“We had a vision to be the best team in Germany” – Interview with Gina Lewandowski and Katie Stengel
Congratulations for winning the German top league title “Deutsche Meisterschaft”! Katie, you managed to accomplish that within your first year at Bayern Munich just after you became W-League champion twice back in the U.S. Only days before your arrival in Munich you scored twice for the Los Angeles Blues including the important 1-0 in the W-League final against the Washington Spirit Reserves.
Stengel: I did? That is such a long time ago…
Very humble, but it’s not even a year ago. What about you, Gina? For you it’s your second German league championship, since you already won that title with Frankfurt back in 2008. Can you compare the two titles with one another?
Lewandowski: It was my first year and my first title with Frankfurt. At that year we won the UEFA Cup and the German Cup [DFB Pokal], as well. That triple makes it special for me. But as an American in my first year in Germany, it didn’t mean so much to me, because I didn’t understand the whole league, I didn’t understand the German system. With Frankfurt it was easier to win that year, because we were better than most of the teams. I think this title that we just won with Bayern is more special, because I’ve been in Germany so long. Now I can appreciate it a little more. There is more value to it. Many teams are on a similar level, so there is a lot more competition. In Munich, we worked really hard as a team over the last couple of years and even the last year after the team went through a major change. We had a vision to be the best team in Germany. If it happened this year — which it did — great, but if it didn’t, we would still work towards that. We just worked each week very hard on the next game ahead of us, stayed focused. [Head coach] Tom [Wörle] and the coaches did a really good job preparing us week in and week out. The leadership came from him and we are proud and happy for him. We have a team. We were always very solid and together on our goals and we just fit. We played really well and were unbeaten the entire season. So I guess, both titles are special in their own way.
Last time the Bayern women were league champions was in 1976. So the craving for that title was just huge around here. That is probably hard to understand, since the brand ‘Bayern Munich’ is so big everybody assumes that if they wanted that title they would just put in some money and get it. But this team really progressed with not that big of a budget. That really makes it a team effort of everyone involved.
Stengel: To me everything is pretty new. At the end, when they were singing all those Bayern-songs I was kind of lost. But any championship is big and since it was so close it was really special. It was cool to see the team progress throughout the year. We had a really good first half of the season, then we tied a few games and were not sure if we could even [secure the second spot and] qualify for Champions League. But then we did and moments after the last game finally got the news that we won the whole league — that was just crazy.
In the U.S. it is the third time a professional women’s soccer league is tried to be implemented. There was the Women’s United Soccer Association (WUSA) from 2001 to 2003, then the Women’s Professional Soccer (WPS) that was founded 2007 and went on between 2009 and 2012. Now there is the third attempt with the National Women’s Soccer League (NWSL). In addition to that, since 2011 there is another league called WMLS or WLS standing for Women’s (Major) League Soccer. A little bit more consistent seems to be the “amateur” level in college with the W-League which was established in 1995. Maybe the two of you can walk us through that system a little bit and explain differences like the play-offs or the drafting system?
Lewandowski: When you get out of college, you are allowed to play professionally. All those girls are put into a pool and the teams are allowed to pick new players. But there are also players in the draft who ended their contract or new players from outside the league. So the drafting system is where most of the new players come from and it also ensures a pretty equal quality between the teams throughout the league since the teams take turns in picking the players from the draft. In addition, there is a players allocation system regarding the national players, so not all of them play in the same team. That hasn’t always been that way. Back in 2011, when I played for Western New York Flash, there were three teams that were really good an then the bottom teams that were not really good. So the league was kind of lopsided.
Speaking of your time in New York, you also won the championship there so you are a quite successful player, it seems.
Lewandowski: First of all, I am thirty years old and very experienced. Chances are higher to win titles throughout the years. But Katie has won a lot of titles, as well — and she is only 23, so she can win many more…
Despite of the troubles sustaining a professional female soccer league in North America, there are two things striking: 1), the league always attracts top quality players and stars like Marta to play there and 2), the U.S. Women’s National Team (USWNT) is one of the most successful teams all over the world. How do you think, that fits together?
