Adaptations: An Interview with Freja Olofsson of Racing Louisville and the Swedish U23s
Authors’ note: Quotes in this article were edited slightly for clarity.
This is the final of five interviews featuring Racing Louisville’s international players that will be published during the off-season. These profiles are a collaboration between the Beautiful Game Network and Fleur de Lis FC. Michael Shaw from Fleur de Lis FC is a contributing author on this article.
Check out past profiles on Emily Fox & Ebony Salmon & Vanessa Kara & Cheyna Matthews
For much of her professional career, Freja Olofsson stayed close to home. The Swedish midfielder played her first years in her hometown with KIF Örebro DFF in the Damallsvenskan before venturing to neighboring Norway to play for Arna-Bjørnar in Bergen for a season. After returning to Örebro in 2020, Olofsson soon felt the urge to go abroad again. That opportunity would soon come from a very unexpected place.
“It was so funny,” recalled Olofsson..”I had one American and one Canadian on my team last year and they both came from the NWSL. They mentioned that they were going to expand the league with a team and I was like, ‘OK, well that’s cool’. I never thought about going to the US like ever.”
With that, she was quite surprised when that new team, Racing Louisville, called her out of the blue and expressed interest. And despite never considering playing in the United States or even hearing of the city of Louisville prior to signing, Olofsson decided to accept the offer. Although she admitted a move this big made her nervous, she felt it was too good an opportunity to pass up.
“I couldn’t turn it down,” said Olofsson. “The stuff that we have here, the facilities and all of what’s around the players is amazing and top class. I think when they talked about all that stuff that they were going to give us and they shared about where they wanted to go and their vision and everything, it just felt right.”
The story of much of Olofsson’s first season with Racing Louisville can be summed up in one word: Adaptation. She was in a new country, experiencing a new culture and a new team and was also playing in a totally new position for the first time. On top of that, the NWSL’s 2021 season was a tumultuous one, to say the least. A seemingly endless number of coaching scandals rocked team after team – including Racing Louisville – and caused quite a few people to question the league’s ultimate stability. Through it all, however, Olofsson has remained game for everything and ended up as one of Racing’s most regular starters in their inaugural season.
We sat down with Olofsson for a Zoom chat this November to explore issues like culture shock, team expectations, and the league-wide furor that helped define her first NWSL season. We also discussed her aspirations for an international career after being called up for the Sweden U-23s during the most recent international breaks and, of course, also talk about her recent starring role in an unexpectedly viral Racing Louisville TikTok that has garnered over 1.2 million views.
Home and Away
Olofsson began playing soccer around the age of six. As a child, she also played ice hockey, but soccer was always it for her.
“I feel like that was the thing that I felt like I enjoyed the most and that I felt like I was better at it as well,” said Olofsson. “In the back of my head I always knew that I wanted to try to make it as a professional and make it my living.”
In 2015, at about the age of 17, Olofsson signed her first professional contract for her hometown team KIF Örebro DFF. After three seasons and 69 appearances for the club, she began to look for new opportunities elsewhere. So in 2019 she signed with an agent and moved to Arna-Bjørnar in Norway.
“I wanted something new, a change,” said Olofsson of her reasons for pursuing a career outside of Sweden. “I wanted to come away from the comfort you have in your own city and around your family and friends. I wanted to challenge myself a bit and I felt ready to go explore something else.”
After only seven appearances for Arna-Bjørnar, Olofsson’s season was suddenly halted when she tore her ACL.
“That was basically my first injury. For that to be an ACL that was really challenging. You move away from home and from family and all the comforts here, all the support and to experience that when you first move, that wasn’t easy, for sure.”
The rest of 2019 was spent rehabbing, first in Norway and then in Sweden when she returned home at the end of the season. After focusing all her attention on recovery, she was able to make a strong comeback when she once again signed to KIF Örebro. In 2020, she had 18 starts in 21 appearances and scored two goals along with an assist.
But, as previously mentioned, her interest in playing abroad remained strong and Racing Louisville came calling to give her an offer she couldn’t refuse. In early December 2020, Olofsson signed a two-year contract with the expansion side. And by early January, she was packed and headed off to the United States for preseason.
When thinking back on what attracted Olofsson to make the leap and come to Louisville, she cites two major factors: The support services offered and the club’s ambitions.
“All these things we were promised to have around when it comes to recovery facilities, rehab, all the resources it was like wow! There’s not many clubs in Europe that have the same kind of set up and so that was one thing.”
“I think the main thing was that my ambition and my vision and what I see myself like in terms of the team and where I want to head towards in my career, I want to compete at top, top level, I think all those ambitions matched with what Racing Louisville wanted from me, their vision and what they wanted to achieve at the club.”
Did everything in Louisville live up to her expectations?
