I'm Home

“I’m home.”

The moment I realized I was going to retire was, ironically, a moment I had experienced hundreds of times: walking in the door after coming home from the road. I was returning to Portland with my daughter after winning the 2015 World Cup with the USWNT just weeks ago. Walking in and out of that door is a routine I’d gotten used to — be back for a little bit, see my family, my husband, get some stuff done around the house and then be ready to go out on the next trip. That was my life. I accepted it. I was okay with it. I chose it.

I loved being a professional women’s soccer player. And for a long time, I thought — and in many ways still think — it was the coolest thing.

But this time was different.

I walked into my house and looked at my daughter. She recognized this place — her home. I took a deep breath. I thought, I’m home.

I decided to retire from the NWSL and my team, the Chicago Red Stars.

Retirement from professional soccer was not an easy decision. Any time a decision impacts your whole family, it’s inherently going to be difficult. And from a physical perspective, I feel great. I still think I can compete at the highest level. But most simply, I just love to play. So it was not a decision that I took lightly at all.

Mentally, though, the force pulling me toward home had simply become too strong. My family has made so many sacrifices over the years. Traveling here, traveling there, having to move constantly. The thought of finally being home, in a real way, and getting my daughter back on a normal schedule — I don’t think I realized how much I wanted it until I realized that making it happen was within my control. That I could just … stay.

The hardest part, by far, was leaving my teammates. Feeling like I quit on them. I have always tried to be a great teammate and a great leader on every team I’ve been on, and this team was no different. I love this group.

I’ll tell you a quick story about them. I have lupus. A couple of seasons ago, for Put on Purple Day — the day for lupus awareness — I asked my teammates to all wear purple to support the cause. I walked into practice that morning, and there they were. Without saying anything and without making a big deal of it — every single one of them, all dressed in purple. They mean a lot to me.

Chicago also means a lot to me. It’s a special place, and an even more special soccer city. I remember watching the 2014 Men’s World Cup — those wild USMNT matches — in Millennium Park. Thousands and thousands of people, all of them congregating in one place, for soccer. I’ll never forget it.

And even though it’s relatively new, the NWSL means a lot to me as well. I’m sad to leave it. I have a strong and deep-rooted love for women’s professional soccer, and for the idea of it sustaining itself and flourishing in the United States. If you know my story, you know why.

For most of the players on the USWNT, the standard trajectory is as follows: join the national team young, play in the World Cup and/or Olympics and then build on that success in one of the professional leagues. My path was the complete inverse. I started out in the WUSA (the professional league launched after the ’99 World Cup) as a no-name player and slowly built my success from there.

It took me three years to get a camp invite from the USWNT for World Cup tryouts. And even then, since I was older than the average invitee and had a minimal pedigree, I was told I had “no chance” to make the team. “Come in, and we’ll see how you compete against the best,” I remember them telling me. “And then maybe you’ll have a chance at the Olympic team in a year.” It turned out to be a blessing in disguise. With nothing to lose, I played loose. And when I play loose, I play well. I played so well, in fact, that I forced my way onto the team — at the ripe old age of 26.

But none of it would have been possible without the way I got noticed: by playing in an American professional women’s soccer league. And I take great pride in that. In a way, my success is proof of concept for professional women’s soccer in this country. My path proves that these leagues are not fillers in the hype cycle — that they are not just for show — and that they actually represent something far more vital and far more American: opportunity.

But at the same time, it’s a process. And while the future of women’s professional soccer feels bright, there are also present-day realities that we as players must deal with. One of those realities is that, for many players, supporting themselves financially on a league salary is impractical. If you’re young and single — like I was once — it can be doable. You live with a host family during the season. You move around for work during the offseason. You’re only supporting yourself.

But as something to grow into, and as a job with which to start and to support a family, it becomes a much more complicated equation. By the end of my time in the NWSL, I was juggling a mortgage on our house in Portland, the rent on my apartment in Chicago and two day-care centers in two separate cities, not to mention travel to and from.

Women who have a family and are lucky enough to play for the city in which they live are an exception to the rule. The reality is that you often don’t live where your actual home is, so logistics alone are a mountain. Forget finances.

I just wanted to settle with my family.

I convey all of that not to complain. I love the NWSL and the idea it represents. Like I said, it’s the idea that gave me the chance to win Olympic gold medals and win the World Cup this summer. The opportunity to play professional women’s soccer is a huge part of what has made me the person I am today. There is no bigger advocate, and there will never be a prouder participant. But within the dream that is “a successful professional women’s soccer league in America,” there remain harsh realities.

As I transition into this next phase of my life, I feel many emotions. Sadness for leaving my teammates. Excitement for spending more time with my family. Nervousness for my post-professional soccer identity.

And pride. I was a part of building something special.

You won’t be able to miss that pride on my face during the World Cup victory tour, which I’ll see through to the end of the year with the UWSNT.

I remember my first USWNT cap like it was yesterday. It was in Los Angeles in 2003. I remember the way my jersey felt as I fit it snugly over my head for the first time. The way it looked — crisp, clean — in the locker room mirror. The way my cleats felt, one then the other, as I walked onto the field. The way the national anthem sounded — how it went by so slowly, yet so fast, and how I sang every word. Oh, and one other detail: I scored a goal.

To be able to experience this celebration of what we’ve now built — the rally in Los Angeles, the parade in New York, the hype around the tour itself — is incredibly satisfying. A lot has happened in between, and a lot has been accomplished. When I see young girls in their USWNT shirts rooting for their favorite players, rooting for their team and country, it’s clear: We’ve built something bigger than ourselves.

As for me, I don’t know what the future holds. The journey from “Shannon Boxx: traveling soccer pro” to “Shannon Boxx: Portland mom” is going to be a scary one. And to make that transition at 38 is going to be doubly scary. But I learned a long time ago that there is no standard trajectory in life. That everyone eventually finds their own path. Mine has taken me to places that I never thought possible. And now, 15 years later, it’s taking me home.