In the second half of this feature, recently-retired Chicago Red Stars defender and fan favourite Michelle Lomnicki joins the dots of her journey as she goes back behind the scenes of music, life and love in Colorado, as well as college, coaches, and living in the promised land of the pros.
The page has turned to the fourth month of the 2016 National Women’s Soccer League (NWSL) season with the Chicago Red Stars riding high among the playoff-chasing pack. Rory Dames’ team hold strong hope of being the last one standing after the final kick of the Championship game in Houston in October, with some of the nation’s standout emerging prospects continuing to make an impact for the team.
Although the current side will be the ones to determine where the season takes them, the foundations laid by certain departed players in recent years won’t be forgotten. One of the protectors in the backline and a shining representative in all she did off the field, defender Michelle Lomnicki (previously Michelle Wenino) decided her finish line had arrived ahead of this season, with the team coming off its most successful year in making the 2015 playoff semi.
Playing in the regular season finale at home to the Houston Dash, the team’s longest-tenured member supported from the bench as Chicago were defeated by FC Kansas City 3-0 in the semi-final. She watched at Toyota Park that day alongside the likes of defender Rachel Quon and goalkeeper Karina LeBlanc; two players who also chose to step away from the game after that campaign and two of the people Michelle had been through all the toil and all the memories with during recent seasons.
As explored in the first half of this interview, the site tunes into the music side of the players and celebrates the impact it can have on individuals and teams. Throughout her time as a Red Star, Michelle has definitely shared a locker room with some characters who aren’t afraid to show off a move or let their vocal ability loose, so if she was ever tasked with performing a song cover, which of those would she recruit to collaborate with?
“I feel like it would be Alyssa Mautz; not with the singing portion but just dancing in the background! We’d be the dancers and I’d probably bring in Erin (McLeod) because we might actually hit it big!
“Not that I’d want to sing Backstreet Boys or a boyband-type music, but I think it would be really fun. Ok, maybe we’ll go with…Spice Girls.”
It was Chicago that became Michelle’s soccer home and much the same away from the field, too. Although she settled in The Windy City and is now starting her young family there with husband Wes, she is still a Colorado girl at heart.
Growing up in Aurora, she went to college in her home state as she became a four-year starter on the soccer team at the University of Colorado Boulder. A walk-on at CU, she told the coaches when she visited that she wanted to go on to play pro soccer, despite the fact there was no league of that type in the U.S. at the time, with the Women’s United Soccer Association (WUSA) folding in 2003 and Women’s Professional Soccer (WPS) yet to come together.
She had been a four-sport athlete at Smoky Hill High School but actually gained more attention for basketball and cross country than soccer. During her collegiate career, one of her teammates for the Buffaloes was former Portland Thorns defender Nikki Marshall, who was a forward in those days and became the school’s all-time leader in goals.
While she and Michelle played alongside each other, CU made the NCAA tournament’s third round three seasons in a row and although she retired last year, the 2008 FIFA Under-20 World Cup winner was an interview subject on here in June 2014. Marshall recalled choosing Garth Brooks’ ‘Friends in Low Places’ as her song for a daunting initiation when she began college and Michelle similarly remembers how it wasn’t all fun and games amid the spectacular Rocky Mountain backdrop as a freshman!
“We had to sing in front of the entire football team. You’re becoming freshmen and you don’t know any of these guys and you’re trying to make a name for yourself in the athletic department, so it’s kind of embarrassing.
“We all ate dinner together because we had preseason together and you had to stand up on a chair and you either get booed off or they cheer you on. I didn’t get booed off so I guess that’s ok!
“I sang ‘Hero’ by Mariah Carey because it was the only song I actually knew.”
Michelle’s sophomore year got off to a scoring start, with a double against Alabama and another goal against Clemson inside the first three games. Of course her duties were primarily at the back and her junior year was a breakout season in which the prospect of life in the pro game was starting to become all the more real.
She led CU to ten shutouts and also made the All-Big 12 First Team and NSCAA All-Central Region Second Team for the first time. The 2008 Big 12 Conference Defensive Co-Player of the Year, Michelle more than made her mark over her four years and some of the pregame scene is still fresh in the mind today.
“We loved to play music before games and dance to stuff; we didn’t have a locker room but we’d bring our own songs and our own speakers. Our goalkeeper at the time was huge into music so she was our DJ, her name was Kirstin (Radlinski).”
Once a youth player with Colorado Storm Soccer Club, Michelle had been surrounded by the game thanks to her older brothers, Brian and Brad, and back home is also full of music memories, too.
