Below is a list of Americans who’ve played in two European Champions League Finals:
That’s it. That’s the list. Lewandowski, who hails from Coopersburg, PA, won Europe’s top trophy in 2008 with FFC Frankfurt, playing every minute of a two-leg 4-3 victory over Swedish side Umeå. In 2012, she played every minute again as Frankfurt fell short in the final, losing to Lyon 2-0.
In July 2022, Lewandowski said goodbye to her distinguished pro career and returned home to become an assistant coach for the women’s soccer program at Lehigh University, where as a midfielder, she was named the Patriot League Rookie of the Year in 2003 and Offensive Player of the Year in 2004 and 2005. She still ranks second in program history with 36 career goals and 80 points and first with 15 game-winning goals. After departing Bethlehem, Lewandowski made her mark on the European soccer landscape when she arrived in Frankfurt, teaming with fellow American Ali Krieger on the backline, a position she remained in throughout her 15-year pro career.
It’s been Lewandowski’s unique involvement in the game which led her to recently join Boston University’s Head Impact & Trauma Surveillance Study (HITSS) as an Ambassador, the region’s only representative among prominent soccer figures Brandi Chastain, Bruce Murray, Shannon MacMillan, Taylor Twellman, and Yael Averbuch West, to name a few. Lewandowski featured in
a panel during January’s United Soccer Coaches Convention in Philadelphia where she spoke about her playing career and her role in the HITSS study alongside Murray and Dr. Robert Stern, Co-Founder and Director of Clinical Research at Boston University’s CTE Center. The HITSS study will be the first of its kind to focus on American soccer players over the age of
forty, especially women soccer players, in identifying long-term effects of repetitive head impacts.
“There’s this fight for equality with men’s and women’s sports,” Lewandowski said in a recent interview with Philadelphia Soccer Now when asked about her interest in the study. “There’s been a lack of data in particularly with female sports and all levels of injuries from head to toe, and by pushing this and being a part of it I can hopefully be a voice and use my platform to inspire others to create awareness and get more involved in the initiative. But also raise awareness that this is a real thing and these are potential side effects that could affect us in the future with this head trauma and impacts study.”
Though Lewandowski is not yet old enough to participate in the study, she has a personal investment in the results. Her biology degree from Lehigh fostered a passion for science and sports performance, so when adding her fifteen-plus years at the youth level and another fifteen as a professional, quantifying the number of head impacts in her career could be a cause for concern.
“Defending was my position, and one of my skills sets was going up for free kicks and just being the presence on the field.”
At the convention, as well as during a recent interview with PSN, Dr. Stern detailed the findings from a Scottish study, which investigated the death certificates of professional soccer players. That study concluded that after the age of 70, the soccer players had “tremendously high” risk for dying from neurodegenerative disease as well as having more prescriptions in their medical records for dementia-types of communications. In addition, players with over 15 years at the pro level had a greater risk and defenders had the greatest risk.
“I don’t remember ever having a severe concussion,” Lewandowski said when asked about any fears from her longevity, “but it was interesting for me to think what could potentially happen in the future after playing thirty years of soccer and continuously heading the ball in my position.”
Lewandowski also shared that her father, who passed away in 2020, had onset dementia in his later years, so when she spoke with Dr. Stern about her career, family connections, and the potential for developing neurodegenerative disease, the BU professor and researcher shared the recent data, which included another study on the short-term effects of heading that found changes in the brain’s function after a single season. And while the research on soccer players has only materialized within the past few years, and all of them using male subjects, she was moved by the stories of her colleague Murray, whose life has its obstacles, potentially as a result of his extended playing career.
“I met him in person,” she said, “and he was sharing open and honest about the struggles and side effects, and actually meeting somebody whose wife is there and whose family was firsthand sharing what it has done to their life, to their marriage, their everyday living, it’s definitely opened up the reality because I think a lot of us are like, oh, it’s not going to affect me.”
As a player, sports scientist, and coach, Lewandowski prioritizes the safety of the game for younger players. “It’s good for future generations of soccer players, even parents to understand the risks that could potentially be involved when they put their child into sports. And also for coaches to limit the impact of the head trauma or the head impacts in training, maybe decreasing the amount of heading in practice.”
Lewandowski still remembers specific heading-heavy training sessions from her past and considers the long-term effects now that’s she the one preparing those sessions.
“When I was in Germany, we actually spent a day or two working on heading. Nothing like where the ball is driven at your head, but little jumps, heading the ball, and you don’t know, and the more information you know, then we as coaches can limit the impact to the head and train a little bit differently, or the style of play, maybe it will change because we want to protect our soccer players in the future. “
After graduating from Lehigh in 2007, the four-time First Team All-Patriot League honoree entered the next phase of her career during a period when no American women’s pro league existed. WUSA lasted from 2001-02 and the WPSL from 2009-11. Lewandowski traveled to Germany and signed with Frankfurt. In her first season, Frankfurt won the treble, (Bundesliga, German Cup, and European Cup), arguably the most distinguished season of any American player (along w/ Krieger). She won the German Cup again in 2011, the same season Frankfurt lost in the European final. Then after making 97 appearances at Frankfurt, she returned to the U.S. to play with Western New York Flash in the Women’s Professional Soccer League. But due to the league’s instability, Lewandowski went back to Germany for another season at Frankfurt, this time falling to Bayern Munich in the 2012 German Cup Final. The next season, she signed with Munich, where she made 119 appearances and scored 18 goals, leading the Bavarian club to the Bundesliga title in 2015 and 2016. At Munich, she also played in the Champions League in each of her last four seasons, reaching the semifinals in 2018-19.
