Eat. Sleep. Play. Repeat. That’s the life of a professional soccer player, and 23-year-old Cara Walls, a forward for the Chicago Red Stars, is no exception.
The Red Stars are a part of the National Women’s Soccer League, which was founded in 2012. It’s a young organization, and the women who play for it are some of the first to enjoy its successes.
“Growing up I didn’t really know playing soccer professionally in America was possible,” Walls says. She found out about the league just before the draft began and signed up for tryouts almost on a whim. After Walls was drafted in 2015, she wasn’t sure what to expect beyond a high-level, competitive environment. What she found was a cohesive team and coaching staff that primed the organization for success on—and off—the field.
“There’s a great team dynamic,” Walls says. “And the coaching staff does a really good job. They recruit amazing players, and we already have good players who come in and train, so they do a really good job of setting us up for success.”
We know how to be a team. We know how to get the energy right and be positive.
Bonnie Young, an assistant coach for the Red Stars, describes the organization as if it were a well-oiled machine would, with different cogs, pulleys and parts working in tandem.
“We work together, we get along, and everyone has their own role,” she says. “It’s a pleasant environment—and it’s not always like that—but these guys found a way to manage their real lives, pro careers and friendships at the same time.”
For players like Walls, who have spent the majority of their lives playing the game, navigating a new team dynamic is almost second nature. Courtney Raetzman, a fellow forward for the Red Stars who just completed her rookie season, says Walls was incredibly friendly and inviting during her first year with the team, and made the transition to playing on for a professional organization a little easier for her.
“I love the girls [on the team],” Walls says. “I love hanging out with them. We’re all girls that have played soccer our whole lives, so we know how to be a team. We know how to get the energy right and be positive.”
Between games and practices, Walls is on the field with her teammates at least five days a week, honing her skills and keeping her body well tuned for the fast-paced, high-pressure games the women play every weekend. Raetzman says the team prides themselves on working day in and day out to be better, and that Walls contributes to that mindset with her own work ethic.
“It’s something you have to be really serious about,” Walls says. “[As an athlete], your body is your vehicle to make money. Your focus has to be on your body and the team.”
Of course, it takes a lot more than a rigorous workout program to keep in shape. Walls says even on her days off, she makes constant decisions to take care of her body, often opting to give her body some much needed R&R instead of hitting the beach with friends or spending the day downtown.
“They have to spend a lot of time taking care of themselves,” Young says. “You see people working 8 hours a day at normal jobs, and that’s the same amount of time these women have to put in for their jobs.”
Young explains that having a regimented workout routine is only effective if athletes are also focused on getting proper nutrition and allotting enough time for their bodies to recover after a demanding week of training and gameplay.
Walls had to do all this and more last season after coming back from a painful ankle injury that proved to be only a temporary setback. It took weeks of grueling effort for Walls to get back to the level she had been at before the injury. But her transformation with the team was more than just physical.
Your focus has to be on your body and the team.
Walls says there is a maturity that comes with playing professionally, a certain self-awareness that players might not have in college.
“You become more aware of yourself as a player,” she says. “There’s already people who can do what you did in college. Now I’m very aware of myself and what I bring to the team.”
After her injury, Walls worked and waited—accepting the role she was dealt until she slowly earned the playing time her teammates insisted she deserved.
“She showed up to practice and worked her butt off,” Raetzman says. “She proved she could be a starter and play and contribute to the [the team’s success] big time.”
Thanks to her work ethic, Walls has the respect of her teammates, which allowed her to grow more as a player, and, eventually, as a leader.
“To be injured, then recovering, and earning her way into the starting lineup, it’s a big growing process for someone who might have been a starter her whole life,” Young says. She truly believes this process was vital to Walls’ growth as a player and as a leader to the team.
“Cara is a leader by example,” Young says. “She shows up, does her job, and works really hard. And she’s still growing.”
The Red Stars team is comprised of women who have played soccer all their lives and dreamed of playing soccer professionally for years. As the organization grows and expands, Walls wants to be there to ride it out alongside her teammates.
“I want to do this as long as I can,” Walls says. “It’s what I love to do, and I don’t think there’s an expiration date on that.”