, was how crowded the midfield was. Tobin Heath, Nikki Washington, and Ali Hawkins all came in with Engen in 2006, and all three would claim starting roles in the midfield. Yael Averbuch, a sophomore in 2006, was also a fixture in the North Carolina midfield.
So where did that leave Engen? North Carolina head coach Anson Dorrance thrust Engen into unfamiliar territory playing her at center forward for her first two seasons with the ‘Heels.
Going into her junior year, Engen knew that the team had a strong class coming in and worked extremely hard all summer on her game. She focused on finishing, taking players 1v1, being comfortable with the ball, and most importantly, understanding just how to play the position. She was ready for a great junior season.
When she got back to Chapel Hill for pre-season, Dorrance dropped the bombshell on her.
“I came in and Anson says ‘We’re going to play you at center back.’” Engen said. “I had just spent 3 months working so hard to play forward!”
Dorrance stood his ground throughout the season and refused to let Engen’s begging to play forward deter him from playing her in the back. She had to do what was best for the team and in the process was able to find the position that suited her best.
That didn’t mean there weren’t any challenges along the way. The transition from center forward to center back was most definitely a challenge. It wasn’t as much technically or tactically difficult as it was mentally hard.
“As a forward, you hope to touch the ball 50 times, convert, [and] be creative,” Engen explained. “As a defender you want to minimize your touches. It’s a good thing [if you don’t touch the ball that often].”
For Engen, who had finished as Carolina’s third leading scorer in 2006 and 2007, another challenge was learning and understanding her new role on the team.
“Once I understood that I had a different role, a different purpose [on the team], it really helped.”
So while the transition may have been difficult, Engen is grateful for the opportunities it has given her. Dorrance’s clever switch almost three years ago has allowed Engen to continue to play, this time on the professional stage for the Chicago Red Stars, and she received her first call-up to the full National team in March.
Coming into the Red Stars season, one could only speculate where head coach Emma Hayes would place Engen. It wasn’t surprising to see her shifted to a new position – this time left back – in Chicago’s season opener against Sky Blue FC. The difference between playing center back in UNC’s trademark 1-3-4-3 and in Chicago’s more traditional 4-4-2 or 4-3-3 was a switch.
“It was definitely a transition. I never learned defense in the traditional sense,” said Engen of making the change to outside back.
Those first few games she stepped out at left back, she was understandably tentative. The position was completely different than any position she had played before in that she grew up playing in the center of the field. Again, with the help of her teammates, she was able to adjust to her newest position and is “definitely” getting a feel for it.
Engen recently saw herself shifted back into the familiar spot of center back, teaming up with Kate Markgraf in the heart of the Red Stars defense since head coach Emma Hayes was relieved of her coaching duties.
She has proven over the course of her career that she’ll play anywhere —up top, in the midfield, in the back, centrally, or outside —wherever the team needs her.
“I don’t know, I mean I can’t play goalkeeper I’ll tell you that. I can’t use my hands so I know I won’t end up there,” said Engen about where she thought she'd end up on the field at the draft in January. “But you know what? I mean I’m just always happy to be on the field. The game of soccer is such a wonderful game, a wonderful sport, and if they [want to] put me on the field, I’ll go anywhere.”
Photo Courtsey of the Chicago Red Stars.