— FC Bayern Frauen (@FCBfrauen) April 13, 2022
Lewandowski still makes appearances for Bayern Munich in the U.S. Last July, she sat on a panel with former athletes in Reds Against Racism at the National Museum of African American History and Culture, discussing the eradication of hate in sports.
— 🇺🇸 FC Bayern US 🇨🇦 (@FCBayernUS) July 25, 2022
And though she took steps toward a career in coaching, she still felt determined to continue playing. “When you go through your career as a professional athlete, you don’t really look too far ahead. You definitely have these passions and these goals throughout your career of what would I do when I retire, when I quit?” While still in Germany, Lewandowski started her coaching education, earning her UEFA B. Then when she returned to the U.S., she completed her USSF B with the support of the NWSL.
“I knew coaching was definitely in my future. I didn’t know exactly what role, what level, what age, male, female, but I knew coaching was something I’ve always loved to do, is one of my passions, especially when I was younger, high school to college, giving back to the community, doing local soccer camps around here and clinics, college clinics as well, so I knew I wanted to
get into it.”
In 2019, Lewandowski came back to the states to sign with Gotham FC (then Sky Blue FC), a little over an hour from her home. For the next three and half seasons, including the Covid-shortened seasons, she was a mainstay on defense. In October 2021, she played in Gotham’s game against the Washington Spirit at Subaru Park, and though it was Carli Lloyd’s final appearance in the Philadelphia area, the game ended up being hers as well.
“It was an awesome opportunity to have a lot of friends and family come down to the game, which is a lot closer than Jersey, and just be in front of that crowd in that stadium. It’s an awesome experience as a player to feel love and support from the fans.”
Lewandowski played 90 minutes in the 0-0 draw in front of nearly 10,000 fans, which has since sparked rumblings of a pro women’s soccer team returning to the area.
“Obviously you have to focus more because you have all that noise around you, but it’s great for the women’s game and the support from the fans to see and feel, and it’s to grow the game and grow awareness of women’s sports and that we’re here to stay.”
But as Lewandowski’s playing career extended into her mid-thirties, she began to sense a change. “I think the last year or so I just started to mentally shift in my passions and my drive.” She appeared four times in her final season, but with ownership, management, and coaching changes, the club appeared headed toward a rebuild. “The body was feeling good still, I mean obviously not like a 18 or 19, 20 year old anymore, but I think my passion started to change, and I could feel that internally and my drive and motivation to seek new challenges and opportunities.”
The timing and mental shift opened the door for Lewandowski to make a switch. In early 2022, Lauren Calabrese, her friend and teammate at Lehigh, took over the school’s soccer program after six years as an assistant. Calabrese’s 8 assists in 2003 ranks fourth in program history while her 13 career assists ranks fifth. In 2005, with Lewandowski and Calabrese in the midfield,
Lehigh went 14-2-2 and won the Patriot League regular season.
“We went to school together,” Lewandowski said, “grew up together playing soccer, and we always had a connection through the game and just grew our relationship. We would talk all the time about soccer and the college landscape, the pro landscape, and exchanged ideas and thoughts, and we always thought about coaching together. So she pitched the idea to me back in 2022, and something always in the back of my mind, knowing I’d have to opportunity to be back in Lehigh.”
As the Gotham season began, the veteran defender had the opportunity to say goodbye on her terms, a rare opportunity for a professional athlete. Gotham honored her with a pregame ceremony and handed her the captain’s armband in her final game. “Reflecting early that spring last year, where I was at in my life, my career, I was kind of content with everything I achieved
in my career overseas, doing what I did and coming back and four years that I was able to play. I knew I was ready.”
— National Women’s Soccer League (@NWSL) July 3, 2022
It was an honor to celebrate @gll088 and her 15 year career last Saturday.
We’re excited to put signed memorabilia from Gina’s last professional match on auction to raise funds for the charity of her choice, @lustgartenfdn 💜
— NJ/NY Gotham FC (@GothamFC) July 5, 2022
Lewandowski spent the first six months at Lehigh as Assistant Soccer Coach and Sports Performance Coach but has since been promoted to Associate Coach, which means she’s exclusively with the team. “For me, it was validation of how I’ve added to the program, personally dive into one role, immerse myself into one program and be the best that I could as
a soccer coach.”
The role of coach inspired a new skillset for Lewandowski, but given her experience around the game, her personable demeanor, and her qualities as a leader, the college setting provided a smooth transition despite the obvious differences.
