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The Daily Cardinal Est. 1892
Tuesday, March 21, 2023
Cara Walls

Following the conclusion of her collegiate career, Walls decided to try and continue her passion with the Chicago Red Stars of the NWSL.

From a star in red to the Red Stars

Cara Walls had more than just lofty dreams of playing professional soccer in France—she signed up to study abroad there and was determined to play.

Then after the Badgers’ 2014 season ended, Paula Wilkins, Cara’s coach of four years at Wisconsin, called her. Wilkins had been talking to representatives from the Chicago Red Stars of the National Women’s Soccer League.

“Are you going to play?” Wilkins asked.

That was not a simple question. On the one hand, this sport had been in Walls’ life since she was six years old. It was what she chose to pursue over basketball and tennis.

On the other hand, the minimum salary in the NWSL—a league established in 2012 after its predecessor folded in the same year—is $6,842, roughly halfway to meeting the Federal poverty line at $11,770, as reported by Esquire.

Nevertheless, Walls knew what her answer would be.

“Oh yeah,” she responded. “This is a once in a lifetime opportunity.”

The Wisconsin experience

From Wauwatosa, to FC Milwaukee, to the Badgers, Walls spent her entire pre-NWSL soccer career playing in Wisconsin.

After winning the title for FC Milwaukee and finishing as top scorer at the U-18 national championships in Arizona, Walls moved on to meet her next soccer family in Madison.

“Here at UW, it is very team-oriented. Your team is your family. You hang out with them. Even if you don’t play, the girls on the bench, are cheering the whole time,” Walls said when comparing college to professional soccer. “And that’s why you leave college with your sisters, some of your best friends.”

Walls finished her time at UW with quite a distinguished career. She is tied for second in program history for career goals (42) and she is the record holder for multi-goal games (10). She began her time at UW on the 2011 All-Big Ten Freshman Team and finished on the 2014 First Team All-Big Ten.

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After her Badger career ended with a 3-2 NCAA tournament loss to UCF, Walls played professionally in the spring and summer. However, she returned to Madison this fall with 17 credits, set to graduate in December.

This fall, Walls transitioned from leading-scorer to cheerleader and coach—a new perspective, but one that came with its own challenges and lessons.

“It’s really hard. It’s eye-opening,” Walls said. “It’s going to make me cherish my time with the Red Stars. This time is over. As much as I want to go out there and play with Rose [Lavelle] and McKenna [Meuer], I just can’t.”

Wilkins appreciated what Walls offered the team in a year where the Badgers finished as joint winners of the Big Ten in the regular season.

“She loves the sport of soccer. She loves the program. She had a huge part in making it successful,” Wilkins said. “Just seeing that pride and that excitement, it just permeated to other players, especially the younger players.”

Coinciding with Walls’ time in Madison, the NWSL was born and questions arose about the vitality of the league.

Building on the past

Caution and optimism are prevailing themes surrounding the NWSL—with players, coaches and administrators who believe that past failures of women’s professional leagues will not be repeated with added structural support.

The NWSL formed in 2012, succeeding Women’s Professional Soccer, which folded for a multitude of reasons—a primary one being financial concerns.

Some financial wariness remains. Owners still bear a burden to support the teams themselves.

“Our team is funded, basically completely, by our owner. Our one owner pays for our trips, for our salaries,” Walls said. “There’s not enough of an outside contribution.”

Wilkins said infrastructures of the NWSL will help keep it from falling into similar trouble.

“The first time they were all in this league they fell out the money fast and they didn’t really have a good structure,” Wilkins added.

One element that relieves a significant financial burden from club owners is that the United States Soccer Federation, Canadian Soccer Association and Mexican Football Federation pay for all the national team players from those countries. Therefore, the NWSL is not financially responsible for a majority of the best players in the league and the negotiations involved with paying them.

“In the past, [the USSF was] always supportive by word of the league but not really in action. This time around, they’re really supportive in action,” said Alyse LaHue, general manager of the Red Stars. “So they have a lot of skin in the game. It’s really important for them that we succeed because they’re backing it, they’re behind it.”

The USSF also administers the league, with the NWSL office working out of USSF headquarters in Chicago.

That infrastructure has contributed to steady growth for the NWSL, which is heading into its fourth year of existence. For the Red Stars, LaHue said ticket prices and sponsorships have been on steady rises, with slow growth every year a goal for the club.

