Thursday, December 25, 2014

Catching up with former Philadelphia Independence and Penn State midfielder Joanna Lohman

Although the collapse of Women's Professional Soccer dented the dreams of female soccer players across the country, Joanna Lohman turned that into an opportunity.

Catching up with former Philadelphia Independence and Penn State midfielder Joanna Lohman

Joanna Lohman (17) played for the Philadelphia Independence in 2010 and 2011. (Photo courtesy Joanna Lohman)
Joanna Lohman (17) played for the Philadelphia Independence in 2010 and 2011. (Photo courtesy Joanna Lohman)

During her two years with the Philadelphia Independence, Joanna Lohman quietly established a reputation as one of the team's stalwarts.

Though the former Penn State star did not have the name recognition of such stars as Amy Rodriguez and Natasha Kai, Lohman nonetheless became a fan favorite for her hard work and her local ties by way of Penn State.

Although the collapse of Women's Professional Soccer dented the dreams of female soccer players across the country, Lohman turned that into an opportunity. She joined with Independence teammate Lianne Sanderson to form the JoLi Academy, and has been traveling the world to teach young girls about the opportunities soccer can provide.

We all know that soccer is the world's most popular sport. But the game doesn't always open doors to girls and women the way it does to boys and men. And those opportunities only decrease when sexual orientation enters the conversation.

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That's been the case for Lohman and Sanderson, who became engaged to each other in June of last year. But that bond has only made their determination stronger. Lohman and Sanderson have taken their message to a wide range of countries, from Jamaica to Spain to India.

Last week, they came back to Philadelphia to spend an evening at the University of Pennsylvania. Lohman helped launch an organization called GO! Athletes. It aims to help lesbian, gay, transgender, bisexual and questioning athletes become comfortable with themselves and their sporting pursuits.

After the event, I spent a few minutes talking with Lohman about where her travels have taken her so far, and where she and Sanderson plan to go next.

Let's start by going back to late last summer. After the 2011 WPS season ended, Lohman and Sanderson headed to Spain to play for Barcelona-based club Espanyol.

If you follow the men's side of Spanish soccer, you know that Espanyol usually plays second fiddle to FC Barcelona. On the women's side, though, Espanyol has plenty of pedigree, having won three of the last four Spanish Cups. Nine Spanish national team players have played for the team, including former Independence midfielder Veronica Boquete.

Lohman told me that while she enjoyed playing in Barcelona, it was clear that women's soccer wasn't very high on the public's radar.

"It's a crazy soccer country – they're extremely passionate about the sport, but not necessarily on the women's side," Lohman said. "It's a semi-professional league, so the girls go to school or work all day and then train from 9:30 to 11:00 at night."

A side effect of the semi-professional nature of Spain's league is a wide disparity in quality between teams.

"There are four or five good teams, but the other ones – you could have a game where a team wins 10-0, and that would be somewhat normal," Lohman said.

She also had some choice words for the standard of refereeing, which also wasn't at the level you'd get in a fully professional operation.

"If you touch anyone, they fall over and it's a penalty," Lohman said. "So as a physical player and coming from the United States, where athleticism and physicality are embraced, you felt like it was hard to play, because you couldn't really tackle."

After the Spanish season ended, Lohman and Sanderson returned to the United States to sign on with D.C. United's women's team in the W-League. D.C. is one of many MLS teams - including Chicago, Seattle and Dallas – that has set up an affiliation with a team in either the W-League or WPSL.

Both leagues are semipro organizations that run short-season campaigns during the summer.

"it's not the quality of the WPS, but it's the best quality you can get in the D.C. area," Lohman said. "We were ready for a more laid-back season, because we had come off two and a half years straight of playing."

The degree of affiliation between MLS teams and those women's squads varies across markets. The Seattle Sounders built strong links with the Sounders Women, and an influx of cash brought U.S. national team stars including Alex Morgan and Hope Solo. But D.C. United's affiliation only went as far as sharing a team name.

It wasn't so long ago, all things considered, that just about everyone in the women's soccer community wanted a professional league run entirely independently of any men's league. That was especially true during the Women's United Soccer Association era from 2000 to 2003.

But professional women's soccer leagues in the United States have failed twice in relatively quick succession now. That has changed many opinions, including Lohman's.

I have written about this before, and I have had important people in the women's soccer community tell me their views on the matter. The dynamic has definitely changed, and the pace of change has accelerated since WPS went under.

I asked Lohman what she thinks has produced that change. Her answer, not surprisingly, was straightforward and eloquent:

I think [a history of] two failed leagues has made us change. The World Cup and the Olympics have so much popularity, and the U.S. [women's national] team is more popular than the men are at times. So it's easy to confuse fame and popularity on the U.S. Soccer side for a league.

It doesn't transcend. People love the national team but they don't give a crap about a league, and that's what's difficult to understand.

In order to try to make a sustainable league, we need MLS to help. It took MLS years and years to make a profit – it was difficult for the men, so you can only imagine what it will be like for the women. I don't know if MLS is in a place to use its resources on the women's side, but I hope at some point they'll be ready for that.

That said, Lohman has no need to spend time worrying excessively about when the next professional women's league will come along. She has her own life to live, and her own business efforts to work on.

Right now, she is focused on helping her fellow out athletes to become as comfortable in their pursuits as she is.

Lohman is not the only American women's soccer player who has publicly declared her sexual orientation. Nor is she the most prominent – U.S. national team stalwarts Megan Rapinoe and Lori Lindsey have more name recognition.

There are other players whose sexual orientation is known privately, but not publicly. Lohman knows some of them, and she knows that some of those athletes have lost commercial sponsorship opportunities because of their personal preferences.

It's one thing to gain the confidence of your friends and relatives when it comes to sexual orientation. It's another to win over a Madison Avenue advertising executive who has billions of dollars at stake.

Lohman is well aware of that side of the LGBTQ community's fight for wider acceptance.

"I don't disapprove of anyone not coming out or speaking about their personal life, because at the end of the day it's their personal life and no one else's business," Lohman said. "I think it's going to take a group of individuals with media power like Megan Rapinoe to come out and have endorsements still come their way... The more commonplace it becomes, then the endorsers can't ignore you any longer."

The last question I asked Lohman brought our conversation back to soccer matters. In recent weeks, former Independence coach Paul Riley has been highly touted as one of the final candidates to become the new manager of the U.S. women's national team.

Lohman is strongly in favor of Riley getting the job.

"Paul Riley is the best coach I have ever had," she said. "I think he deserves to be the U.S. national team head coach, and I think they need him – more than he needs them, to be honest."

I don't think we have heard the last of Riley, and I certainly don't think we have heard the last of Lohman. It will be worth watching where their respective travels take them in the weeks and months to come.

Jonathan Tannenwald Philly.com
About this blog
The Goalkeeper is your home for the latest news about the Philadelphia Union, Major League Soccer, U.S. national teams and the rest of the world's most popular sport. It's also a place for fans to gather and celebrate the culture of soccer and its unique place on the sports landscape.

Reach Jonathan at jtannenwald@phillynews.com or 215-854-2330.

Jonathan Tannenwald Philly.com
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