Courtesy Ralph Elsen
Former Gophers soccer stars Katie Bethke and Jennie Clark endured some culture shock to further their professional careers.
Bethke and Clark both play for clubs in Germany’s first division, the Bundesliga. Their moves to the German clubs occurred just weeks before the U.S. league, Women’s Professional Soccer, suspended its 2012 season.
Although some of the only German words they speak are commands on the soccer field, they said the language barrier is a small price to pay for the opportunity to play the game they love.
Bethke plays for Bayer 04 Leverkusen and Clark with FC Lokomotive Leipzig.
Both athletes joined their teams in the winter transfer window — where professional teams can trade and purchase players’ contracts from other teams — for the second half of the September through the May season.
The transition from Gophers to American expatriates, however, was something former Minnesota teammate Kylie Kallman said might suit Bethke better than Clark.
“[Katie] is super outgoing … super loud and not afraid to make friends. She’s kind of a little nuts,” Kallman said. “She has a really large shoe collection, which I’m sure she took with her, which always kind of draws people in.”
Clark may be a vocal leader on the field, but off it, she is not as intimidating, Kallman said.
“Jennie is kind of the opposite. Before you get to know her she is kind of reserved,” Kallman added. “We were roommates for four years in college. It took us a good year to break the ice.”
Kallman, Bethke and Clark all joined the Minnesota soccer team in the same recruiting class, which head coach Mikki Denney Wright said was “phenomenal,” and played with the team from 2007 to 2010.
“The two of them [Bethke and Clark] were always incredibly dedicated, very committed and always held themselves to the highest standard,” Denney Wright said.
The intense devotion to the sport and their careers is something Denney Wright said is unique to find in female athletes.
Kallman said she agreed that Bethke and Clark were not the average collegiate sportswomen.
“I think since they both started at the U, they knew that they wanted to pursue soccer after college, which I don’t think you find a lot of female athletes that have that plan,” Kallman said.
Both Bethke and Clark were standouts on their high school teams in Eau Claire, Wis., and Norwalk, Iowa, respectively. Each participated in club teams and Olympic Development Programs.
The pair also competed in multiple sports besides soccer, like track, cross country and basketball.
“It probably wasn’t until my sophomore year in high school that I decided that I wanted to do soccer,” Bethke said. “I just really loved soccer. It was my passion and I knew that’s what I wanted to play for four years in college.”
With Bethke at midfielder/forward and Clark on defense, Minnesota advanced to the Sweet 16 stage of the NCAA tournament twice — the only two times in the team’s history.
Collegiate soccer wasn’t the only focus for the pair during their time at Minnesota. The two played in the W-League, the highest level of amateur women’s soccer in the U.S., in the summer.
They were also called up to the U.S. Under-23 women’s national team.
Kallman earned her place on the U-23 team as well and also joined Bethke and Clark in one of their first tryouts for a professional team. All three were offered a roster spot with the Atlanta Beat in January 2011.
Bethke’s professional pursuit
Bethke was the only one to take the Beat’s offer, and she became the first Gophers player to sign a WPS contract. Her professional career forced her to leave school a semester short of graduating.
“I can only play sports for so long, so I took the opportunity, and I don’t regret it one bit,” Bethke said. “I will definitely go back to school … at least to finish my undergrad [degree] if not to get my master’s.”
Bethke said she hopes her communications degree will help her become a college coach after her playing career is over.
Without school, Bethke could focus solely on her professional career, and Atlanta’s coach noticed her determination.
“She’s very passionate about her career. It was definitely clear in her mind that this was what she wanted to do,” James Galanis, former head coach of the Atlanta Beat, said. “She was one of the first ones always out to practice … and she’d always stay back [after practice].”
Bethke’s time in Atlanta was short-lived. She suffered a foot and inner leg injury at the end of preseason. She recovered and had just regained her starting spot when she fell ill.
With only a few games left in the WPS season and a transfer opportunity available, Bethke decided to leave for Norway’s Arna-BjÃ¸rnar.
“I could have over double the game experience [in Norway],” Bethke said. “As a rookie, beginner professional athlete, that’s where I needed to go.”
Bethke completed her season in Norway’s top division and then tried out with four German teams before deciding to play with Leverkusen.
