Fifth-year Red Star Aiming for title after PK miss in 2012 WPSL Elite final
By Gunnar Berndt
Chicago, Ill. – With the Chicago Red Stars having secured a berth in the National Women’s Soccer League (NWSL) playoffs for the first time, few are looking ahead to the knockout stages with as much anticipation as Michelle Lomnicki. While the defender’s history with the club dates back longer than any other current Chicago player’s, Lomnicki also holds the most painful memories of the 2012 WPSL Elite season, as she missed a penalty kick in the dramatic shootout that saw the Red Stars fall to Western New York in the championship match.
The Colorado native, to whom Head Coach Rory Dames refers as “a very good person and a great professional,” recently reflected on half a decade spent with the Red Stars and shared her thoughts on what it would mean to bring the NWSL trophy home to Chicagoland.
The club’s current roster features four remaining players from the 2012 Women’s Premier Soccer League Elite (WPSL Elite) campaign. Only one of them, Vanessa DiBernardo, was with the club during the 2011 season in the Women’s Premier Soccer League (WPSL), to which Chicago had switched from the nation’s top flight, Women’s Professional Soccer (WPS), amidst financial difficulties. While Lomnicki was with WPS outfit Sky Blue FC in 2011, she first set foot on the Red Stars training pitch well before DiBernardo.
Fresh out of the University of Colorado Boulder, Lomnicki initially signed with then-WPS outfit Chicago in 2009. However, a rookie in one of the top competitions in the world, she struggled for playing time and decided to lace up for Germany’s SC Freiburg and American lower-league side Pali Blues the following year. After returning to WPS via Sky Blue FC in 2011, the former four-sport high school athlete became one of the many players who fell victim to the league’s collapse and subsequently opted to join the Red Stars and ply her trade without pay in the 2012 WPSL Elite.
“When we found out WPS was folding, there was very little time left to sign with teams overseas,” remembered Lomnicki. “That was pretty stressful because I knew I wasn’t ready to stop playing. I was really looking for any opportunity to play and was very lucky with how everything worked out. I reached out on Twitter to see if anybody had any suggestions, and then (team owner) Arnim (Whisler) got in touch with me. So it very quickly turned from near-panic into excitement. I was just so glad I had somewhere to play.”
The model athlete, who is most frequently seen in the center back or right back positions, took the field alongside current Chicago aces DiBernardo, Lori Chalupny and Alyssa Mautz in 2012. Despite the challenge of making a living, Lomnicki has fond memories of that campaign.
“Most of us didn’t necessarily care so much about the money,” she recalled. “Obviously you need money to survive, but ultimately we wanted to do whatever it took to make sure we could play soccer. For example, a lot of players got a job or two on the side to help them get by. It was actually a really good year. We still always talk about the Elite year and how much fun it was because it wasn’t about money or anything else but soccer.”
Lomnicki and company came within inches of ending a great season in perfect fashion, as the Red Stars defeated fellow former WPS side Boston Breakers 3-1 in the semifinals of the playoffs and held a 1-0 lead in the final against another ex-WPS outfit, Western New York Flash. However, the Flash delivered a crushing blow in the form of Toni Pressley’s equalizer in second-half stoppage time and went on to cause more Chicago heartbreak by emerging victorious, 5-3, from a dramatic penalty kick shootout.
Lomnicki was one of two Red Stars players who failed to convert from the spot, as she smashed her attempt off the left upright for an agonizing miss.
“That moment is a big part of what has kept me going every day,” offered the now 28-year-old. “It was fun to be in the final and we came so close, but then so many things didn’t go our way in that game. Obviously missing a PK was really tough on me, especially given that I was still a pretty young player. But it was also an eye-opening moment in terms of how bad I wanted to win a championship and how hard I was willing to work for it. Ever since then, winning a championship has been my ultimate goal. Everything I do is to help the team get there.”
With WPS’ predecessor, the NWSL, being in its third season, veteran Lomnicki is excited about the prospects of the game in North America. The defender has seen the progression in the level of play firsthand, with the Red Stars having added standout internationals such as U.S. ace Christen Press, New Zealand captain Abby Erceg and Canada forward Melissa Tancredi in a span of less than two years, as well as rookie sensations Danielle Colaprico, Sofia Huerta and Arin Gilliland in 2015 alone.
With the NWSL looking to avoid WPS’ fate through a more cautious financial approach, many are optimistic about the league’s long-term stability and success, especially given its backing by the U.S. Soccer Federation.
“Top level women’s soccer in our country has come a long way,” said Lomnicki in concluding her remarks. “It’s great to see some of the stars who are joining from overseas as well as some of the talent that has come out of the draft. With the competiveness increasing every year, it looks like things were set up the right way this time. And the World Cup has shown just how much potential there is for our sport. Now I’m really looking forward to the next big step – NWSL expansion. I hope they will add teams who are serious about helping the league grow. After all, that’s the goal we all share in common.”
The Chicago Red Stars look to secure home field advantage in the postseason when they host superstar Carli Lloyd and Houston Dash for their massive Fan Appreciation Night and regular season finale at Toyota Park in Bridgeview on Sunday, September 6. The FIFA Women’s World Cup trophy will be on hand for the match, and the first 1,000 fans through the gate will receive limited edition Red Stars trading cards. Tickets to all Chicago Red Stars matches may be purchased by clicking here or by calling 773-698-6001.