Nearing end of long soccer career, Lori Lindsey shows her true spirit

(Spirit photo)
(Spirit photo)

Washington Spirit General Manager-Coach Mark Parsons knew veteran midfielder Lori Lindsey well enough to be skeptical when she told him she needed to have a serious conversation after a workout Tuesday.

“I had to ask her, is this actually serious?” Parsons said. “Or are you just going to make fun of me?”

The goofy, sometimes tear-jerkingly funny Lindsey was not there to make fun of Parsons — at least not yet. Instead, she informed him that after 13 years of professional soccer, six playing for D.C.-based teams, she would retire after this season.

A pro since graduating from the University of Virginia in 2002, Lindsey, 34, announced her decision to fans in an “Open Love Letter to Soccer” on Thursday night, two days before the Spirit was to play Sky Blue FC in a win-and-in regular season finale at 6:30 Saturday night at Maryland SoccerPlex.

Lindsey, a familiar and beloved face for fans of American women’s soccer and a member of the 2011 World Cup squad, said she was “getting anxious to move on to other endeavors.” She then offered further explanation for the decision to step away, infused with that trademark humor.

“Plus, I want to go out on my own time,” she said. “I don’t want to be out there crawling around on the field, with people saying, ‘She should have retired a long time ago.’ ”

It’s not a crawl, exactly, but Lindsey has always had an on-field gait as distinct as that off-field personality. She chugs around the field with a compact stride that earned her the nickname “Lightning” from her U.S. teammates — not so much because she moved like lightning, but because she didn’t.

And yet Lindsey does not mind being known as slow and steady.

She played high school soccer in Indiana — “not exactly a soccer hotbed,” as she put it — and headed to Virginia in 1999. In 2000, she became the school’s first ACC player of the year. In 2001, she became the second player in conference history to win that award in back-to-back years. The first was Mia Hamm.

The San Diego Spirit drafted Lindsey in the 2002 WUSA draft and traded her to the Washington Freedom the next year. As women’s professional leagues came and went around her, Lindsey played with the various iterations of the Freedom off and on over the next decade, eventually rejoining the Spirit in the National Women’s Soccer League last season.

During that time, Lindsey was a perpetual presence in the national team pool but never at the center of the team’s plans. She earned her first cap in 2005, then did not earn another until 2009, going an entire World Cup cycle without an appearance.

But while her speed earned jokes from fellow national team members, her “work rate,” as Parsons called it, never did. Known as a smart possessor and competitive creator, Lindsey continued to work for a solid national team spot even as younger players rose around her.

By 2010, just in time for that magical 2011 World Cup, she would edge her way in, her extensive off-field contributions to morale bolstered by a team-leading seven assists in 13 games that year.

The performance earned her a spot on the 2011 World Cup squad, “one of the highlights of her career,” she said.

Prior to this season, Lindsey was not in position for a spot in Parsons’s starting 11. The Spirit had reloaded after an abysmal 2013 season, and new faces looked to be limiting Lindsey’s contributions.

“There are two ways people can go when you’re not in the starting 11,” Parsons said. “She worked harder, she continued to work smarter, she continued to give to the team, give to the players, give to the staff. … Now she’s one of our most important people on the pitch, central to everything we do.”

Lindsey has started 18 of 21 games, chipping in a goal and an assist for the Spirit, which last year at this time was firmly at the bottom of the NWSL table and finished with a 3-5-14 record.

Now she’s a crucial figure for the playoff hopefuls, who’ll earn the third seed with a victory Saturday night, Lindsey’s final home game at the SoccerPlex and perhaps her final game on American soil (she plans to play a season in the Australian League after the NWSL wraps up).

Always a fan favorite, Lindsey said the response to her announcement has been “insane,” and that she’s honored people can follow and find inspiration in her career.

“I think I’d want them to relate to my perseverance,” she said. “It wasn’t like I got huge success right away. It wasn’t like I didn’t, either. I’d always been a hard worker and a good soccer player, but I didn’t get to the national team right when I wanted to. I didn’t go to multiple World Cups. But getting to one was a goal and dream of mine and something I didn’t want to give up.”

Parsons said he does not want to give up Lindsey, either, which made their already uncharacteristically serious conversation all the more uncomfortable.

“I’m not going to do the moment justice,” he said. “She was very emotional, so there was real happiness, but also tears and real sadness. But also awkwardness because I’m staring back to her like, ‘No! My best player, my heartbeat!’ But at the same time, good for her.”

 

Chelsea Janes covers high school sports for The Washington Post.
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