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The Lowdown: The non-retirement decisions

Stephanie Ochs is one of three players in the NWSL to play in every minute since the start of the league in 2013. (Photo Copyright Clark Linehan for The Equalizer)

Stephanie Ochs is one of three players in the NWSL to play in every minute since the start of the league in 2013. (Photo Copyright Clark Linehan for The Equalizer)

Retirements of young NWSL players was a hot topic during the offseason.  But there is no story when a player decides to keep playing.  This week we caught up with four players who are still living the dream.

Every weekday for two NWSL seasons, Michelle Lomnicki set her alarm for 4:45 am.  That is an early wakeup call for a soccer player, but Lomnicki—who was still Michelle Wenino then—is hardly your typical soccer pro.  Our world knew her as a Chicago Red Star, but for 2013 and 2014 she also held down a full-time analyst job at Sears’ Holdings.

Lomnicki got to work at 6 a.m., worked until 9, and then made the hour drive to practice with the team.  When training ended it was back to work until 7 p.m. before heading home.  That is until she got hurt, and then it was physical therapy until 9.  Her down time was road trips, when she was able to take her work on the road and do it from her hotel room.

“They were really, really long days.  It was kind of a little overwhelming doing that for two years,” Lomnicki said.  “A big part of being on a team is the social aspect of it.  When you’re not able to go out with the team and be with the team, it’s tough.”

So Lomnicki huddled with her husband, Wes—they were married in January—and they decided they were in a financial position for her to let the analyst position go.  This season, Lomnicki is a full-time soccer player.  And even though another injury prevented her from appearing in the Red Stars’ season opener, the change is palpable without the grind of balancing a 40-hour a week, full-time job.

“Last year on a Monday, a day off, I would be at work,” she said.  “I wouldn’t be hanging out with my teammates that want to go to a movie or to the mall.”

[LAULETTA: Courtney Jones’ retirement highlights realities of NWSL salaries, lifestyles]

Lomnicki rose from a camp trialist with the WPS Red Stars in 2009 to a thousand-minute player for the NWSL side in 2014.  But at 27 years old, her career arc mirrors many who retired during the recent offseason.  In Lomnicki’s case, though, the decision to stick with soccer was easy.

“For me it’s not a year-to-year thing,” she said.  “I am definitely completely committed as long as my body tells me I can play.”

For Katy Freels, the decision is also year-to-year.  Like Lomnicki, Freels is married, only in her case her husband, Kevin, lives in Alabama while Freels spends the season in New Jersey with Sky Blue FC.  Being married makes it easier financially, but being apart makes it tough.

“That takes its toll on me personally,” she said, though Kevin visits for two-week clips and she is planning a trip home during the World Cup break.  “I also have other professional goals that I do want to accomplish at some point.  For me it’s that I love soccer so much that I don’t think I could walk away from it yet.  There are goals that I want to accomplish within soccer and I’m not there yet.”

Freels’ ultimate goal is the U.S. national team.  Actually she just wants a shot.  And she admits it was a tough time after realizing her time had passed for the current cycle.  Since then she has adjusted her attitude to focus more on what she loves and less about what is out of her control.

“I’m not playing to make the national team, I’m playing because I love the game and I get a lot of joy from the game,” she said.  “I do want to make the national team and it is my goal, but I’m trying to change my thought process with all of that so it’s not as stressful.  It would be disappointing if I didn’t get a chance when the next cycle comes up, but it’s just something that we’ll reevaluate.”

[KASSOUF: NWSL Week 2 review — surprises and standout performances]

Stephanie Ochs says she discusses it with teammates all the time.  “We’re like ‘oh I wonder what it would be like to have a normal life.’ What keeps me going is that I love it so much,” she said.  “The thought of having a similar life that is more comfortable, it sounds nice, but I know I wouldn’t be as happy giving up what I love most.  I think for a lot of us that’s what keeps us in it.”

“It’s kind of an underlying thing,” Freels said about discussion on the topic at Sky Blue.  “I’m really close with Lindsi Cutshall.  She’s kind of in the same situation I am where her husband works and she lives away from him.  The two of us talk about it, but I think we’re both just happy playing and happy having supportive husbands that allow us to play.”

