South Africa national team captain Janine van Wyk, the most capped player in the country’s football history, male or female, has signed for the Houston Dash ahead of the 2017 season.
Backline Soccer snagged the first exclusive interview with the two-time Olympian following the much-anticipated announcement on Tuesday.
Backline Soccer: Congrats! How has the reaction been to the news?
JvW: I’m so overwhelmed. Since it was announced people have been going crazy, I really didn’t expect this. I thought it would be announced with a few retweets, but I’ve been on my phone since last night and looking at the response, it’s been phenomenal. It makes me want to go there tomorrow.
I’m really proud of how far I’ve come, and the hard work I’ve put in, and being recognized for all the work I do on the field. I’m super stoked, and I can’t wait to go.
BS: What’s the deal with your visa, when do you come over?
JvW: I know I go over in March for the pre-season, so we need to get my Visa sorted before then.
BS: How did you decide on the Dash?
JvW: They were the first team to react after the US match [in July this year]. It was going to happen after that match, but because the transfer window closed, they couldn’t get the signing done. So then Randy [Waldrum, Dash head coach] worked on it for this coming season. They were the very first club to approach me, and now my heart is with Houston.
BS: There were rumblings for weeks about the mystery defender he’d agreed a deal with, and everyone was convinced it would be you…
JvW: We had to keep quiet because we were waiting for them to release the news, and for the contract to be approved and all that. I was ready to tell everyone, it was hard not to!
BS: What attracted you to the NWSL in general?
JvW: Growing up, I always wanted to play at that level in America, because that’s where women’s football started being recognised. I always wanted to play in a US league, but I never, ever thought I would reach that level. But it was always one of my dreams, and seeing the US women’s national team doing so well and being the best in the world, it had to say something about the league.
I told myself I saw myself playing in this league, and I knew that when we played the USA that if I played well it would be an opportunity for me. Clubs would look at me and want to sign me, and that’s exactly what happened. I still can’t believe it.
BS: Of all the games to do really well in, that was it.
JvW: Yeah, especially after I saw the response after the match from people in the US, I knew that I did something right, and I waited for the clubs to react, and they did.
BS: With Roxanne Barker [SA goalkeeper] and Steph Malherbe [SA and Texas A&M midfielder] living in the US, did you discuss this with them to get advice?
JvW: Yes, I did. Roxanne was really thrilled for me. Even when we were playing against the Netherlands [earlier this year] and she got scouted for a club there, she wanted me to join her. This was before the US match, but I thought, “Let me hold on for a bit, maybe there will be something out there for me,” so I didn’t sign with the Netherlands team. Steph is just so excited, because she stays in Texas. We have a really good relationship, so we’re really excited to see each other over there.
BS: How do you think your game will suit the Dash?
JvW: I think Randy is looking for a central defender that has good leadership qualities and experience in that role, and I can bring that to the team.
I am not one of the tallest centrebacks in the world, and most clubs are looking for tall players. I think after Randy signed Bruna [Benites, of Brazil], I think it will be a good balance because she is a very tall player, whereas I’m more a build-up player, and communication-wise I’m very experienced and confident about helping the players around me.
I will fit in well, and I won’t have to do everything on the field. I’ll have 10 other players who can do their jobs, and I’ll be there to help guide them in the right direction.
BS: Yes, you’re going from being the most experienced player on the field to a side with Carli Lloyd as captain, and the likes of Rachel Daly, Morgan Brian, Kealia Ohai on the team … it takes the pressure off you a bit.
JvW: Definitely. I’m going to learn from them as well. I know I’m experienced and I have good knowledge of the game, but a football player can never stop learning. I’m going to go there and learn as much as I can from these players as well. But I’m pretty sure they can learn something from me too, so I think it will work hand in hand. I hope I can contribute as much as people think I will, and get us to a certain position Houston want.
BS: African players tend to be a bit more direct and physical, which I don’t think the opposition strikers are going to appreciate …
JvW: [laughs] Yes, I found that in the US game, where the strikers didn’t really like having someone on their ankles, and that’s something I do a lot. I put pressure on the striking force, and that’s maybe one of the reasons why Randy wanted me there, not to give the strikers any space or time to make vital decisions. It’s a different game completely, but I’m a player that can be direct but also patient if needed.
BS: Is there anyone you’re looking forward to playing with or against?
JvW: Obviously Carli Lloyd. She’s a world icon in women’s football, and I will be playing right next to her. It’s going to be amazing to play with her and see what qualities she can bring to my game. But everyone, really. I’m an open-minded person and I need to learn as much as I can from these players.
BS: And obviously you’ll be looking to take all that back to Banyana and your own club.
JvW: As a South African going there, I’m not just going for myself. I need to go there and perform well, to show other clubs what women’s football is about in South Africa. There’s so much talent out here that’s not being exposed, because we don’t play enough good international friendlies. I would be opening up doors for my fellow Africans as a whole for scouts to look at.
BS: How will this stint affect your club [JvW FC, also founded and coached by JvW]? How do the seasons overlap?
JvW: Our season starts before I even leave, but I have so many people assisting me with the club and the league, so it’s not a problem that I step away. Things won’t fall apart without me, and I’m really grateful for that.
People are really happy for me, and it’s motivating for the players in my club, for them to see that the founder is going out there to pursue her dreams and they could do the same thing. It’s really encouraging and inspiring for them, to see me go to Houston.