Christen Press, Whitney Engen

Christen Press, left, and Whitney Engen have traveled remarkably similar journeys in their quest to represent the United States in the World Cup. (Alan Diaz, LM Otero / Associated Press)

Christen Press and Whitney Engen grew up just 13 months and a few miles apart on the Palos Verdes Peninsula. And they've been virtually inseparable on a soccer field ever since, playing together as kids, against each other in college and now as teammates with the U.S. national team.

Both, however, saw their careers get off to inauspicious starts.

As a preschooler, Press was forced to play with older kids in a coed league because one team was short a girl.

"I didn't touch the ball once," she remembers. "I picked daisies and waved to my mom."

Engen played because she got candy when she showed up at practice. And her parents encouraged her because, despite the sugar high, the sport was the only one that wore her out.

"They just kept signing me up," Engen says now. "It meant Whitney was sleeping at night."

Twenty years later the daisies and the candy are long gone. Press and Engen play now for paychecks, pride and, they hope, a shot at winning a World Cup title next year with the U.S. national team.

Three games into a new season Press, a 25-year-old forward, leads the top-ranked U.S. team with three goals and an assist despite having played just 86 minutes. And Engen, 26, has been on the field more than all but two other defenders, helping the U.S. to a 1-0 win over Canada and two shutout victories over Russia.

On any other team, both would be leaders. But with the star-studded U.S. squad entering the heavy part of its schedule in next month's Algarve Cup — where it will meet Japan and Sweden in group play — both could soon find themselves watching from the sidelines instead.

"How do you fit them all in?" U.S. Coach Tom Sermanni says, more in wonder than complaint. "Every area is strong, every area is competitive. Without a doubt we've got the strongest squad of any national team in the world."

That can be both a boon and a bane for young players such as Press and Engen, who find themselves sacrificing playing time for a chance to learn from talented teammates.

Press, for example, is fighting Abby Wambach, Sydney Leroux and, when she's healthy, Alex Morgan — the three top strikers in the world — for one of two spots at forward. And Engen is trying to break into a back line that includes team captain Christie Rampone, veteran Rachel Van Hollebeke (nee Buehler) and Stephanie Cox. Together that trio has combined for 484 international caps, seven Olympic medals and seven World Cup teams.

"It's an honor to be on the field with some of these players," Press says. "But at the same time it's kind of nice to feel like we're the competition and we're coming.

"Yeah, every day we come to the field and we're fighting for a spot. But we're also fighting for an opportunity to do something great."

Both Press and Engen have traveled remarkably similar journeys to get this far, starting in the same place and then intersecting often on the way to the national team.

"It's been like a curving path that keeps coming together," Press says.

If not for Press' father Cody, a former football player at Dartmouth, it may have been a journey Engen missed. As a grade-schooler, she was having a miserable time playing on another team in a Palos Verdes league when Cody Press asked her to join the one he was coaching.

"It was like the best experience ever!" Engen remembers. "Otherwise I could have probably quit soccer."

Their paths continued to cross as competitors in college and as teammates in Europe, where Press, playing alongside Engen for Stockholm's Tyreso FF, became the first American to lead Sweden's top league in scoring.

Now that they've reached the top level of their sport, it's clear neither needs soccer as much as soccer needs players like them: well-spoken women with brains, skill and personality.

Although Press won college soccer's most prestigious award, the MAC Hermann Trophy, during a record-setting career at Stanford, she was also an academic All-American with a double major who speaks three languages and is already an accomplished writer.

"Of course I have other passions and other interests, but soccer's always my priority," she says. "I actually think that there's such an opportunity to touch the world and affect the world through soccer that's hard for me to even see another path right now."

Engen, meanwhile, made the dean's list at North Carolina five times and has already passed the qualifying exam for law school. At one time that had been her preferred career path, but now a law degree is the fall-back plan. How many people can say that?

"Before I kind of had a set plan that if by this certain date I hadn't broken into this team that maybe I would go back to school," she says. "I guess I've taken the approach that there is always time to go back to school but there's not going to always be time to live in England. Or to be able to play in Sweden.

"These kinds of things, they don't just pop up in your life."

kevin.baxter@latimes.com

Twitter: @kbaxter11