“I would say it did,” she said. “I’m not gonna lie, it was very challenging to adjust to everything in American culture and the soccer and everything.”
Additionally, the much-lauded training facility wouldn’t open until June after construction delays. This required players to train on the fields in Champions Park, but have their locker room and training center resides a little over a mile away in Lynn Family Stadium until the new facility was ready. Although it wasn’t an ideal situation, once it did open, Olofsson said it was top quality, just as had been promised.
Still, the American lifestyle is very different from the Swedish or European one and it took time to adapt. Olofsson said, “Everything in Europe is so convenient to go from one thing to another. Going to the grocery store or going to this or that here you need a car and everything that takes more time. I think to adjust to that was like something I realized I needed. Americans are always so forward, as well, so I had to adjust to that. And the language.”
Another change Olofsson had to get used to was the long travel required for away matches. In European leagues, many fixtures are a short bus ride away. They might even take place between clubs in the same city. In the United States, however, a Wednesday game in North Carolina might be followed with a Sunday match in Portland, Oregon. That’s a seven to 10 hour flight, depending on layovers, in addition to a significant time change.
“That was something I wasn’t prepared for,” Olofsson admitted. “I hadn’t even considered it. Back in Sweden and Norway, we will only be gone for a day. We would travel the same day and [there were] not long traveling days.
“Also, the connection flights in Louisville are crazy, like you have to connect and stuff like that, so that was something that also was new for me.
“You get used to it, and normally we travel a few days ahead if we have a time difference that we have to get used to. Also finding your routine away from home is a bit harder, like living at the hotel, eating on a schedule, training on this schedule, or just sitting in a hotel room. Finding a routine on travel trips was also something that took me some time to adjust to.”
One more pleasant change from Europe has been the fan support she’s experienced. Olofsson said the crowds are much larger and more engaged in the United States than anywhere else she’s played.
“Our stadium back in Sweden was nice but like we wouldn’t fill it. There were maybe 500 people at our game on a good, normal day. I definitely feel like there’s more support over here, especially in Louisville. People are so interesting and I feel like they’ve been very excited that there is a women’s soccer team here. To play in front of the crowd has just been amazing. I love it, to have that support from the fans.”
Even More Adjustments
If a new culture, a new team, and extensive travel requirements weren’t enough to adapt to, Olofsson quickly found herself asked to play in a totally new position as well. Throughout the season, she was Racing’s primary central defensive midfielder – also known as the six. Olofsson, who wears the number eight shirt, said she was, in fact, recruited to play as an eight – a box-to-box central midfielder who participates both in attacking and defense – which is her more natural position. The adjustment wasn’t initially an easy one.
“I think in the beginning it was really hard. To come to peace with it. I would hope that maybe the next game or this training we need me playing as an eight, but it never happened. It was growing on me, though, and by midseason I was all for it, like, I’m a six. If you want me to play as a six, I will play as a six.”
Despite some initial toughness, Olofsson said she ultimately grew into the position over time.
“For me it was kind of new, also, to define my role and to figure out how I fit and what qualities they wanted to get out of me in that position. I feel like at the six, I learned a lot from game to game and knowing my role. I got a better understanding and, for me, it was very important that if I had those very creative players beside me, that I restrict myself in some of my creativity and do what the team needed. Play how the team needed me to play.”
Olofsson’s success in adapting to her new position on the team can be seen in some of her stats. In the 24-game regular season, she played in 22 matches and started 20. Of those 20 starts, she was only subbed off six times. These numbers make her one of the most consistent players on Racing’s roster, alongside stalwarts like Emily Fox and Savannah McCaskill.
Before the season’s end, there would be one more major adjustment for Olofsson and the rest of Racing’s players. Coach Christy Holly was fired for cause in early September and replaced by interim coach Mario Sanchez. Racing was far from alone in this upheaval. By season’s end, nine out of 10 NWSL clubs would separate from their head coaches. Five of these separations, including Holly’s, would be due to misconduct or abusive, manipulative behavior.
To say these upheavals were stressful for NWSL players would be an understatement. And yet, though it all, players kept playing week after week while doing their best to make it through rough waters. Olofsson said dealing with such turbulence was completely new to her and most of her teammates. They got through it by coming together to work through it as a unit by controlling the controllables.
“Initially, some of the stuff that happened here, it was emotional when that change happened, like when we got a new coach,” she recalled. “It just felt like I would get more sharp in focusing on myself and my performance and my teammates.”
The switch was made easier by how much the players respected interim coach Mario Sanchez.
“I think he did great,” said Oloffson of Sanchez. “He’s such a great guy and a great coach, and I think he added something when he came in and it took over. He’s a great coach and a great person and I felt very good playing under him.”
