Joanna Lohman wasn’t the player expected to score the Washington Spirit’s first two home goals of the season. Lohman, the Spirit’s oldest player, had scored four goals total in the three seasons prior while being a gritty presence in the midfield. In 2009, then-Washington Freedom head coach Jim Gabarra cut Lohman from the Freedom, and the Boston Breakers waived Lohman after the 2014 season. Three minutes into the Spirit’s 2016 season, Lohman scored a bicycle kick against the Breakers, a goal that delivered a win in Gabarra’s first game as Spirit head coach.
“It’s just a testament about how people can grow, improve, and get better,” Lohman told Black and Red United. “In 2009, it was my first real year as a pro in the US league so I had a lot of things to improve upon. I often say that the most important moments in my career were when I didn’t get what I wanted. It pushed me to seek out better training, [that’s] why I went and played over in Japan for three months after the season was because I knew I had a lot to learn. Although in 2009, Jim and I did not have a similar relationship to the kind we have right now, it’s a testament - I think credit to both of us - that we can come together in 2016 and start new and give each other a completely new chance.”
Earlier this season, Crystal Dunn - one of the fastest players on any field and ten years younger than Lohman - talked about how amazing it was to watch Lohman outrun and out-work than others. “I’m trying to keep up with her,” Dunn said about Lohman’s energy after Lohman scored the winning goal against the Houston Dash. As an older player, Lohman acknowledged the extra effort required to take care of her body like ice baths and extra core workouts. She also discussed the helpful experience her age provides her.
“Being an older player now, I think you let go of a lot of things you can’t control. You realize it doesn’t do you any good to worry about things that you can’t personally influence. Now my goal is to wake up and be the best player I can be that day, and it doesn’t matter what my coach is saying to me necessarily or what my teammates are doing,” Lohman said. “I do that every single day knowing some days I will feel better than others and that’s really what I’ll be proud of at the end of the season.”
Lohman has been part of several iterations of women’s soccer from the W-League after WUSA’s demise and then another stint W-League’s D.C. United Women in between her time in WPS and NWSL. After playing at the Maryland Soccerplex alongside high schoolers with the D.C. United Women, Lohman played in front of sold out crowds at the same venue only a few years later. Lohman described the U.S women’s national team’s World Cup win in 2015 as a “tipping point” for women’s soccer in the United States, something Lohman was proud to witness.
“It was amazing for me to see, having been in the game for so long to see the popularity and attention they were garnering. I was extremely impressed with how many fans came out and how passionate they were about the game. I felt we were legitimate phenomenons and it was just amazing for me to see and feel the impact I can make on another person.”
Lohman earned a business degree at Penn State and earlier in her soccer career she was the general manager of the Washington Freedom Futures and Vice President of a consulting firm. With the NWSL poised to reach a landmark fifth season, Lohman praised the business model of the NWSL that helped it become he first women’s pro soccer league in the United States to reach a fourth season.
“I think we have finally found a sustainable business model that works for each team and each franchise and also the league. I think having U.S. Soccer’s support is instrumental and releasing the burden on specific teams paying their biggest stars. I think it helps the local players who are in market earn a little bit more. I think it’s important for our league to keep moving in that direction where little by little we’re progressing in terms of salary, in terms of gameday experience, in terms of resources because we want to keep the players playing for a long time.”
The business model varies for each of the NWSL’s ten clubs, ranging from MLS-backed clubs like the Portland Thorns to less well-off teams like Rochester’s Western New York Flash. Each team’s core audience varies as well, with each club having a mix of youth soccer families and young adult fans.
“I think [audience] depends on where the franchise is located and what the market is like. I think each team is so different in terms of its core fan group. A team like Portland has 25-40 year olds who live in the city, the urbanites. Here, we’re in suburbia. It’s more the soccer mom and the daughter and at this point we want anyone who is going to come to the game and support the team to come to the game. I think one great solution to having both groups of fans here is having a supporters section and then have a section, general admission, where the younger players can be and so they’re not as intermixed and you see that a lot. In Portland, they have the fans section where the smoke bombs are going off and if you don’t want to be a part of that, which a lot of young kids don’t, there is a different section for them.”
Following an inaugural season, the NWSL added the Houston Dash in 2014 and the Orlando Pride this year. The league looks set to expand even more before the 2018 season but Lohman said there certain topics that need to be addressed alongside expansion.
“I think expansion is important but expansion in a very realistic and incremental way. Making sure each team has a minimum standard, I think we need to really establish that before we can start the growth process. Making sure the gameday experience is quite similar for each team, and when I say that I mean minimum requirements, a certain attendance that’s required, and then we can kind of build that foundation and base and grow from there.”
Lohman appeared occasionally with the national team early on in her career but is one of the few American women to cultivate a long career in the United States without being a mainstay on the national team. Most non-allocated players in the league need an income besides their NWSL salary which can range from $7,200 to a maximum of $39,200, which generally goes to European internationals. Many young players have retired in their prime, often to seek a higher-paying career.
“As the league progresses and we start making more money and more teams start to make a profit we can pay the players a little more. I think financially it can be a struggle, you factor in young players starting to want a family and we are all very smart, college-educated women and there’s opportunities for other professions that probably pay a higher amount and I think until we raise the minimum salaries we’ll still see some early retirements.”
The NWSL’s smaller attendances and fanbase also leads to increased access to players, especially since most players sign autographs after games. Lohman is known for engaging with fans and interacting with fans on social media and after games.
“For me personally, I’ve become friends with a lot of my fans. The Spirit Squadron, I consider many of them friends, and it’s more of an equal playing field where we all realize we need one another to make this game grow and we need the fans just as much as they need us and they are such an important piece of our future.”
Lohman emphasized the unique community that women’s soccer generates.
“I think what’s really cool is that we give our fans a family, a community that they feel a part of. That’s a very powerful thing. I would say a lot of our fans are from the LGBTQ community, or they’ve gone through some type of adversity, or they’ve felt ostracized at some point in their life where they didn’t fit in and finally there’s a community here, women’s soccer, where they do belong, they feel special and they feel they are a part of a growth. For me that’s so awesome to see the emotion that people have towards our game and our players and how much they really care about it.”
The Spirit sit atop the NWSL ahead of the final week of games and the team is set to host a playoff semifinal at the end of September, the first postseason home game in franchise history. For the Silver Spring native, a home semifinal carries an even greater significance.
“For the club, this is the first home playoff that we get to host in the history of the team. For all of us, it means a lot that we get to bring home this game in front of our fans. For me personally, [it means] my family, my best friends, my parents, it’s something that when I came in 2014 I dreamed about.”
Lohman also felt her return to the DC area was part of the reason she has been a better player and happier off the field.
“I think it’s really great for me to have roots, to be able to commit to things because I know I’m going to be here all year long. I think it’s really hard to develop an off-field career when you’re constantly moving. Also, I think you’re a more productive and happy individual when your life is balanced. Here in DC, for me it’s not all about soccer. I grew up here so my whole life has been here. That really helps me have great attitude because I don’t define myself by how many minutes I get on a Saturday night here at the Soccerplex or on the road. I define myself as a person as a whole, and I’m extremely happy and healthy and I have people around me who love me regardless of if I kick a soccer ball or not.”