Gina Lewandowski Says Farewell to Pro Soccer Career
Gina Lewandowski almost retired in 2019. After 12 years, including seven playing for Bayern Munich in the Frauen-Bundesliga, she was ready to hang up her boots and spend time with her family – but something else was in store for her.
“I didn’t know what my future entailed, but when Sky Blue reached out, I thought, let’s just play it out until the end of the year,” the 37-year-old defender told Nets Republic.
After a season with Sky Blue FC, Lewandowski experienced something she didn’t expect: a renewed spark and refreshed energy for the game. “I had a new sense of joy to compete, and to play here in the states, closer to home.”
This motivation kept Lewandowski with the club through the 2020 season, through the rebrand to Gotham FC, and through 2021 to the club’s first playoff appearance since 2013.
Now, after a few extra years of the beautiful game, and with the opportunity for a new adventure, Lewandowski is finally ready for retirement.
A new passion
As Lewandowski journeyed towards the end of her career, retirement crossed her mind on more than one occasion; but the timing never felt right.
“It’s been in the back of my head, I just never knew when, how, or at what point it would be – but for me, what was important was going out on my own terms,” she explained. “I never wanted an injury to end my career. I feel healthy, good, and fit. Some say, then you have to keep going, but I think when I look at my overall perspective on life and where I’m at in my career, it was the right decision at this point in my life.”
For the Bethlehem, PA native, coaching has always been a passion. She received her U.S. Soccer B coaching license earlier this year as part of a program sponsored by the NWSL. Now, Lewandowski has been presented with the opportunity to pursue her coaching career and has made the tough decision to depart Gotham FC mid-season with the team’s full support.
“Obviously when anyone steps away from a team mid-season, it’s not easy. I think when I went in and explained [this new opportunity I had], they were supportive and congratulated me on my next steps, moving on in my career,” she said. “It’s bittersweet – I will miss the team, this environment, and this club, but I’m excited for the future. [Gotham] supports me, and my teammates are very happy for me.”
Reflecting on a storied career
As Lewandowski prepares for her last few matches with Gotham FC, she has been looking back on a career filled with highs, lows, and everything in between.
“My career is not defined by one season, one game, or even [my last game] on July 2nd,” she said. “ It spanned over 15 years, and when I look back on that, I’m extremely proud. I’ve had highs and lows, and fortunately more highs than lows, which is not the case for a lot of people. I have lots of great memories.”
Lewandowski began her career in 2007. There was no domestic league in the United States. WUSA folded in 2003, and the WPS wouldn’t start competition until 2009. “I remember getting on a plane going over to Germany and saying, alright – this is where I’ll try to play professional soccer! This was my only chance because there was no league in 2007,” she said. “I took a leap of faith and tried to trust in my journey and the process to play at the highest level.”
For a month, Lewandowski trained in Frankfurt without knowing a word of German, hoping to make the first team for FFC Frankfurt. She has fond memories of those early days. “After a training session, one of the girls came up to me and gave me her training jersey,” Lewandowski recalled. “I was so proud because that was the same day I was told I made the team. I had this girl’s dirty training jersey, and for me, it was like a piece of gold! I still have it.”
It was at FFC Frankfurt that she met Ali Krieger, who now plays with her on the backline for Gotham FC. They played the next few years together and even won the treble during their first season in 2008. “That was a huge highlight of my career, right from the beginning. I don’t think I understood it or appreciated it until later on,” Lewandowski laughed. “We were two Americans, naïve, and we didn’t know a lot about European soccer – but we won it!”
As Lewandowski explained, no one’s career ever stays that high. She had her fair share of challenges. In 2011, she came back to the states to play in WPS with Western New York Flash and helped the team win a championship that season. She was excited to be back, but the league folded shortly after that season. She eventually joined Bayern Munich where she helped bring the club from sixth place to first, winning the championship in 2015 and 2016.
“It was an unbelievable experience,” Lewandowski said of her time with Bayern Munich. “I’m so proud of starting in 2007 and seeing the game grow in these 15 years – and it’s grown in all aspects, on and off the field. I’m proud to have gone through that development.”
During that time at Bayern Munich, Lewandowski received a call-up to the U.S. Women’s National Team and made an appearance in 2015. “For me, that was one of the highlights of my career to be able to reach that highest level. I was at the peak of my career – at 30! Nothing is impossible, you can continue to fight and grow at any age,” she said.