“One of my favourite concerts I went to was with my parents in Colorado and it was Rolling Stones; that was maybe six or seven years ago and that was really cool. I’ve been to John Legend, India Arie, and Ellie Goulding we just went to recently so I bought the CD and I’m a huge fan right now.
“Justin Timberlake, Christina Aguilera, *NSYNC, Backstreet Boys – these were back in the day, middle school – Jason Aldean, Florida Georgia Line. I know so many people who’ve gone to a Dave Matthews concert and it was such a fun experience, so that’s one of the big ones I’ve still yet to go to.
“I think the biggest one I’d like to go to is anywhere in Red Rocks in Colorado.”
Red Rocks Amphitheatre was actually the place where Michelle’s husband, Wes, proposed. Pretending they were just there for a jog, he waited at the top of the steps with a ring while a friend had a camera ready to capture the moment.
That is one incredibly special reason to add to why home is always in the heart for her and of course growing up in The Centennial State was also the starting point for her route to living out her soccer love at the top level. It was through one of the coaches she had a good rapport with at her CU camps that she ended up going to work at a camp run by U.S. midfield legend and former captain, Julie Foudy.
As a kid, she had attended one of those camps led by the two-time World Cup winner and it had sparked her curiosity and desire for the game that bit further.
“Soccer’s always been a huge thing for me, I had two older brothers so ever since I can basically remember I had a soccer ball in front of my face! My brothers played all the time so I would go to all their tournaments because I was so young.
“That was kind of my upbringing with them but even in the back yard in the summer we’d play two-v-two with one of my really good friends. They’d kick our butts but it was still so fun because we just wanted to get better and we had a perfect little setup in our back yard with two small goals.
“With the (1999) World Cup, those girls we obviously looked up to, which was such a big thing for females growing up that want to play soccer, seeing that. Then I went to their camp, Mia Hamm, Julie Foudy, Tisha Venturini, and I just fell in love with it.
“Our team was the U.S. team, we went in as the U.S. so we got to hang out with them and it was a really cool experience. I was maybe eight or nine and I was like, ‘I definitely want this,’ but you know, you’re a kid, you’re like, ‘Yeah, I wanna be an astronaut, I wanna be a soccer player!’
“You don’t really know, you just think, ‘Oh that’s so cool.’ They were just such good role models and that’s one of the things I love about these girls today with the National Team – having so many aspire to be them.”
As Michelle’s high school soccer days were coming to their later stages, the Colombian-born former defender Rafael Amaya, whose career had seen him play in Major League Soccer in the 90s, made a very important contribution to her young career. She had played with and against his daughter growing up and he was a coach and teacher who helped steer many young players on the right path.
Michelle would certainly have other notable influences, starting at pro level with the current Chelsea Ladies manager, Emma Hayes, who was recently awarded an MBE back home in England in the Queen’s 90th Birthday Honours. During her time coaching the WPS Red Stars, she was assisted by a coach now at Washington Spirit who was once described on here by Sweden’s Nilla Fischer as her best ever defensive teammate.
Paying tribute to them both, Michelle details just how much that season as a rookie moved her onwards from a mental and tactical point of view, priming her for the road ahead.
“I think with Emma, and with Denise Reddy – she was the defensive side of things so I worked with her a lot – I knew coming into it where my place was, I knew I was there to learn. I was young but I was very inexperienced as far as national and international experience compared to every other girl on my team, so for me it was really nice to learn.
“I learned so much that year; I learned what it was to be a professional, first and foremost, because not playing a lot that first year, a lot of my role on the team was being present and being at the games with the fans and just really understanding that side of the game, too. Just throughout the year I learned so much as a player because just coming out of college pretty inexperienced in the back four I had a lot of learning to do in that sense.
“I loved Emma; I think she was a big influence for me and was one of those that really helped my career in another sense, too, making a few phone calls for me. She’s just one of those who really tries to push players that she believes in and wants to go places and I love that.
“She’s done an unbelievable job at Chelsea and it’s fun to watch that because she has a special place for me just giving me that experience that first year and giving me a chance. I came in as a try-out player and was able to make the team so I’m just so grateful that I had that opportunity.”
In May 2009, Michelle got her first WPS playing time against Saint Louis Athletica at Toyota Park, putting in a performance full of desire and commitment at the back. As valuable as her developmental role had been that season, she needed more opportunity to demonstrate what she could do, and her next destination eventually yielded that.
Heading to the Frauen-Bundesliga, SC Freiburg was the team and she remembers how it was a leap of faith that opened the door to the European memories she now holds.
