If you want to talk about professional women’s soccer around the world, Jess Fishlock is your go-to player.
The 30-year-old Seattle Reign midfielder has played professionally, or something close to it, in seven different countries on three different continents. A native of Cardiff, Wales, she is the only player, female or male, to play 100 international matches for Wales, but she hasn’t played for a Welsh club since leaving Cardiff 10 years ago.
“There really wasn’t much back in those days,” said Fishlock who has played with the Reign since the team’s inception. “I wished there was more I could do to improve women’s football there. I didn’t have the opportunities kids have now. It’s like night and day.
“I think it’s getting better, but there is a long way to go. I think we just need to keep pushing (the Welsh federation), keep making them do more.”
Fishlock always aspired to play at the highest possible level, and she realized in order to do that, she needed to hit the road. She went to Bristol in England when she was 19 after she left Cardiff.
“It was something I needed to do,” she says. “It was the only way I was going to get to the level I wanted. I had to get out of the U.K. There wasn’t much in England at that point and there was nothing in Wales. I always wanted to be the best I could be and to play at the highest level.”
Finding the competition in England to be subpar in the early 2000s, Fishlock headed to Holland to join AZ Alkmaar and played for the club from 2008-2010.
“After that, I came home when the England WSL started, but it still wasn’t at the level I wanted,” she said.“So I left again.”
To Australia this time, she played for Melbourne Victory until joining the Reign for the NWSL’s inaugural season. She’s been a fixture in the Seattle lineup ever since.
“Over the years, I realized how much I could learn from those experiences (overseas) and how good it was for me – on and off the field,” she said. “You experience things that make you better and stronger.
“In between our season here in the NWSL, I’ve always tried to go and play abroad to keep myself learning and to keep myself challenged, rather than sit around for five months and train by myself. I don’t see the benefit in that if I could be playing somewhere.”
Learning the Game in Europe
In NWSL off-seasons, Fishlock has played in Scotland with Glasgow, in Germany with Frankfurt and again in Melbourne with Melbourne City.
As a result of her varied experiences gained from different football cultures, Fishlock has become a melting pot of skills and knowledge. Every part of her game today stems from what she learned in each one of her stops over the past 10 years.
“When I went to Holland, I was 20 and women’s football at that time wasn’t that big,” she explained. “But Holland taught me how to play the game – keeping the ball, reading the game, understanding the game, patience. It taught me football.”
Two other European leagues taught Fishlock that football was more than just tactics, systems and an understanding of how to play the game.
“England taught me the physicality,” she said. “You have to fight and fight and fight, and that will help you win also. There has to be a fight in you for when the football doesn’t work.
“I think one of the big things for me when I was in Germany was just seeing their attitude and their mentality,” she added. “You train all the time and you are always with the ball. It was just football, football, football. Outside of training, it was football, football, football. It really opened my mind to how hard the Germans work, their focus, and their attention to what their job is. There is no question. It was a huge eye-opener for me.”
Professional soccer in the U.S. is known for the players’ fitness level, the physicality of games, and pace of play. But there was a different physical element in Germany which Fishlock learned to value.
“Here in the U.S., of course you work, and you work hard,” she said.“But there was something about Germany that made me see a whole different level. It made me realize how much work had to go into becoming the type of player I wanted to become.”
“This League Has It All”
Now, after 10 years of searching, Fishlock is thrilled with the NWSL. The level of play, the quality of the players, and most importantly the league’s competitive balance, is just what she was looking for.
“You not only have to be fit — and they are extremely fit here — you have to be smart and understand the game. You have to be good at everything to survive in this league.”
Week-in and week-out in the NWSL, Fishlock has had to call on all the knowledge gained from her past experiences in order to be successful.
“In the U.S., I think, you put it all together,” she said. “There is obviously a mentality here that you just don’t stop. No team here stops, regardless of the score or the league table. They have the mentality that they are going to make it extremely difficult for you. It’s unbelievable.
“That makes you have to be at your best week in and week out. That’s the only way you are going to win, and that’s a very difficult thing to do that this level. When you are a little bit off, you lose.”
That thin line between winning and losing, knowing that you have to be at your best whenever you take the field, that constant challenge – all that is fun for Fishlock.
“For me, that’s why I love being here,” she said. “I know that if I’m off, there’s no way it’s going to be fun for me or easy for me. There’s always going to be someone on the other team giving me absolute hell, and I love that challenge. I think there are a lot of people who don’t enjoy that challenge. Sometimes they want to have an easier game. I don’t want those games. I want games that are hard, games where that one chance changes everything. Those are the games you get every week in this league.
“Wins are more rewarding that way,” Fishlock said. “When you win, you know you got it right. Sometimes you get lucky, no doubt. But the majority of the time when you win, it’s because you got it right. And there is no better feeling as a team than knowing that you got it right. Just like there’s no worse feeling when you come off the field after a defeat knowing you got it wrong.”
Tim Nash is a freelance writer and author of the new book, “It’s Not the Glory, the Remarkable First Thirty Years of U.S. Women’s Soccer.” For more information, click here