Asked if there is ever pressure from home to not play, Freels said, “It’s actually a little bit of the opposite.  When I’m missing home a lot and saying I can’t do this anymore, he is very encouraging and he says, ‘No you need to do this, it’s what you love.  You’d be miserable just staying at home.’ He pushed me to continue playing when I was down and out a couple of years ago.”

That was 2013, Freels’s first season with Sky Blue and also her first year as a married woman.  “I was just kind of adjusting to my new life,” she said.  She says the hardest times are when she is in New Jersey on an off day.  But it is also getting easier.  “I’m finally figuring out how to balance being away from my husband and playing while also kind of preparing for what’s next.  I’m not in a situation where I do feel like I’m ready to quit and not play anymore.”

Ochs, who played in Australia during the NWSL offseason, says when she comes up on difficult moments, she just reminds herself what she does every day.

“There’s a lot of things that make it tough,” the Houston Dash player said.  “But whenever there is a tough moment you just bring yourself back to that fact that we do what we love for a living.  That’s the greatest thing.”

Alyssa Mautz, who has risen from being a bit player on Sky Blue in 2011 (WPS) to a player the Red Stars are looking to for big things in 2015, says minuscule salaries  — which in the NWSL are as low as $6,842 for some players — are only part of what makes being an NWSL professional difficult.

“I feel like we are not getting treated exactly like professional athletes,” said Mautz, adding that examples include parts of several different elements of playing in NWSL.

Still, Mautz says she is in it for the long haul, and would like to play as long as she can.  She has, however, seen a lot of her friends walk away from the league.

“It’s disappointing but I feel like if it’s the right decision for them, then I’m fully supportive of it.”

Said Freels:  “We’re not making a huge living out of playing soccer so at some point everyone’s going to have those kinds of conversations with themselves.”  Freels was a bit surprised when Sky Blue teammate CoCo Goodson made a late announcement not to continue her career.  “It is sad to see CoCo go.  But she’s probably happy [with] what’s best for her.  If she wasn’t 100 percent committed to it, there is no way you would ask somebody to come for another season like that.”

Michelle Lomnicki.  Katy Freels.  Stephanie Ochs.  Alyssa Mautz.  They are just four out of a large group of players who have put standard, stable lives on hold to play professional soccer.  And they all hope to one day be part of a legacy that will allow the next generation to truly play on a full-time basis.

“I would be so thankful that I would give other girls the opportunity to play soccer,” Mautz said.  “To be able to grow the game would be a really cool experience to be a part of.”

“My niece just started playing soccer,” Lomnicki said.  “And I’m like, ‘How cool would it be if she wanted to play someday that she could make a true living off of it.’

As much as we’re in the now I think the biggest thing with women’s soccer is building for the future.  It’s so much more beyond us.”

Week 2 Takeaways

— Press to the rescue:  Christen Press showed shy she is on the verge of world stardom with a pair of dynamic goals to help the Red Stars beat the Reign, 3-2.  The game-winner came in the 91st minute when she confidently ran onto a Jen Hoy pass and beat U.S. teammate Hope Solo.  Don’t discount Hoy either.  Her pass to Press for the match-winner was spot on and she scored one too on a pass from Press for her first goal since May 23.

— Three-back fires again:  The Thorns went back to their three-back formation against the Flash and eked out a 1-0 victory.  And they did it with Courtney Niemiec spelling an injured Rachel Van Hollebeke at right back.  This weekend is a trip to Chicago, an excellent counterattack team with Christen Press there to get on the end of them.  Three-back again, anyone?

— Flash regroup:  It did not take Aaran Lines long to shake things up.  The Flash, who spent the week in the Pacific Northwest, put Kristen Edmonds onto the back line for Toni Pressley with Edmonds going to right back and Brittany Taylor sliding back into central defense where she was a Best XI selection in 2013.  Lines also gave a start to 1st-round pick Lynn Williams, who flew in from Pepperdine for the first two games of the season.  Despite limited training time, Williams showed that she will be a force to be reckoned with in NWSL.  The Flash lost again, 1-0 in Portland, but looked miles better than they did in Seattle.  They have many talented rookies.  Expect them to be much better by the time summer rolls around.  They are also off this week which will give them some valuable training time together.

