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Playing the Field: Cara Walls

The Badger soccer star's first professional season has been a humbling learning experience

Sep. 24, 2015
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Photo credit: Daniel Bartel / Chicago Red Stars
In Playing the Field, we profile women who are making an impact in the world of sports, either in competition or behind the scenes. For this installment, we spoke with Wauwatosa native Cara Walls, who is entering her second season with the Chicago Red Stars professional soccer team.

Despite a changed youth soccer landscape since the 1999 Women’s World Cup that the United States won in dramatic fashion over China in the Rose Bowl on penalty kicks, women’s professional soccer has struggled to succeed.

Multiple women’s professional soccer leagues have been founded and subsequently folded in the 16 years since Brandi Chastain famously whipped off her shirt. The current iteration, the National Women’s Soccer League (NWSL), is completing its third year in existence and seeing an uptick in interest and attendance due to the United States winning the Women’s World Cup earlier this summer.

Though the league is currently experiencing a “World Cup bump,” its future is anything but certain. Wauwatosa native and Chicago Red Stars rookie Cara Walls wasn’t even aware playing pro in America was going to be an option.

Walls, a standout for the Wisconsin Badgers women’s soccer team, didn’t find out until the end of her senior season, as the Badgers were playing in (and eventually winning) the Big Ten Tournament, that NWSL teams would be interested in drafting her.

The Red Stars selected Walls in the third round of the 2015 draft, 23rd overall. Technically, she could choose not to go pro, but Walls said it was never really a question. It was an abrupt detour in the path of Walls’ life, but one she was happy to take.

“I honestly didn’t have to think long about it just because I love soccer and I knew if the opportunity was there, I definitely wanted to pursue it, so it wasn’t at all a hard decision for me,” she says. “It just came by surprise that this was even an option, but once I knew it was an option—honestly, I've been playing soccer all my life, so it would have been weirder not to play. Playing soccer every day is normal to me.”

Joining the Red Stars after the draft meant Walls had to leave school in her final semester. She took some online classes, but has plans to take 17 credits this summer to finish up her degree. While she’s in Madison, she’ll train with the Badgers before returning to Chicago for her second season.

It wasn’t an ideal rookie season for Walls, with far less playing time than she was used to and a league-wide shakeup when teams saw their top players return from having competed in the World Cup. Having been highly recruited going into college, it had been a long time since Walls wasn’t the best player on the field.

“(At Wisconsin), the team was kind of focused on myself and a couple of other players,” she says. “Being a big recruit and someone who scored a lot of goals, I was, with a small group of girls, the main focus of the team. I was a part of everything. I was the captain, I played almost every minute of every game my senior season. Going from that to a professional team where every girl on the team was (in a similar situation); every girl on the team was that player on their college team (was eye-opening). I didn’t see as many minutes. I didn’t have a big role. I was a rookie again. It was kind of like my freshman year. I kind of have to build everything back up. That was definitely different. That’s a very humbling experience. I didn’t maybe get as much playing time as I wanted as a rookie, but that’s all just motivation for me to come back next year even stronger. It’s a good experience for an athlete to have to really push them to keep going. That wasn’t good enough for me.”

At 5'9'', Walls is an imposing presence at forward. She said she’s worked hard at making herself a target for her teammates—“someone the people in the back always play into.” She uses that size in combination with a clinical mind. She’s best when she can take on a defense and break them down before putting clean finished on the net.

Though she saw reduced playing time and her team struggle a bit with finding chemistry with their expanded roster, it was a solid first season for Walls to grow on. The Red Stars earned their first NWSL post-season berth and Walls tallied her first professional goal. Maybe most importantly, she was surrounded by talented players who pushed her to want to more important role in the future. She’ll spend time this off-season on the field and in the weight room working on a plan she formed with Red Stars’ head coach Rory Dames that will help lead her into a bigger on-field role.

“Taryn Hemmings was a good role model for me,” Walls says. “She’s just someone who does everything right every day. Every day has a good attitude. Not necessarily a superstar, but always there doing the work and having the right attitude. (She) made coming to practice every day easier. Then there’s players like Christen Press and Lori Chalupny who are just great players and great leaders to be around. And those people inspire you to step up your game and be better.”

Walls and others her age exist in an interesting period for women’s soccer. Unlike their older teammates, they’ve always had access to girl’s teams and support at the youth level. Post-1999, youth programs up to the college level saw an immediate impact.

But despite periodic bumps in excitement for soccer around World Cups or the Olympics, the United States has only recently started to see a sustained, widespread interest, and respect, for soccer.

Where it used to require a special cable subscription, Barclay’s Premier League and Champions League games are shown on Fox and their affiliate stations every weekend. Soccer bars are crowded and supporters’ groups have grown. There is general sports interest, and knowledge for “The Beautiful Game.”

This soccer-loving climate is relatively new, but has existed since before the men's’ World Cup in 2014 and that, more than anything else, said Walls, is what may mean success for the NWSL. And there’s so much more room to grow.

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