“As a player you’re solely focused on yourself. You tailor your day according to training, to games and yes, it’s a team sport and you do film and you do team work, but at the end of the day, as a professional, you’re really focused on yourself, making sure you’re ready to perform and be that team player. A lot of skills, discipline, hard work, perseverance, professionalism, like that all translates to the coaching world, but I think as a coach, you have more people you have to look after, manage, take care of, and your role shifts. So you’re also a coach with different hats, different roles at the college level. They’re not just professional athletes at college.
They’re student athletes. So how do you mentor them, help them grow and learn and develop them to be human beings and adults for after college? But also, how do you combine athletics and the academics together? To help them manage their everyday life?”
Lewandowski believes her most valuable asset is how to fit everything into a twenty-four-hour day. “I think I’ve learned a lot through my career about managing my time, utilize my time the best I can as far as nutrition, recovery, prehab, rehab, stretching, and I’ve really been able to help them manage their time a little bit better, just give them different perspectives and tools to grow individually but also as a team both on the field and off the field.”
Lewandowski’s coaching perspective has been influenced heavily by the amount of time she spent in Europe. While most players have made forays across the Atlantic, she spent the better part of twelve years in a European system, witnessing firsthand as the women’s game grew by leaps and bounds. And while the women’s U.S. system still largely funnels through the college game, she’s experienced enough of the contrasts in the game’s growth on both continents.
“I went over in 2007. For me it was a big jump from the college level to the pro level. Over there, there’s a lot of players who are younger, who can start playing at 16 at a pro level. A lot of them do online classes. They don’t really go to university, but they do online so they can actually pursue a professional career and then be students alongside that. Whereas here in the college system, they are student athletes, so they’re managing, they’re in school most of the day and then they’re practicing in the afternoon or evening.”
Even though the core philosophies of youth development may be the same in both cultures, the means for achieving those goals still vary at the pro level.
“The level of play was a lot quicker, a lot faster, more technical. The tactical component was more of a focus when I got to Germany. You had a lot less time and space on the ball, so you really had to think ahead and take one touch, two touch since the speed of play is a lot higher, a lot more technical than I was used to. And I think that’s overall indicative of the entire European style. The tactical component was really emphasized in Germany whereas in the American system, Americans are at heart born pure athletes. Athleticism has trumped a lot of our other abilities throughout the last decades.”
And while the U.S. has relied on its athleticism, the European teams have become more tactically adroit, which has closed the gap in recent international competitions. In 2019, the U.S. won the World Cup despite being largely outplayed in the knockout rounds, pulling out a late 1-0 win over Spain in the round of 16 and a gritty 2-0 win over hosts France in the semifinals before topping England 2-1 in the semifinals and the Netherlands 2-0 in the final. In the 2020 (2021) Olympics, the U.S. lost the opener to Sweden 3-0 before trouncing New Zealand 6-1 and drawing with Australia 0-0. The U.S. then beat the Netherlands in PKs in the quarterfinals before falling to Canada 1-0 in the semifinals.
“Now you see Europeans are becoming more athletic, more aggressive, not only technically sound and tactically sound, but their ability to compete and be physical, and their speed is definitely increasing, so you see more European teams competing. But you also see on the U.S. side, they’re realizing that they just can’t beat teams through pure athleticism. They have to figure out ways to be strategic, possess the ball, build up, draw teams out, and I think you see both sides really progressing.”
As a player on two continents, Lewandowski hopes her dual Euro-American philosophy will be an asset in the college game. “At Lehigh, she [Calabrese] also aligns with my perspectives. We really do like to build out and be a possession-based team that really draws teams out. And obviously, the pressing, the defensive component. They’re learning how to press teams defensively because they’re athletic, they’re as quick and putting teams under pressure, but how can we stay composed, still possess out of the back and be calm, but also how can we read the game and ask questions of the other team and play behind?”
Lehigh went 8-7-2 last season and 5-2-2 in the Patriot League but lost to Army in the conference semifinal. Sophomore Corinne Lyght was named Patriot League’s Offensive Player of the Year, the first Lehigh player to win the award since her coach. This past September, Lewandowski was honored as one of 54 Patriot League Trailblazers of Distinction, celebrating the 50th anniversary of Title IX.
Lehigh’s five Patriot League trailblazers of distinction:
What a cool moment to honor them at halftime. pic.twitter.com/vttE3OVOmA
— Brown & White Sports (@SportsBW) February 4, 2023
For one of our region’s most accomplished soccer players, home has provided a familiar footing after many years pursuing a professional playing career. As Lewandowski adjusts to her new life as coach, mentor, and ambassador, she’s enjoying the moment without looking too far ahead, even if that means a return to the professional level in some capacity. “I really enjoy the college landscape because you’re doing a lot more mentoring. They’re very impressionable at this age, and I really enjoy the personalities. But definitely, the pro level would be something I’d be interested in down the line, not any time soon. It’s important to be where I’m at and build experience, slowly understand, taking on the role of the coach.”