Bethke said she fell in love with “the level and how technically sound the teams are, and the style of play.”
Leverkusen currently sits at the bottom of the 12-team Bundesliga with a 2-2-12 record. Since Bethke signed, the team’s record is 1-2-1.
The lone win came in March, a 4-1 victory against Clark’s Leipzig club.
She’s started for all four of Leverkusen’s games since signing with the team. She also scored the first goal in a 2-2 draw with Hamburger SV.
Leverkusen may be in danger of a season without first-division competition. The last two teams in the league at the end of the season will be relegated to a lower division.
Clark’s whirlwind career
Clark and Kallman decided to return to Minnesota to finish school instead of playing for Atlanta.
Although Clark enrolled in the spring 2011 semester, she did not graduate with her communications degree until fall 2011.
That’s because in April 2011, she signed with a different WPS team, Sky Blue FC in New Jersey.
“It was a whirlwind,” Clark said. “I got a phone call on a Tuesday and I left on Thursday … I stayed out there until the end of the season [in August].”
Clark played with Quickstrike FC, the W-League feeder team to Sky Blue. The club has since folded.
Sky Blue head coach Jim Gabarra heard about the Midwest defender from her performance in the amateur league.
“She had a good year, she developed, she progressed,” Gabarra said. “It’s not like other sports … where you become a pro, and then you’re playing all the time. It takes some investment, and she made the proper investment.”
Her move to Germany was a similarly quick turnaround. Clark returned to Minnesota to take her last few credits. Soon after graduation, her agent heard of a German team that needed defenders. Two weeks later, Clark was on a plane to Leipzig.
“It’s different. With the WPS you had every great player stuffed into six teams,” Clark said. “Here, they have 12 teams so it’s a little bit more spread out.”
Leipzig is 11th in the Bundesliga with a 3-0-13 record. Although the team is still one ranking above Leverkusen, it is also in danger of relegation.
Clark has started all five of Leipzig’s games since joining the team and scored the only goal in a 6-1 drubbing by FCR 2001 Duisburg. She was a defender in college but has played midfield for the club recently.
A country without a league
Although a professional career overseas may seem glamorous, the two women dream of playing professionally again in their home country.
That is impossible at the moment, considering the WPS suspended its 2012 season.
In a statement made soon after Bethke and Clark departed for Germany, the WPS’ Board of Governors voted to cancel the 2012 season in order “to focus on the resolution of certain pending legal issues and the challenges that now face the League as a result of its ongoing dispute with a former owner.”
The former owner of the magicJack franchise, once known as the Washington Freedom, Dan Borislow, challenged WPS for terminating his team in October 2011 for not meeting league standards.
With just five teams in a league sanctioned by the United States Soccer Federation for a minimum of eight and facing a legal battle, the WPS decided to skip the 2012 season in hopes of returning more stable in 2013.
The announcement came just before the start of the season, leaving many players without a league in which to compete.
Their former teammate Kallman said she thinks Bethke and Clark “made a smart decision to leave before [the WPS] decided to suspend the season.”
“They were already locked into a team overseas while everyone else was frantically looking for teams,” she said.
Bethke and Clark escaped the professional setback, but they and their coaches describe the situation as “disappointing.”
“We, as technical staff and players, were all prepared to have a season this year and then it was, at the last minute, decided to take the season off,” Gabarra, also a former coach of the Washington Freedom, said. “There’s a place for women’s professional soccer [in the U.S.] … and it’s just a matter of the right structure getting put in place with the right business model.”
Denney Wright said she prepares her players for a professional career in a league that cannot support big paychecks.
“That’s what our players learn when they go on to play. They’re not really doing it for million-dollar contracts,” Denney Wright said. “They’re doing it because they love the game.”
Both Bethke and Clark would not hesitate to return to America to play and be closer to family and friends.
“It sounds corny and cheesy, but I love America. It’s my country,” Bethke said. “I’d love to play professionally in it. Right now it’s just not possible.
“I really want to be where the best, complete league is and I think that’s in Germany.”
The predecessor to WPS, the Women’s United Soccer Association, collapsed after three seasons.
The WPS was suspended after three seasons.
If history repeats itself, Bethke and Clark may have to postpone their American dream in favor of a prolonged stay in Germany.