Stengel: For one thing, the allocation system where two or three players of the national teams of the U.S., Canada and Mexico go to each team keeps the level pretty high. Then, there is players like Jessica Fishlock [the Welsh international who played for Frankfurt on loan this season] who come over. I guess, the league tries to build the fan base and the reputation of each club by bringing over other players and internationals who are closer to the level over here. It does give the U.S. national team players a great place to train in-between camps. They are in camp probably half of the year — maybe that’s a reason why there is such great chemistry between them and why they work together so well. The league has a complete different schedule compared to Germany. It starts in March and goes through September. They take a break in-between, but they keep playing during tournaments like the World Cup which gives younger and non-National players a chance to play. They are having difficulties signing internationals or get them on loan, though, because of the transfer window in Europe.
But obviously, the league is attracting good players. Gina, you played with Marta, Alex Morgan, Yael Averbuch and Christine Sinclair in one team in New York. How was that for you and how did your transfer work out?
Lewandowski: It was an unbelievable team. We won that year. Training was absolutely competitive each day. The girls were great, too. We really connected off the field. But when the league folded and was reestablished later, players like Marta or Caroline Seeger didn’t want to come back to the States, since there wasn’t a lot of financial security. They rather went somewhere else. But for us, that was just an unbelievable season. The reason why I went over was due to the World Cup in 2011, the German league ended in April. My contract with Frankfurt had ended, so I had the chance to go to the U.S. and play a season there. When I told Frankfurt I was leaving, they asked me: “Would you come back?” Then I decided to sign one more year with Frankfurt. So yes, transfers like that are possible if the timing fits, it’s just really hard physically and mentally to not have a break. It was a great experience and I don’t regret it. Amber [Brooks who joined Bayern Munich throughout 2013, went back to the U.S. in 2014 and came back on loan from April to December 2014] did it, because she only did half a season. But that is also hard to be with a team for only half a season. You sort of want to invest your time and your energy and now it’s a shame she couldn’t be more part of the celebration of the title.
Both of you have in common that you were invited to the USWNT but haven’t featured in a game, yet. What are your perspectives on that?
Lewandowski: I had my chances. I was invited before the Olympics, but at the same time with Frankfurt we qualified for the Champions League Final [against Olympique Lyon in Munich 2012].Gina Lewandowski
There was one more game and I was supposed to go to the U.S. afterwards. Unfortunately, Frankfurt wouldn’t let me go before, we lost the game and the U.S. said it was too late afterwards. Later, I had another chance in Munich, but at that time I was injured. So I guess, it just wasn’t meant to be, then.
So it doesn’t seem to be easy for U.S. soccer players to go abroad and at the same time manage to become USWNT players. Did that play a role in your decision making before you came to Munich, Katie?
Stengel: Yes, because U.S. players get paid by the U.S. to play in the U.S. They want to build that program there. So if you want to get with the national team, it’s best to be there in their spotlight. But when I made up my mind where I wanted to play, I thought that I could grow more as a player over here and even challenge myself as a person and as a player to really step out of my comfort zone. Here I can learn from a totally different style of play and from all the different internationals. I think, it has paid off big time to come over here and even if I’m not right in front of the national team coaches, to trust that my development as a player is important in the long run to get a chance later on.
We talked about the drafting system in the U.S., but how did each of your transfers to Munich go about? How did the club show its interest? Who contacted you?
Lewandowski: My contract with Frankfurt ended in 2012, because I only signed one more year after my time in the U.S. Then Tom contacted me and said “I heard your contract is running out. Would you be interested in coming to us?” At first, I hesitated, because I thought I wanted to leave Germany and go back to the States or go to a different country. But then the league in the States folded that year. So I met up with Tom, we had a long conversation. I was very honest with him about my strengths and weaknesses and he also knew a lot about me as a player since I played so long in the league. He showed, that he would really like to have me and explained what he wanted from me without forcing me to be somebody I’m not. Munich actually signed me as a center defender, but then in pre-season Katha Baunach injured herself so Tom was thinking how we could adjust the team, brought Niki Cross to the center and put me on the outside. I did play quite often on the outside in Frankfurt, as well, so it wasn’t completely new to me.
So do you like your position or do you feel somehow misplaced?