After such a stressful year with all these adaptations to new cultures and new positions and new coaches, I had to ask: Does Olofsson remain satisfied with her decision to come and play for Louisville?
“Yes,” she said firmly with a smile. “I learned a lot and I feel like there’s more to give and I’m very excited for what’s going to happen next.”
.@OlofssonFreja discovered there’s another football league that plays on Sundays. 🏈
Our resident Swede gets to know the NFL…or is it NLF? pic.twitter.com/VGHhAi8VEJ
— Racing Louisville FC (@RacingLouFC) November 7, 2021
In recent months, Olofsson has been called up to play for Sweden’s U23 team. She received her first caps in October when her squad won 2-0 against Belgium and 3-2 against Norway. The pandemic had long delayed youth soccer across the globe, so getting back into international play was something Olofsson enjoyed.
“That was fun. I was excited,” said Olofsson of her October matches with the U23s. “We had some contact throughout the year, but with me being so far away and with the games we played it hadn’t really been a good time for me to go, but this time when I got called in, I was excited to go and it was fun to put on the Swedish jersey again.”
Growing up, when Olofsson talked about making her living in soccer, playing for the Swedish national team was what she envisioned. Still, she knows now as a professional player, that club play always comes first. But that doesn’t mean she doesn’t still hope for a chance with the first team.
“I think back in the days that I only knew about their national team so I think that was the main goal like, ‘I want to play in the Olympics and the World Cup’. I guess it has been my goal, but it has been more important for me to try to make myself like a regular in a starting lineup and like finding a good club club team and all of that more so than the national team. But I would love to play for their full team.
Shortly after our conversation, Olofsson would head back to Sweden to spend her off-season at home. She would be called into the U23s again in November for a friendly against Italy where Sweden would win 1-0.
Before she left, however, we had to ask about her starring role in the TikTok posted by Racing Louisville entitled “A Swede Naming NFL Teams”. In the video, Olofsson, the aforementioned Swede, is shown the logos of various NFL franchises and forced to come up with a name for each team on the fly. The video was immediately popular as thousands of viewers who’d probably never even heard of the NFL were charmed by unexpected names like ‘The San Francisco Red Eye’ (The 49ers), the ‘Kentucky Arrows’ (Kansas City Chiefs), and ‘Angry Horse From the South’ (The Broncos). The social media accounts of almost every NFL team in the league also got involved in the comments and a couple NBA teams asked for a basketball sequel. As a result, the video has, as of writing this article, over 1.2 million views on TikTok. By comparison, Racing’s next most popular video on the platform has around 525,000 views and is months older.
How has Olofsson reacted to her brief flash of social media fame? Primarily by ignoring it. Although she was aware it was doing well she insists “I haven’t watched it myself. I don’t dare to.”
Still, she says she feels good about the video even if she never expected it to take off in the way that it did.
“I wasn’t prepared for it. It was just something we did for fun, I guess,” she said with a laugh. “That’s fun that people watched and [it was a] good commercial for the team and myself.”
And so with one, final question left, it had to be asked: Would she go see the Kentucky Arrows next time she’s back in town?
Olofsson laughed and answered affirmatively.
“If there is a team named Kentucky Arrows, I will definitely go to one of the games.”
A Look at Olofsson’s Contributions by Michael Shaw
Freja Olofsson’s contributions to Racing Louisville are pretty easy to define. She was almost ever-present in Racing’s midfield. She played the 5th most minutes in the league for the team and led the team in passing % with 81.1%. The fact she was asked to play in a deeper role than she was accustomed to makes her season even more impressive.
Early in the season she often put in impressive performances that kept Racing in matches. Most people will rightly remember Racing’s 1-0 victory against Houston on June 20th, 2021 for Ebony Salmon’s debut goal, but I will remember it for Freja’s performance as well. At the time I gave her a 9 out of 10 in my player rating post immediately after the match, which was good enough for player of the match. That rating was probably heavily biased (since I made it a point to watch Racing’s midfield in that match) and in retrospect, Emily Fox was probably the true player of the match. However, I remember why I rated her performance so highly. She was all over the field and stopped several Dash attacks. She had a team-high 4 interceptions to go along with 3 clearances, a block and she also gained possession 9 times. See her touch map from the performance:
I don’t think it is an exaggeration to say that she was all over the field in that match. It is the touch map of a true box-to-box midfielder. Freja would have several performances in that same vein throughout the rest of the year. I enjoyed watching her give more confident performances as the season progressed. Another memorable performance for Freja was the 1-1 draw vs Gotham in the last match of the season. She gained possession 11 times in that match which was 5 more times than any other Racing player. She also had 3 interceptions, a block, and a clearance. If Freya can continue to put in a performance like this she can be an anchor in Racing’s midfield for years to come.