For as long as many NWSL fans have been adults, there has been a Joanna Lohman playing soccer. I mentioned how strange it would be to have a league without Lohman in it at the start of our phone interview on Tuesday and she laughed. “I’ll just have to have a clone then,” she said.
It’s been a long and winding career for Lohman, who has circled the US women’s national team, sojourned in Europe and Japan, and hopped between a handful of teams across two American top flight leagues. She’s a grizzled veteran, minus the grizzled part of the equation, and as she announced her retirement this week, she also said she would continue on with the Washington Spirit in a community outreach role. It makes perfect sense; Lohman is the type of player each team needs, the one with the big smile and the friendly handshake and a knack for charming fans and sponsors alike. She also sounded ready for retirement - no forced roster cuts here.
“I thought I’d be more sad than I am,” Lohman said, “And I think it’s because I’ve had almost two or three seasons to process, with the torn ACL, and last season was a hard season for me. I didn’t play very much. You really have to reshape your identity.”
Lohman took the 2019 preseason to do a final assessment of sorts. The capper was playing last weekend against Virginia Tech and getting the game’s only goal. “I think Saturday night was a magical evening,” Lohman said. But she also felt in her gut that she wouldn’t be able to make it through the season, and after talking to the coaching staff, they decided that Saturday would be her last day on the field in a Spirit jersey.
It wasn’t all physical, necessarily. Lohman believes she can still play well, and even having lost a step, there’s something to be said for her experience and leadership. But she was also losing the mental side of the game, looking forward more to off-the-field opportunities than on-field ones. “I already knew that I had three or four events this summer that I did not want to miss,” she said, citing an appearance at the Tribeca Film Festival in May, speaking to Aetna employees for a day of training, and flying out to LA Pride for an event with Outsports, among others. “I was going to ask for exceptions and at a certain point that just doesn’t feel good on either side, because one, you shouldn’t necessarily be giving exceptions to anyone because we’re all equal, and two, I shouldn’t feel this gutted about missing an opportunity off the field.”
Lohman will still be deeply involved with the Spirit. There’s her community outreach, which will be a natural extension of the work she’s already done with DMV youth players. And she said she would be at nearly every home game as well, staying connected to her team and teammates.
One other thing she mentioned about her post-retirement career, almost offhand, was a potential future career in politics. It’s a bit hazy at the moment for Lohman, who said she doesn’t have it all figured out just yet. Still, she’s clearly putting pieces in place, having attended the Victory Fund’s latest brunch in Washington, D.C., and joining a mentorship program under openly gay former Houston mayor Annise Parker. “Where is my greatest platform for impact?” Lohman mused on her future. “Is that on the activist side, which I’m currently doing? Or is that more in public office? Or is it both?”
She has the motivational political speech just about down already, should she proceed with a campaign. Lohman reflected on the future of LGBTQ fans and athletes in women’s soccer, those who will come after things like Megan Rapinoe’s high-profile coming out and the legalization of marriage equality in the United States. It’s a far different landscape than 2008, when she was picked by the St. Louis Athletica in the WPS draft (RIP). There are more out queer players in women’s soccer and many teams openly support LGBTQ causes, but there are also growing audiences, with more fans coming to the game who might be unaware of woso fandom as a place that has historically had a large queer fan presence.
“I think I’m optimistic [about the future] because it is a safe space,” she said, “But as the audience grows, we could find ourselves finding a bit more hate, a bit more bigotry within women’s soccer.... You’re opening up. It’s great that we’re gaining greater audiences; it’s just something we’re going to have to be mindful of.”
Lohman also had a message for the young queer players that will come after her: “I hope we still have players who really want to be out and open. I believe that it’s such an important piece for progress and for equality and justice to have people who are willing to truly stand up for who they are and put their hand up for the community. And I think as we’ve seen in our current political climate, we’re very divided, and that runs into every part of culture and society…. We still need these strong voices. We still need these personalities that are really willing to offer their shoulders for others to stand on and I hope that the younger players realize this. Their platform, it matters.”
Of course, to discuss queer athletes in the context of the Washington Spirit invokes the elephant in the room - the Spirit’s own head coach, Richie Burke, has been accused by at least two of his former youth players of using homophobic language. “It’s been addressed [within the team] and it has not been a problem,” Lohman said, adding that Burke has been supportive of her personally. This, of course, doesn’t discount the previous allegations; plenty of people are capable of being unjust to one group and kind to another. Lohman couldn’t speak to that, though, based on the preseason she’s had.
As she wound down on reflecting on her career and the path she’s walked, she said she wouldn’t change any of it, not even the bad times. If a young Joanna Lohman were entering professional soccer today, of course there would be more resources available to her, and the game has grown in so many way sin the past 10 years alone. But the older, wiser Lohman doesn’t think a smooth road would be such a good thing. “Look how much I’ve grown. I’m so proud of who I am now and that is only because I have fallen on my face so many times, and I’ve had to pick myself back up again,” she said.
“I think true growth comes through failure,” said Lohman, “Or times where you haven’t gotten what you wanted. I wouldn’t change anything. I wouldn’t want young Joanna to have an easier time. I would want her to have the exact time that she’s had.”