Lewandowski: Actually, I enjoy playing center-back. It’s a little easier position. Mentally, it is harder, because you need to be really secure and safe. But I like the outside, because you can take a little more risk, you can go forward, you can run a lot more and be more active in the play. In Frankfurt I always felt a bit obstructed or limited, because I wanted to go forward but due to the position I couldn’t. So now on the outside it’s nice and fun and I developed a lot more technically here in Munich and even got quicker.
Quicker over the years — congratulations! What about you, Katie? How did the club sign you and have you ever heard about Bayern Munich before?
Stengel: I have definitely heard of them because of the men’s side. But I was so unfamiliar with how the women’s side worked and Europe in general. I just knew Germany was one of the places I liked to play just because I thought I knew the league was strongest. But my agent did most of the work looking for teams, talking to people. He is very knowledgeable concerning the German sides and the French league and helped steer me in the right direction. I had a highlight-tape put together of my college time. Tom might have seen it and talked to my agent. It was just a great offer to come over here. I looked up the team online, they were within the top of the table, so I knew they were a strong team. I talked to Tom and to Tanja [Wörle, team-manager] to figure out what they expected from me as a player and saw what they could offer. So I think it was the best fit.
Was it the hoped for development you took over here? What are the main differences, what have you learned culturally and in the terms of soccer?
Stengel: The training style, the culture on the team and the whole professional environment is different. I used to play in college where you get really close with your teammates because you are living together and go to class together. Over here, it’s more professional. It’s your job. So I adjusted to the professional side of it and as well to the cultural differences. Germany is much different from the U.S., for example that you can only go to the grocery store until 8 p.m. and not on Sundays or otherwise you go out of food. As a player, I get to train with Italians and girls from the Netherlands, Norway and Germany whereas in the U.S., my college team was all-American. Just seeing different styles of play and training under new coaches really helped me. For example, with Bayern we play a lot more defensively with five in the back whereas in the U.S. it’s normally a 4-4-2 or 4-3-3. Therefore, I had to learn a whole new system of play. They spend a lot more time here tactically with the forwards teaching pressing, where they should be going instead of just holding the line of confrontation. Also, people over here are a lot more technical than in the U.S. where they are still developing that side. But in the end, soccer ends up being soccer, so it’s not a complete new world to me.
Gina, you have been in Germany for many years now. Do you still remember certain differences or are you half-German by now?
Lewandowski: It’s been a while since I played in the U.S. My main comparison is college and my college-level wasn’t as good as Katie’s. Then there was my time in New York four years ago, but there we did no tactics. We had no tactical instruction at all. It still functioned. In training, we basically played a lot and did a lot of technical stuff. Of course here and there we talked some tactics, but it wasn’t the main focus like it is here in Germany.
What about a comparison between Frankfurt and Munich?
Lewandowski: At my time in Frankfurt, the trainings were a little bit different concerning the strength training. We did a lot of static weights, squats, bench. Here it is a bit more dynamic, explosive and quicker. But since I am here for some time now, it could also be that trainings in general changed and developed towards more modern methods. It’s hard to compare. Frankfurt has a new coach now, but I’d say, in both clubs, trainings are very technical and tactical.
Nadine Angerer said when she was in Frankfurt, the club didn’t understand itself as a family or care much about injured players. To the contrary, the only thing the club wanted from their players was to function. Is that an impression that you also got?
Lewandowski: I wouldn’t go that far. Bayern is very special to me and in Frankfurt it was different. It was a bit more professional in the sense of a work-situation where you come, you do your job and then you leave. There was not a lot of hanging-out outside of soccer. Everyone seemed to be more focused on themselves. A lot of the players were older and had their own lives. Here, we do a lot more together, the team is much younger, a lot of us are really good friends. There is a lot more chemistry within the team that gives us that extra-drive.
Looks like the differences you draw between Frankfurt and Munich are similar to the ones Katie points out between her college team and Munich.
Stengel: True, but I just have grown so close to those girls from college over the past four years where the team chemistry was a key to our success and now made that step to a professional side, that it makes a difference to me. But some of my best friends are on that team in Munich, I can hang out with anyone of the girls anytime. So there definitely is a good team spirit over here, as well. And that type of chemistry helps the team on the field.