To make it through such a long career, Lewandowski relied on her guiding principles and her faith to make it through the ups and downs. As she plans to retire, she also is set to mentor athletes on the side, and help them understand their “why.”
“What I tell people is, you have to stick true to your “why,” why you do something, why you compete, why you grind it out every day, and why you play,” she explained. “When you lose that perspective when you go through hard times, you can take steps back to gain greater perspective by asking, why am I here? For me, I just really enjoy learning, growing, seeing new places, and experiencing new cultures. I’m proud of my story because I did something that not many people have been able to do.”
Sticking to her “why” helped her thrive in Germany when a domestic league was not an option for her and helped her grow and learn as a person and player, both on and off the field.
Closer to home
After over a decade in Germany, Lewandowski decided she wanted to come home to pursue her goal of playing soccer in the United States. Regardless of her soccer career, proximity to her family took on new importance. Both her father and her step-father became sick in the winter of 2018, and Lewandowski made the difficult decision to leave Bayern Munich, her home for 7 years, and take that time with her family.
A bit of luck would be on Lewandowski’s side because when the New Jersey-based club Sky Blue FC heard that the Pennsylvania native was coming home, they reached out. “I was very thankful for them being supportive and helpful during my transition,” Lewandowski said of the club. “My step-dad passed away that May, and I didn’t see him. I joined Sky Blue a week later. It was a big transition and looking back, I don’t know how I was able to do that.”
That fall, Lewandowski’s father was diagnosed with pancreatic cancer and passed away a year later after the 2020 Challenge Cup. Thankfully, he was able to see her play in the summer of 2019 at Sky Blue. “It meant so much to be able to play closer to home because those were the last games my dad saw me play,” she recalled.
Since joining the club in 2019, the organization has transformed, taking on a new moniker of Gotham FC in a successful rebrand in 2021, and moving from facilities at Rutgers University to Red Bull Arena. For Lewandowski, being part of this change has been a unique experience, and seeing the vision and commitment from management, staff, and her teammates solidified her own meaningful connection to the club.
“The past wasn’t great. They had a lot of tough times, but they saw a light at the end of the tunnel and they’re moving forward,” Lewandowski said about when she joined in 2019. “At the time, management took steps to prove that. For me, it was exciting to see that next step and growth.”
Although a lot of that growth was stymied by the pandemic, the club continued to invest in their players, raise the standards on and off the field, and make the vision a reality. Lewandowski and her teammates were bought in.
“This team is also my hometown team,” said the Pennsylvania native. “Sky Blue was around at the amateur level when I was in college, and one day I dreamed I could play there. I never thought it would happen, but 13 years later it’s come full circle!”
Better than you found it
As Lewandowski prepares for her final weeks as a professional soccer player, she believes she’s contributed to leaving the game better than it was when she started. “For me, it was about just staying invested in the game and continuing to play and fight for change,” she said. “I didn’t give up, I wanted to keep playing – even when the resources weren’t great. I’ve seen the investment and improvement over the years like better-educated coaches and sports scientists, more medical staff, and more support and funding. You can see it grow.”
On a personal level, she is happy she was able to bring her style of play, honed over many years in Europe, to the NWSL. She is extremely grateful to all the athletes she has played with and learned from over the years, and is immensely proud of the work they’ve done together to grow the game around the world.
Lewandowski is equally grateful to the fans of the game and to the Gotham FC supporters group Cloud 9 for everything they have done to support her as a player and the team as a whole.
“I want to express my gratitude and thanks for all the support over the years. So many people have followed my career since Lehigh, and it’s amazing to feel that support and share my journey with them,” she said. “It’s a passion to give back to the fans in any way I can, and it’s important to acknowledge the reason why we are here is the fans. We need them, and we’re so thankful for their support, interest, and fight to help us grow the game.”
As she looks to the future, Lewandowski hopes the next generation continues to believe in themselves, trust in the process, and continue to see improvements in support and funding for women’s soccer. “I’m excited to see the next generation come up and, especially the players from my team, to get into these roles and continue to be successful. I’ll always be a follower of the game and a supporter of Gotham FC.”
Gina Lewandowski will lace up for Gotham FC for the final time on July 2nd at Red Bull Arena. Tickets are available at GothamFC.com.