“We never had a year four in the Women’s Pro League, so that alone is a sign of great stability,” LaHue said. “But we’ve had no teams drop out. We’ve added a couple teams through the years and definitely have a lot more interest. So those things alone it’s dramatically different from our experience in the previous league.”

The star in red turned Red Star

Playing professionally yields much less of the “family” feel Walls saw at UW and in high school.

“It’s people’s jobs. It’s not like we’re not friends and we’re not friendly, but people aren’t cheering on the bench and people go into practice to do their job,” Walls said. “It’s something I had to adjust to, but if you want to be professional at something you have to get used to it.”

The setting may be different, but the results started to show similar patterns. After getting subbed on against the Boston Breakers in early May in her third career appearance, Walls found the back of the net at Toyota Park for her first professional goal.

“OK I can play at this level,” Walls said she felt after scoring. “I can make things happen.”

That one goal would remain her only in her rookie season, which consisted of 10 total appearances with one start. Walls made all of her appearances before the team’s final four games. The reason for that could be the talent playing in front of her in her rookie season.

Walls played behind United States Women’s National Team forward Christen Press, who was one of five Red Stars to win the World Cup this past summer.

“It’s focused. It’s really sharp and quick ... You just have to play your best at every practice,” Walls said when asked about playing with USWNT players. “As a forward, just being able to play under Christen Press, you just watch what she does, watch how many balls she hits after practice, just her focus in front of goal and how she finds space for herself in front of goal, that was really awesome.”

Playing with national team players did have its price, as the World Cup took place right in the middle of the NWSL season. Walls said nine starters left the team to play in Canada for the world tournament. When the stars came back, cohesion remained an issue.

“We weren’t playing that well when they were back. We weren’t playing as a team, because we hadn’t adjusted to playing together,” Walls said. “We had so many good players, but toward the end we weren’t getting results like we were in the beginning.”

Despite the disruptions to the team, Chicago still finished in second place and earned a playoff spot for the first time in its NWSL existence. The Red Stars lost to eventual-champion FC Kansas City, which also knocked off Seattle Reign FC—the regular season leaders by 10 points.

With a Rookie of the Year winner and finalist also on the team, Walls and the Red Stars have a bright future to look forward to. But given the fate of professional organizations in the past, potential questions at the league level obfuscates that vision.

How to maintain momentum

The USWNT captivated the country in the Women’s World Cup Final with a flurry of first half goals in a way that soccer has been unable to do in years past. However, it remains that women’s sports receive far less national attention than male sports.

That might be changing. LaHue saw trends in the media coverage and sees that as integral in keeping women’s soccer in the national eye.

“If you look at the Women’s World Cup and you take the numbers, astronomical viewership numbers and the excitement around it and the number of people who were talking about it, it’s because it became a pop culture event,” LaHue said. “The fans will follow once the media starts paying attention to it.”

The Women’s World Cup Final drew more viewers than any soccer game in U.S. history, according to Nielsen ratings.

To sustain that momentum, Wilkins said NWSL players should act more as ambassadors of the game, similar to what she has her players do at Wisconsin. In Madison, Wilkins said she is seeing more young fans at home games who idolize her players.

“Especially in soccer-rich cultures, they’ve been able to foster that [fan] support and have that environment,” Wilkins said. “It’s been really cool to see and I think the biggest people who will make this league go are the actual players because if they spend time in the community and showing support it will grow and grow as the league grows.”

To Walls, the community itself holds the power in creating and furthering support for the NWSL. With limited resources, spectators need to do more than just cheer from their couches if they want to see the sport continue to grow and prosper.

“In the U.S. there is some of the best soccer being played in the whole world, and if people want that to continue ... the next step is contributing to the market,” Walls said. “[The owner] literally pays for everything because there’s not enough of an outside contribution. So if people really want the sport and the league to grow here, they have to go to some games or buy some gear.”

In the meantime, the financial hardships are still a reality for NWSL players.

“I realize we’re not men’s basketball, but they don’t have to think about, ‘what else am I going to have to do?’ Like a lot of other girls have to get second jobs and that becomes so stressful as an athlete,” Walls said. “Which sucks, because I want to play soccer. I want to play abroad. But if you have to look at other stuff you can’t put your focus there.”

The future of women’s professional soccer is still driving in unchartered waters. Perhaps, the way for fans to see what happens next involves a trip to Toyota Park in Chicago.

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