Caro Abbé is the only one player in your team who did not miss a single minute throughout the season, but also you, Gina, played almost any game [approximately 1.885 of 1.980 minutes]. Within the offense, the coach rotated much more. You, Katie are the striker with the most minutes [1.089] and the most goals  of the team in absolute numbers whereas Eunice Beckmann scored just about as many goals  in much less minutes . Is it hard to focus on your tasks and on your game when it is not clear whether or not you will play at all?
Stengel: That is a big challenge mentally, because you don’t know whether you are going to play that week. The coach says if you train well this week then you are going to earn playing-time, but at the end of the day it comes down to which player is the best fit for the game.Katie Stengel
He did switch so much, because we do have so many good forwards. Even if you do play well during the week, so do all the others. It ends up to be his decision which combination of forwards works best for each game. If you do get in, you know what your job is and you need to use your time wisely. No matter if with five minutes to go or half way through, you start from the beginning and your job is to create and score. Mentally, you need to stay confident. Especially Eunice, who scored so many goals coming from the bench, it just shows how mentally strong she is.
Gina, the position you play in Munich is a mixture of left-back defensive player and winger. What keeps you running up and down that pitch for 90 minutes?
Lewandowski: I like to be involved in the game and if I have a goal like ‘to get to the ball’ it helps me run a bit more. I enjoy getting into the attack so that’s the motivation to get up forward, but the defense is actually my main job so I have to make sure to be in my position.
But you also managed to bring a lot of crosses from your flank to the box as well as cutting into the middle to shoot with your right food. You definitely have a lot of offensive impact on the game in the half-spaces or the middle.
Lewandowski: I try to see what the defender does and how she is positioned. They hardly ever expect you to go towards the middle and from there you just have more options to shoot, to pass, to cross versus going to the outside where you have to cross.
Defensively, Bayern played a back-three in the center supplemented by you on the left side and mostly Vikki Schnaderbeck or Leonie Mayer on the right side this season. Sometimes you dynamically formed a back-five, sometimes it was a back-four. What did that depend on?
Lewandowski: We focused on that process all season. We always definitely want to have four in the back. If the ball is on my side, I’m usually more forward to pressure the ball and the defense shifts. If the ball goes to the other side, Leo or Vikki is more forward and the defense shifts again. But it all comes down to communication between me and Raffa [Raffaella Manieri, Italian international and half-left defender of the back-three]. If she says, “Gina, go”, I go, if she says “Gina, stay”, I stay. And if I miss the timing to go forward, then we stay with five in the back.
What about you in the front. Normally, Bayern played with another striker and a very flexible No. 10. How do you organize who covers which zones?
Stengel: We worked a lot tactically with that and it depends on what system we are in or what our goal is: whether we want to start wide and force the opponent inside with more numbers or keep them on the outside where we can press with Gina or Leo coming up forward. We just have to make sure that we shift together and pressure the backline as a unit to make it easier for our midfield and defense to predict where it’s going. Normally, we want to force them on one side. Therefore, one of us would go and force the center-back to one side, the other one would shift over to keep them on that side.
Lewandowski: We have two to three different tactics, so depending on what Tom wants and what our goal is that’s how they will line up.
Since you already won the league, you want to walk us through those tactics?
Lewandowski: Nope [laughs], it’s a secret… No it’s pretty obvious from how we play. Just as Katie said, we want to force them either to one side, to the other, or force them to the middle. But the main goal is: to force them to their weakness.
What are your specific duties when it comes to pressing?
Stengel: The first thing is to deny them from going forward. The next would be to keep them on one side. I am not always the one who is going to win the ball, but I make it harder for them to play and put them under pressure so it’s not so easy for them to either hit it long or play out the back. If I can keep them on one side so that we can get more numbers shifted over, then it’s easier for midfield and defense to read it. When we win the ball I immediately try to provide an option to go forward. If they manage to get past us, we drop back in and try to repress. It’s one of our main qualities that as soon as we lose the ball we try to gain it back right away.
Lewandowski: Run! Run! Run! Run! And run!
Stengel: [Laughs] Yeah, basically run as much as you can and make it harder for them.
