When Manchester United reached out to sign Lotta Okvist last summer, she thought it was a joke.
The defender was midway through her season with Hammarby in Sweden’s second division, having joined them the previous year in a campaign that ended with relegation on the final day.
That was a disappointing conclusion to an incredibly tough year for Okvist, but her loyalty would be handsomely rewarded within the next 12 months.
“Now, I’m really happy that I stayed, otherwise I’m not sure I would’ve got the opportunity to sign for United,” she tells Goal. “When my agent contacted me and said that Manchester United were interested, I didn’t believe him!
“I asked to see the email from Casey [Stoney] and the staff because I thought it was a joke. It was too good to be true. When I signed, it was a dream that came true.”
Good news was overdue for Okvist. At the beginning of 2018, she was moving to the United States’ National Women’s Soccer League (NWSL), arguably the best league in the world.
However, just as the 20-year-old was set to depart, the Boston Breakers, the club she was joining, folded.
“I didn’t have a team. It’s a totally different system in the U.S.. If you have a contract, the league owns you,” she explains. “We had like 24 hours to decide if we wanted to stay [in the U.S.], or if we wanted to stay to play in Sweden or another country.
“I had already said no to the teams that offered me contracts in Sweden, so I didn’t have a choice!”
In the Dispersal Draft, those due to play with Boston who had chosen to stay in the U.S. were picked by NWSL clubs. Okvist was selected by the Houston Dash, but after two weeks in Texas she was packing again after being traded to the Orlando Pride.
“You don’t really have much to say because they can trade you whenever they want to and wherever they want to,” Okvist adds.
With a star-studded squad featuring the likes of Marta and Alex Morgan, she was signed as cover for when the Pride’s international stars would be away. In the end, she did not play a single competitive game for the club.
“I knew that it was a good team, I knew that it was going to be hard to get any football,” Okvist says. “Of course, it was tough, because I didn’t play. It was hard mentally.
“In my mind I was on my way to Boston. When you sign for a team it’s really important that you like get along with the coach, you know that they want you, and I really felt that with Boston.
“But then when you end up in a team where you don’t really feel like they want you, you’ve just been picked up because they can choose a few players from the draft. It was hard. I lost a lot of confidence. But I feel that I developed as a player [at Orlando] because I trained with so many good players.
“I also learned so much as a person. To move all the way to the US when I was 20 years old was a big step and I’ll never regret it.”
She returned to Sweden after less than six months and joined struggling Hammarby, where she could enjoy her football again – despite relegation.
“I decided to stay because I just wanted to stay in the same place. Stockholm felt like home and I really liked the club, so I didn’t want to move again,” she explains.
“I think it’s really important that you do well and enjoy life outside of the pitch. I think it’s the key to performing. If you’re not happy, you won’t play well.”
Her mantra would pay off. While giving her all to help Hammarby return to the top-flight, Okvist was spotted by Manchester United.
“When I said why I was leaving, they were so happy for me and I think all of the players would do the same if they could sign for United,” she says.
“When I came [to Manchester], Casey inspired me a lot. She’s a really good coach so that was one of the reasons I joined. She’s always there if you need something. You can always call her and she will give everything to help you.”
After playing most of her career in Sweden’s semi-professional top-flight, this year has been about adapting to the Women’s Super League’s professionalism.
But Okvist has impressed enough in her five starts so far to win her first senior cap for Sweden – at the Algarve Cup in March.
It’s a moment that ranks right up there as the proudest of her career yet – but, she stresses, it’s right alongside signing for United.
“It’s a really competitive squad [at United], everyone wants to learn so much,” she says. “It feels like we have something going on. We’ve got a lot of young players and we’re all developing and improving every day.
“It feels like we could achieve a lot in the next few years.”