Every January and August since 2019, Demi Pierre has had to leave her parents and dog in her hometown of Gävle, Sweden, to rejoin her teammates for the Towson women’s soccer program. Despite the regular practice, Pierre continues to struggle with departing.
“I’m a very emotional person,” she explained. “So goodbyes are my least favorite thing on this planet. Leaving my parents is not fun.”
Maja Hansson, who hails from Sandviken, Sweden, and usually accompanies Pierre on those flights from Stockholm Arlanda Airport to BWI Marshall Airport, said her teammate is not exaggerating.
“I don’t like goodbyes either, but she’s worse than me,” Hansson quipped.
Pierre and Hansson are the Scandinavian representatives among the Tigers, who are leaning on the duo for the upcoming season. Pierre, a redshirt junior midfielder who turns 22 next month, compiled seven points on two goals and three assists in 18 games, including 17 starts, last fall, while Hansson, a junior defensive midfielder who turned 21 last month, started 16 games last year for a Towson squad that went 8-7-3 overall and 3-5-1 in the Colonial Athletic Association.
The Tigers, who open the season against Howard on Thursday, believe they can contend with UNC Wilmington and Hofstra for what would be its first conference title.
“They’re here for a reason,” coach Katherine Vettori said of Pierre and Hansson, who along with current junior forward Nia Christopher (John Carroll) of Bermuda and former forward Jodie Burchell of Australia are her first international recruits. “They want to win a championship, and that’s why we brought them here.”
How the Tigers discovered Pierre and Hansson is equal parts determination and serendipity. Shortly after Vettori was hired in January 2018, she asked former assistant coach Cheyenne Spade, who was planning to play professionally for a club in Sweden, to scour the country for some prospects.
After receiving a favorable report on Pierre from Spade, Vettori visited Sweden in June and then traveled two hours via bus, train and walking from Uppsala to Sandviken, where Pierre’s club team was playing a game. In that game, Pierre scored three goals.
“I’m like, ‘OK, let’s go,’” Vettori joked of her immediate desire to bring Pierre to Towson with her.
Hansson was on Pierre’s team and also impressed Verroti. “I was like, ‘I like that one,’” Vettori said. “Calm, strong, smooth, a full package player.”
Pierre — who is equally fluent in Swedish and English thanks to her mother Linda, who is an England native — had always wanted to travel somewhere to play soccer and get an education. So she quickly committed to the Tigers.
Convincing Hansson, however, took some effort from Pierre and Vettori.
“I didn’t think it was that serious, to be honest, because I hadn’t even thought about going over there,” Hansson said of Vettori’s interest. “But Demi kept calling me and texting me, ‘How do you feel about it?’ I was like, ‘Sure.’ So we kept in contact.”
Pierre’s American education began in August 2019 as she sought to control her asthma in sweltering weather reaching 100 degrees. In her second college game, she scored both goals in a 2-0 victory over Mount St. Mary’s on Aug. 29, earning CAA Rookie of the Week honors.
But a week later against UMBC on Sept. 5, Pierre tore the ACL in her right knee and missed the remainder of the season. Classmate Phoebe Canoles, a Perry Hall graduate, tore her ACL in that same game, and the pair underwent surgery on the same day and recovered together at Canoles’ parents’ home in Baltimore.
Still, Vettori admitted she was nervous that Pierre might get discouraged and fly back to Sweden with no plan to return.
“That was a scary time for me and for the staff because we were wondering, ‘Is this going to be the straw that breaks the camel’s back? Is Demi not going to want to be here? Rehab is hard, and it’s a long process,’” she said. “But because they went through everything together, it ended up with them coming back stronger than ever.”
Pierre said the injury made her grateful for the sport and has helped her take better care of her body through pre and postgame stretching regimens. She said she did not consider leaving her teammates.
“I didn’t want anyone to say, ‘That girl came for three weeks and went back,’” she said.
During Pierre’s first year at Towson, she and Hansson kept in touch often through FaceTime and texts. Hansson got a sense of life at an American university, and Pierre helped Hansson navigate some of the paperwork required for a visa.
“Obviously, I was going to miss my family,” Hansson said. “But I went in with the mindset of, ‘What do I have to lose?’”
Both players said they have had to adjust to the style of soccer played in the United States. They said there is more of an emphasis on individual play and up-and-down aggression in America compared to Sweden, which seeks to have its players work as a unit on the field.
Pierre and Hansson have also absorbed the cultural differences. Hansson noted how often Americans do not take off their shoes in their rooms or homes, and she misses Fika, the Swedish ritual of slowing down during the day by spending time with family or friends around coffee and sweets — a practice mandated by even some workplaces.
Pierre said people in the United States are friendlier and more outgoing. She also misses McDonald’s in Sweden, which offers hot wings, chili cheese dogs, curry sauce and crispier nuggets and fries.
“Swedish McDonald’s is unmatched,” she said. “But I still love McDonald’s.”
Homesickness was a central theme of a legendary April Fool’s Day prank in 2021. Pierre, Hansson, Canoles and assistant coaches Matt Dwyer and Brad Hartin concocted a scheme in which Hansson had booked a flight to return to Sweden, even collecting information for a certain flight from BWI to Stockholm.
Canoles contacted Vettori and pretended as if Hansson had sworn her to secrecy. They finally ended the joke after about an hour as Vettori got into her car to drive to BWI.
“I was in a full panic,” Vettori said. “That was very well played.”
Such anxiety has since passed. Pierre is majoring in psychology and minoring in marketing, while Hansson is studying criminal justice. Both said they plan to pursue professional soccer after graduation — either here or back in Europe.
Vettori described Pierre and Hansson as professionals in the locker room and on the field. She said Hansson brings a calming presence to the defense, while Pierre is a sparkplug on offense.
Vettori said the duo also behave older than their actual ages.
“It’s just the maturity level,” she said. “They’ve had to grow up, especially going to a foreign country.”
Pierre and Hansson have occasionally been reminded of home in the form of opponents. During a coronavirus pandemic-shortened spring season in 2021, they played against former UMBC midfielder Alicia Hiis of Örebro, Sweden. And last fall, they played against Temple midfielder Moa Andersson of Valbo, Sweden, whom they have known for years.
For now, Pierre and Hansson said their objective in their final three years of eligibility is to help Towson capture the CAA championship.
“I feel like we’ve been building and working for so long,” Pierre said. “I think we’re really starting to change things. I feel like it’s time.”
Thursday, 7 p.m.