You enjoy that?
Stengel: I guess, it’s not my favorite. But it helps the team so much if the forwards do their defensive work.
“In it for the team!” Fantastic. One of your most obvious qualities seems to be screening the ball. People don’t see much of it when you are near. Would you agree or are there other abilities that you are better at?
Stengel: No, I agree. I like playing with my back to the goal, receiving the ball and being able to turn, because it is hard for the defender to see. Using my body to shield defenders from the ball so I can provide a target as a forward and either lay the ball off or attack is something I am definitely good at.
You are a big Messi fan, it seems. He is not quite the back-to-the-goal type of striker. What do you get out of watching him for your own game.
Stengel: If you watch him and you want to play like him, it’s probably a bad idea, because he walks around the whole time. But then he has his way to suddenly turn and go a million miles an hour. He is so fast and has so much control with the ball at high speed, it’s just crazy to see someone who can dribble that fast and have such vision, being able to look around and know exactly what to do and when to do it. I wish I could play more like him whereas he is able to dribble and beat defenders at such quick speed. So I do like that aspect of his game. And his finishing? It’s just ridiculous…
The way that Tom and his staff creates drills, trains and coaches you, is that a style that suits you or would you prefer doing one thing or another differently?
Lewandowski: Of course there are rules and drills that we have to follow, but there are aspects when he gives us the freedom to use our own creativity and our own skills. We also have a creative and technique coach we work with once or twice a week which also gives us a couple of more creative ideas to work on the field. Tom sees our strengths and encourages us to use those strengths. If he sees something in our play he really encourages us to get more out of that. That’s one reason why I improved a lot since I have been in Munich. I feel a little more freedom with the ball and trust that Tom believes in me as a player. I can take risks, make mistakes and be OK about it. It is part of learning and growing and getting better and that is a feeling I didn’t necessarily have in Frankfurt.
What do you get out of the drills, Katie?
Stengel: The drills do challenge me as a player. Some of the games I have never even seen before whereas in the U.S., you typically do the same type of drills. Just seeing all those different drills and games brings out different aspects of your game. Of course there are certain games that I excel at because I am better suited for that type of play and then there are games that I am just totally not used to. But it’s also important to expose weaknesses. With the language barrier not understanding the drill at first is really confusing, but once you get it you get used to it. We do similar things throughout the season and everyone has progressed a lot. So I really like the trainings.
Lewandowski: When I first came to Frankfurt and everything was new: the language, the culture, trainings. You are so restricted to your abilities because you can’t come out of your shell, yet. So I think, after a year or two I really felt like I was getting much better and develop as a player, because I felt more confident, comfortable and relaxed.
So Katie, don’t leave too soon! Even if your first year was not bad at all: Top-scorer of the team, Deutscher Meister just as Gina won the championship within the first year in Germany.
Lewandowski: And then there will be the Champions League next year.
Exactly, are you excited?
Lewandowski: Yes. I’ve done it already a couple of times. It’s a great experience to travel to different countries, meet new people and compete internationally. I am excited to be there again with this whole new team, because this team is a little more special to me and Tom did such a great job. I am glad to be a part of that and experience that with them. There will be a new motivation coming in for next season. It will be a truly competitive and busy new season.
It could be a tough couple of next steps for the team. This year, you came a little bit out of nowhere, the coach managed to keep the expectations low. But next year, you will be the champions, everyone will want to chase and beat you and in addition to that pressure, you will have more games competing internationally.
Lewandowski: Sure, there will be pressure and expectations, but Tom does a great job at keeping us humble and relaxed.
As somebody from another country, new in town, who gets thrown into the team and has friendships within that team, it must be quite challenging to get to know the city outside of soccer. Did you get to know Munich a little bit, Katie?
Stengel: I definitely did. Whenever we have a day off, there are so many ways to get right into town: you can walk around, take the bike or hop on a train. There is just so much to see and do. I love to just walk around and explore the city. By now, I understand geographically where I am and what’s going on. We have a couple of restaurants we like to go to and I’m getting more and more familiar with my surroundings. So I have seen Munich and I enjoy it a lot.
Thank you guys for the conversation.