“It was an unbelievable experience. I’d been overseas, I’d been to Germany before and fell in love with it when I was really young, so I just remembered everything good about Germany.
“When I got the chance to go play, Emma had actually reached out to somebody and just kind of stumbled upon it. They were like, ‘Hey, do you wanna sign? You have to be here in two weeks.’
“I was like, ‘Ok…let’s do this!’ I made a pretty quick decision to go but I’m so glad I did because I always wanted to play overseas and it was perfect timing; I was still young…not that I’m not young now!
“I was still at the beginning of my career and just learning and trying to get new experiences and travelling, meeting new people. It was definitely tough at times being away from family and being in a different place with the language; that was tough on me for a little bit but it wasn’t like a barrier.
“The experience playing-wise, I didn’t play a whole lot at the beginning but then I did towards the end, because I only went for half a season because the team was on the verge of relegation. Myself, Mele French and Kelly Parker all got picked up to go over there, so I loved it, it was just so different.
“My family came to visit and the whole new culture was just a surreal experience. I would have definitely gone overseas again but it’s just a hard decision because you’re thinking of your career.
“At the time there wasn’t the NWSL, but when I stayed for the WPSL Elite year with the Red Stars that was kind of a big decision. You’re thinking, ‘Oh I can be home, I can work a little bit and hopefully this turns into something here.’”
When Michelle returned back over the Atlantic there was talk of re-joining Chicago, although she felt the players on the team had worked hard to be there, while Emma Hayes also wanted her to continue playing regularly. With the thought of possibly linking back up with the Red Stars later on, she went to California to represent Pali Blues in the W-League.
Hayes left Chicago during the season and Michelle’s WPS return was on the East Coast instead, with Sky Blue in New Jersey. Her path would take her back to Chicagoland, albeit in rather different circumstances to the ones she had perhaps envisaged.
The May 2012 news that WPS had folded after that year’s season had initially been cancelled in January left so many people’s plans in disarray. For Michelle, Twitter proved just the platform as Red Stars owner Arnim Whisler responded to her tweet about looking for somewhere to play and put her in touch with Red Stars head coach Rory Dames.
A Chicago native with now two decades spent developing players in the local area, Dames had led the Red Stars in the WPSL in 2011 as they were runners-up in the Championship game with the Orange County Waves. With WPS ceasing to be, the WPSL Elite came together for 2012, comprising the Red Stars and fellow former WPS and future NWSL teams, Boston Breakers and Western New York Flash, as well as five others largely from the WPSL.
Dames would be Michelle’s coach for the next four seasons, praising her as ‘an exceptional teammate’ when her retirement was announced this year, and she describes how their connection was built on mutual respect and understanding.
“I had a really good relationship with Rory because we had the same goal; like soccer is so important and we want it to go somewhere and it’s more than just about us, it’s about making something that can last forever. He was one of those coaches where we just had that same mentality and we know what we want for this league and we hope that it can last for a long time.”
In the WPSL Elite year, many players got jobs on the side while they competed in the league and Chicago’s roster featured a number of what became its NWSL squad, including Alyssa Mautz, Lori Chalupny, Vanessa DiBernardo, Julianne Sitch and Jackie Santacaterina. Coming 4th in the regular season, the Red Stars faced first-placed Boston in the semi-final at Sahlen’s Stadium, with both sides already defeating each other 1-0 during the campaign.
When it came down to the semi, Chicago came through 3-1, with Chalupny, Ella Masar and top scorer Lauren Fowlkes scoring against a Breakers team featuring future Red Star Taryn Hemmings. Three days later at the same venue, it was Western New York standing in their way of the Championship and nothing could separate them during the game as Ashleigh Ellenwood put Chicago in front, only for Toni Pressley to level in stoppage time at the end.
It came down to penalties, with the Flash’s McCall Zerboni failing to score and Michelle and Julianne Sitch unsuccessful for the Red Stars, meaning Western New York triumphed. That experience for Michelle as a young player was gut-wrenching but it drove her on to want to bring success for her team even more.
The season had nevertheless captured the best kind of energy for Michelle and her teammates and she believes it was just the tonic ahead of the NWSL’s dawn.
“The WPSL Elite year just brought it back to why we do it; playing for the love of the game, there’s no pressure. It just took the stress away and the girls were unbelievable.
“You go through so many emotions; you’re playing in the pro league and then the league folds and you have nowhere to go and you don’t really know what to do. Luckily I was in Chicago, so that was a blessing, but you go through this situation where you’re playing at such an elite level and you’re just kind of scared what’s going to happen with your career.