This Week

Seattle Reign FC at FC Kansas City (Thursday, 8 p.m. EDT) – FC Kansas City will break in their new permanent home while trying to avoid the first 0-3 start in league history.  The Reign will be looking for payback after last year’s championship.

Portland Thorns FC at Chicago Red Stars (Saturday, 8:30 p.m. EDT) – The only sides yet to drop a point will do battle in the lone Saturday match of the weekend.

Houston Dash at Boston Breakers (Sunday, 5 p.m. EDT) – The Breakers will play their first match at Soldiers Field against the Dash, who spoiled last season’s home opener with what was their first franchise win.

Washington Spirit at Sky Blue FC (Sunday, 6 p.m. EDT) – They have played seven times and the Spirit have yet to win.  Will this be the time or will Sky Blue make it eight straight without a loss dating to July 31?

Free Kicks

Direct

— I asked Stephanie Ochs if she was aware that only two other players had participated in every NWSL match since the league launched.  She had no idea.  The other two are Jen Buczkowski and Cat Whitehill.  They won’t all last.  Whitehill is scheduled to miss Breakers’ games to work the World Cup for FOX.

— Fidgi Haig, a popular soccer coach in Florida, passed away last Thursday after suffering a heart attack a few days earlier.  He was 47.  He was head coach at Florida Tech and a former high school coach.  Tributes poured in from all over Florida over the weekend.  One player Haig coached at Satellite High School was Ashlyn Harris.  “I don’t even know what to say.  It is just terrible,” Harris said in comments published at floridatoday.com.

— Nadia Nadim sat out the second half of Sky Blue’s 1-1 draw against the Dash with tightness in her groin.  She first tweaked it in training a day earlier.  Before departing though, Nadim put her fingerprints on another Sky Blue goal.  Her through ball put Kelley O’Hara in on the left side and stretched the Dash defense which allowed Katy Freels to slip unmarked into the box and finish O’Hara’s cross.

— Nadim did not get an assist on Freels’s goal, making Saturday the first time she has started for Sky Blue without scoring or recording an assist.  In all she has eight goals and three assists in eight starts plus one bench appearance, which did not yield any points.

— Press’s stoppage-time winner was the 17th time an NWSL match has seen the result changed by a goal in the 90th minute or stoppage time.  It was the first time it has happened to the Reign, who were the last NWSL club with that distinction.  Two teams—the Thorns and Dash—have never been on the right side of the late result changer.

— Looking ahead to Thursday’s Reign-Blues match, here are two things that have never happened.  No team has ever started 0-3 in the NWSL (the Blues are 0-2), and the Reign have never won in the Midwest (0-5-3 in Chicago and Kansas City combined).

Indirect

— Loved Megan Oyster’s match for the Spirit on Saturday.  She has pace to stay with almost any forward in the league and does not seem to be overplaying when defending.  She also plays the ball calmly out of the back.

— Uncharacteristically poor games last weekend for Julie Johnston and Jen Buczkowski.

— Rough rookie moment for Sophia Huerta, who abandoned the far post on Megan Rapinoe’s corner kick before realizing that’s exactly where the ball was heading.  Beverly Yanez beat Huerta back to the spot and headed it in.

— Three teams lost on Week 1.  The Flash made lineup adjustments and looked far better.  The Spirit made adjustments and beat FC Kansas City, who trotted out the same 11.

— I finally heard a partial explanation for the policies regarding the Canadian players.  The Dash started three against Sky Blue, who will not see Jonelle Filigno until after the World Cup. Sky Blue coach Jim Gabarra:  “They’re willing to come in if they’re going to play.  With Jonelle not being a starting player where I can’t guarantee her a certain number of minutes, I don’t think that makes sense all the way from Vancouver for maybe 30 minutes and then fly her back.  I don’t think that helps her preparation for the World Cup.  And even though she was with our team last year she hasn’t been with us all season.”  Gabarra said the same applies for Mexican forward Monica Ocampo, who is carrying a minor injury and will remain with Mexico.

— Oh, and those Christine Nairn goals were something else weren’t they?

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