The Best American Soccer Player In Germany Is Gina Lewandowski
Bayern Munich is home to two Lewandowskis, but it's Gina who has been around the longest and is helping the women's side to a historic season.
A couple miles south of Munich's old city, in an otherwise sleepy, residential neighborhood, there's a Sky Sports television van parked among the sedans and smart cars on a tree-lined street. One gets the impression it's here often. Nearby, young families mill around by a vehicle gate until a security guard tells them they can pass. They do so with the kind of eagerness you'd expect from a family at Disneyland, half-running, full of wonder. Beyond the gate, through a small passageway, Robert Lewandowski, Philipp Lahm, and the rest of Bayern Munich men's team are about to step onto one of a half-dozen manicured fields.
Robert isn't the only Lewandowski at Bayern Munich getting ready for practice. Overlooking the fields, from a glassed-in cafeteria, Gina Lewandowski and the rest of the Bayern Munich women's team are eating lunch. Gina is one of three Americans on the team, and they train in the afternoon. The two Lewandowski's aren't related, they've actually never even met, but they obviously have a lot in common, starting with a name and an employer. Robert may be the global superstar, but Gina is a veteran of more Bundesliga seasons.
This is Gina's eighth year in Germany, making her the most experienced American pro in the top division, male or female. And she's easily the most decorated American in Germany, if not all of Europe. In 2008, with her previous team, 1. FFC Frankfurt, she won the league, domestic cup, and the Champions League, alongside American World Cup star Ali Krieger. The pair won the domestic cup again in 2011. (Gina also won the 2011 Women's Professional Soccer league title during a brief stint with the Western New York Flash.)
That Gina wound up in Germany at all was a matter of serendipity more than choice. When she graduated from Lehigh University in 2006, the United States didn't have a professional soccer league. Her aunt and uncle, who live in Hanau, Germany, a city just east of Frankfurt, helped her get a tryout with 1. FFC Frankfurt and she eventually signed with the team. "Soccer is my passion and this was the only opportunity for me to keep playing," she says.
A center midfielder in college, Gina tried out as a left back before earning a starting spot in her first season as a center defender. That season, the team won everything. Despite the success, Gina describes the transition as a difficult one: "In college I played at a big university—Division 1—but the quality wasn't as good. Here the play was a lot quicker, it was a lot more physical, there were a lot of national team players. It was a big step."
Although she settled quickly on the field, off the field, it took more time. Having family nearby and American teammates made that transition easier, but there were some awkward moments early on. "When I was playing for Frankfurt we were on the bus coming back from an away game and the coach made an announcement on the bus about training the next day, and I didn't get it, and I ended up going somewhere else while the whole team was at training the next day," she remembers with a chuckle. "Then they realized, 'Okay, we have to translate everything for you.'"
"I think with the language it took me maybe two years," she says.
While she came for the soccer, it's clear Gina places great value on the cultural experience. She occasionally blogs about the lessons she learns from being part of a multicultural team. Seated on a leather couch in the media center at Bayern's training complex, she speaks at length about the challenges of living in a foreign country and the accompanying personal growth.
"After college, I sort of just wanted to explore, you know? I was in the states for 22 years, and I just wanted to expand my horizons. I wanted to meet people and get new ideas and learn another language.
"As individuals and human beings, I think it's important we try to expand our horizons and learn about people in other countries and appreciate their cultures," she says.
That cultural exchange comes with a price. Despite her club success, Gina has yet to appear for the U.S. national team. Part of the problem, she explains, comes down to her not having taken part in the national team setup as a youth player. The women's national team behaves more like a club team than its male counterpart, and many players begin their affiliation on the youth teams. Geography, too, is a factor. Women playing in Europe tend to be off the radar.
Nevertheless, it's not a situation she seems at all bitter about. Over the last couple seasons she received several call-ups but was unable to attend national team camp either because of injuries or club commitments. Such is life.
Those injuries came in the second half of last season. She tore ligaments in her foot, recovered, and tore some more. Worse, she was one of several sidelined women at Bayern at the time, and the team slumped to a disappointing fourth.
This season, Bayern's women are off to a hot start. Like Robert Lewandowski and the men's team, Gina has helped her squad into an undefeated position at the top of the Bundesliga table. She's no longer a wide-eyed rookie but one of the team's veteran defenders. There are two younger Americans on the team now—Katie Stengel and Amber Brooks—who occasionally look to Gina for guidance. "They ask me to help translate things. 'Hey Gina, I just want to make sure I'm right.' And I try to look after them," she says.
According to Gina, the new generation of players are indicative of how the league has developed during her tenure. The physical training on the women's side has modernized. Tactically, things have become faster and more compact. The players are getting younger.
As a result, interest in the women's game has grown over recent years, as has Bayern's commitment to the women's team. The women at Bayern have a big advantage over other teams who aren't affiliated with a mens club, let alone one as wealthy and successful as Bayern. Normally, the Bayern's women train at a different site east of Munich (in the winter, they train alongside the men), but they share a stadium with Bayern's reserve team and occasionally scrimmage some of the male youth teams. (They win some and lose some, but it's a great challenge: the women might have a technique advantage, but the boys are fast.) The various coaching staffs all work out of the same offices. "We don't just get money handed to us," Gina says. "We have to work for it and earn it with our success."
So far, finding that success at Bayern hasn't been easy. Gina moved to Munich in 2012, but has yet to add anything to her trophy cabinet. That might change this season. 10 games into their campaign, the women have only conceded two league goals while scoring 21. That's about as close to perfect as you're likely to see.
Before she leaves for practice, I ask if this is the year they'll bring that success to Munich, but Gina refuses to make predictions. Instead, she smiles, leans forward and knocks on the wooden coffee table.