“We had so much fun and a lot of those girls went on to the NWSL the first year as well. If I could go back to one game it’d be the Final to redo it because I feel like we had it!
“We really wanted to win a championship at some point and I’m hoping the girls do this year because I think it would be a really good thing for the club. Going back to that WPSL year, it was just a special time and the competition was really good.
“Obviously you had some teams that were better than others but it was really cool, especially when you think of Boston. They had a really good team and when we beat them in the semis that was kind of a big thing for us because I felt like we had a little bit of a rivalry!
“It was different that year because soccer’s your job and you’ve got to perform, but with the Elite year it was just more about being goofy and having fun. Sometimes you go through phases where you’re stressed and like, ‘Why do I do this?’ but I think that brought it back to the basics and we all fell in love with the game again.”
With Michelle’s previous full-time analyst job outside of playing, road trips with the team to take on their NWSL competitors were actually a chance for her to have some respite from her punishing schedule, though she would also do work from her hotel room. She explains how it would be a benefit of sorts to not overthink the game, but also a full-scale commitment and then some.
“At first it was really hard just trying to manage a schedule. I worked over at Sears Holdings but my managers were unbelievable and they understood.
“I got into work at six every day, left at nine for practice from ten to one, and then I’d go back to work from two to seven. I did that every day but I think the hardest part was that I had two full days off total in six months.
“It was tough in that sense but I always like being busy, that’s the kind of person I am. I just think mentally it kind of gets to you after a while.
“For the soccer side mentally, I feel like I stayed pretty sharp because when you play soccer and you go home you think about the training or you think about the game all the time, and I never had time to think about that stuff as much. I was able to just set it aside and be like, ‘Ok, I gotta work.’
“On the road, I’d be working so I wouldn’t think about the game or get nervous, but I think it drained my body because I really didn’t get the full recovery that I needed, just laying down and being able to unwind and your brain to just shut down. I think that really got to me by the second year of doing that and by the end of it I was just kind of drained.
“It was a six-month season so I did that for six months and then I worked full-time after. The training was tough to figure out because off-season I couldn’t justify getting time off to go train with a team that wasn’t my team and those kinds of things.”
No matter your position on the field, there are certain goals you score that just stay in the memory. Michelle grabbed her only WPS goal in July 2011 as Sky Blue came back for a 2-2 draw against magicJack at Yurcak Field, celebrating her strike with former Finland star Laura Kalmari before the rest joined her in a huddle.
When it came to the NWSL, she got on the scoresheet in a 3-1 loss at Seattle Reign in June 2013 but the other two she scored in the league were rather more memorable and satisfying. It was May 2014 and the Red Stars headed to the East Coast for a double-header with the Boston Breakers. The first of the back-to-back clashes at Harvard Stadium was on a Thursday evening and with Chicago captain Lori Chalupny cancelling out Courtney Jones’ opener, Michelle put the visitors ahead in the 52nd minute. Following in to score after hitting the bar with a header, her goal allowed Jen Hoy to seal a 3-1 win 15 minutes later.
On the Sunday night, Michelle was the first to strike as the ball bounced around the Breakers’ six-yard box in the 23rd minute before she applied the telling touch. Heather O’Reilly squared it up from the penalty spot but Chicago had too much on the night again, striking through Jen Hoy and Lori Chalupny – just like in the first game – before Zakiya Bywaters raced from her own half to seal a 4-1 success in the closing minutes.
With her two goals to go with six points for the team, that stay over in Massachusetts would be hard to forget for Michelle, especially as it perhaps somewhat surprisingly included a first call into a post-game press conference.
“I actually remember most of those two games. I think the most memorable part was just going in and winning; we did a really good job as a team and just seemed so connected at the time.
“I remember a lot of it; not so much me scoring but going into my first post-game interview, I was a little nervous but excited. There’s some games you remember more than others and obviously the ones you score in, because I don’t score a lot!
“That was a really fun trip because there’s not a lot of times you can come home from a long road trip where your coach is just beaming! Everyone was happy and I miss those kinds of road trips.”
On top of the gruelling routine she described, Michelle would also have a couple of hours’ physical therapy to add to the end of her day on the occasions she was injured. She now enjoys having her weekends where she is free to do what she wants, which surely everyone will agree she deserves.
While the happy times spent with teammates aren’t easy to relinquish, there is one aspect at least she isn’t so disappointed to leave behind.
“90-minute games in humidity and the heat – I don’t miss it! I miss playing obviously but that’s the side I was ready to be done with!”
