The United States women's national team is currently in Europe preparing for an upcoming friendly on November 27 against the Netherlands. It will be the ninth and final match for the team as their calendar year comes to a close. It will be the first time the two teams go head to head since the 2019 Women's World Cup final last summer.
The 23 player roster selected by head coach Vlatko Andonovski ahead of the six day camp features big names currently playing overseas in Europe. One such player is Defender Alana Cook, who has been playing with French Division 1 team Paris Saint-Germain since she signed with the club back in 2019. She's been a part of U.S. youth soccer programs since 2013, where she captained the U17 and U23 levels respectively, but is eligible to play for England as well, and has spent a camp with the English women's national team back in September of 2019 as a training player.
After earning her first cap with the USWNT out of her first senior call-in against Costa Rica last November, Cook is now in her second stint with the U.S. national team. She was a highly rated prospect out of Stanford and projected as a first round pick ahead of the 2019 NWSL college draft before she made the decision to begin her professional playing career in Europe.
"I felt like it's a good opportunity for her to come in and so we can see a little bit more," said Andonovski on Cook's selection.
"But at the same time, it's a good opportunity for her to experience a high profile game or meaningful game, and be around some of these players to experience the environment, because of the potential that she has. We see her as someone that has an ability to play on this team in the future."
Cook is joining these camps fresh off a historic PSG win over Olympique Lyonnais, ending their rivals four year unbeaten streak. The center back came on during the second half in order to ensure the score line would end in PSG's favor as they defeated Lyon 1-0.
"If you look at kind of how excited everyone was on the team when the final whistle blew. You can kind of see just how much hard work and commitment we've put into building the team that we have currently," said Cook.
"The end result is you see big wins like that against Lyon. So, at the end of the day, it is just another win in the league, but I think we can all recognize the kind of significance on a grander scale in terms of ending such an incredible run Lyon had. But I think now it's kind of moving towards the next game and making sure we stay focused for the rest of the league."
It's a rivalry that goes back several years and crosses into men's and women's leagues. In recent years, the gap between the two clubs has been narrow, but with Lyon often coming out on top in big games. In addition to the league, the two teams constantly meet in the Coupe de France Féminine and have gone head to head in UEFA women's Champions League competitions. The familiarity has provided intense competition when the two teams go head to head.
"The rivalry with Lyon, [they're] recognized as kind of the biggest women's club in the world. So, I think for us it's always a good way to measure ourselves and see how we're doing. To be able to take them on twice this year, maybe more including cups and Champions League. I think for us it's always a big opportunity to kind of show where we are, and show kind of the growth that we've put in the women's game as well."
For Cook, in the second year of her three year contract with PSG, she's trying to make the most of her experiences in Europe. Adapting to the culture, language, continuing her development, and playing a new style of soccer were all motivating factors in making the decision to go pro in Europe despite her high NWSL draft rating out of Stanford.
"Personally I think I was more than happy to go into the NWSL draft, depending on what my options [were] and it just kind of came down to timing. I received an offer from PSG and it just felt too good to pass up . . . I looked at it as an all around life decision. I think it was going to be something that was going to challenge me, and really helped me develop in all areas of my life.
Overall, I think it's definitely been worth it. I think anytime you have a chance to challenge yourself and step out of your comfort zone, you're going to develop and going to get better. So, I've really enjoyed that and I think just trying to reap as much of the benefit as possible."
Globally, the coronavirus pandemic has impacted pro sports and the athletes across multiple sports leagues. As Cook was in the process of her second year with PSG, many clubs were forced to stop play as lockdowns went into effect across various countries. She made a return to the U.S. to be closer to family, and in between down time with Netflix and keeping in touch with friends virtually, she was also working on completing her degree in Symbolic Systems at Stanford.
"They're focused in human computer interaction, looking at how we can mesh society and technology together and see how we can make those two go together in the best way possible. Adapt technology to the needs of humans."
During the summer, U.S. audiences were able to get a glimpse at the 23-year-old defender as she spent a brief time on loan in NWSL as she played in the Challenge Cup with OL Reign. She credits the league with helping to create a safe environment to play in, and her club for having dialogue on racism and social justice issues.
"I think as difficult as the bubble was mentally, emotionally, for a lot of people, I think it allowed us to be almost privileged in a way that we knew we were as safe as possible, given the circumstances from catching COVID and being exposed to things. So, I think in terms of that they did a good job making us feel safe."
Within OL Reign we had quite a few discussions and I was actually really proud of the team and felt really embraced by everyone's openness to discuss the issues and to learn from each other. When you have an environment like that within the team it just makes it a lot easier for everyone to feel comfortable and play well together. I really enjoyed that. I thought the team was amazing and learned a bunch from the players and staff that I got to work with. Overall, a wonderful opportunity."
Cook has another year remaining on her PSG contract, and though she currently isn't cap tied to any one national team, she is looking making the most of this second USWNT camp experience in Europe.
"The first thing you notice is the competitive nature. As soon as you step on the field everyone's competing. Everyone's, bringing the intensity and working their hardest, I think, to make themselves better and to make the entire group better. I think it's something that as soon as you step in, you have to be at that level, or you won't survive.
I think at the highest level, at any of the countries, you're gonna have that same intensity. That's the drive and motivation. But I think the U.S. is obviously kind of at the top [and] seen as the top in the world, and that's why the trophies keep coming in."