After playing sparingly a year ago in the first Women's Professional Soccer season with the Washington Freedom, Independence midfielder Joanna Lohman took an extended road trip in an effort to improve her game.

In September, Lohman headed to Japan with Freedom defender Rebecca Moros to train with a professional team, Beleza, outside of Tokyo. It's the team the Freedom's standout midfielder, Homare Sawa, plays for.

Lohman and Moros stayed there 21/2 months, and Lohman said it had a profound effect on her career. "It was the best experience I had," said Lohman, who had to pay her own way. "It was worth the price."

The Independence, who take a 3-2-2 record into Sunday's 6 p.m. game at West Chester University against defending champion Sky Blue of New Jersey (3-2-2), have benefited from Lohman's off-season regimen.

After signing as a free agent just weeks before training camp, Lohman has appeared in all seven games and started the last five. The former Penn State star has one goal and has provided plenty of energy in the midfield. "She has been one of the most pleasant surprises," Independence coach Paul Riley said.

Lohman, who will turn 28 later this month, appeared in just seven games last season for the Freedom, making two starts.

"I felt I needed to do something to improve, and going to Japan really opened my eyes," Lohman said. "All the girls there love the game and don't feel a sense of entitlement."