Although Michelle may not be putting in tackles, winning headers and nicking the odd goal now, it is pretty safe to assume she will never stray far from the game. Husband Wes Lomnicki has been a college coach for a number of years and there is a strong soccer link to how the Elmhurst native and Michelle first met.
EJ Sesselmann, the younger brother of Canada defender Lauren Sesselmann, was a goalkeeper and teammate of Wes back at the University of Wisconsin-Whitewater and he introduced him to his housemate, who was none other than Michelle. Now married with their first child on the way, the Lomnickis are both involved with Chicago Empire FC, an elite youth soccer organisation set up this year.
While Michelle admits she never really saw herself coaching, back in college her team’s assistant coach helped her get try-outs and she wants to help connect players with opportunities in a similar way as part of her role with the club.
“So Wes started the club and he is the Director of Coaching. He got together with three other buddies and they’ve been working really hard at it, it’s been really fun and they’ve had a really good turnout.
“I’m the Female Technical Performance Consultant so I’ll be there and I’ll be involved and go out and coach some trainings and help with the college recruiting process for any of the girls. I know a lot of coaches in women’s soccer so I’ll be helping any way I can.
“I think it’s important to stay involved in the game as much as I can, especially as I have the outlet to do so with my husband being a coach.”
At the heart of it for so long, Michelle always did more than her share in promoting her team and teammates online and in the community, but what if it was her younger self she was able to go back and help guide with the knowledge she now has?
“I would just say enjoy it because it goes by so fast. It’s unbelievable how fast it goes by.
“I don’t feel like I’m as old as I am; I feel like I’m that 21-year-old girl coming out of college and just playing my first career pro game. My advice would be not to stress about the small things and ‘I should have done this in that game’ – just play.”
This was the concluding second part to the interview, and in some senses at least, maybe a new half of play is now just beginning for Michelle. Motherhood awaits her and there will be a whole bunch of teammates and friends who can’t wait to welcome the first addition to the Lomnickis’ young family.
Michelle gave her time, her energy and her heart to the game and there is no doubt that women’s soccer is all the better for having had her around. For what she did and how she did it, she deserves the ultimate credit and those who were lucky enough to have her on their side will always remember the example she set.
We may have to wait a little while to see her take to the field once again, but rest assured it could never truly be goodbye. For now, all that’s required is an imagination as she takes a starting place in a team of her own.
In recent years on here, the players have been asked to put themselves into a small-sided fantasy line-up and to think of the four teammates from any time in their career they would pick to be alongside them. The reasons for the choices are totally down to the player and as there are so many deserving teammates who can’t be selected, it is always safe to assume there would be a pretty full bench!
Here is that final sample of the ones who made their mark, with Michelle handing the captain’s armband to her midfielder and friend.
“It’s a good question and I had to put a little bit of thought into it. For goalie, Caroline Jönsson – game time, she was on and she was one of the most intense people and always had your back.
“Off the field, she was probably the nicest person you’ve ever met in the entire world. She was so sweet and always cared about what was going on with you.
“She was like a mom to me on the team and I look up to her a lot. My defender, I would probably say Taryn Hemmings – she was very tenacious and always worked so hard, never gave up and just kept going and going.
“I was close with her and we’re both Colorado girls! I’m really excited for her and those girls with Sweat Cosmetics; having soccer girls start their business is really cool.
“I played against Taryn in college when she was a forward so I got to mark her every game; she played at DU (Denver University) and I played at CU. We were rivals but we always respected each other and when we finally got to play with each other it was kind of cool.
“Midfield-wise, I have to go with Lori (Chalupny) – we’re really good friends and she’s one of those players that works so hard. If she ever had an off game, which was pretty rare, she would still work so hard to get the ball back and you knew she had your back on the field.
“Nobody on our team ever doubted what she was doing, she was always a leader on the field and she just had that mentality. When you have a player next to you on the field who you know is going to go into every single tackle as hard as they possibly can it makes you want to do the same thing.
“I definitely think she didn’t get the credit she deserved because people don’t see all the extra stuff she does on the field, like her technique and her foot skills. For forward, I know she’s kind of a midfielder, but, Megan Rapinoe – she was a pretty big mentor to me in my first season.
“She was one of those people I looked at who just knew what she wanted in life. She knew who she was and I’m like a lost kid coming out of Colorado, never been to Chicago and I’m like, ‘I don’t know what I’m doing here!’
“For me, she was awesome and always dancing, always laughing. There were a couple trips where she’d bring her guitar and play in one of the rooms and we’d just sit there and hang out – I guess she’s another one I’d have in my band!
“I definitely have a lot of subs for this team from the Red Stars!”
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