Class of 2012: Chalupny Conquers Chicago, Then the World

Has been with Red Stars since club’s amateur days in WPSL Elite

By Gunnar Berndt

Chicago, Ill. – There are some stories in professional sports that read as if they were stolen from a Hollywood screenwriter’s idea book. The career of Chicago captain Lori Chalupny falls firmly into that category, as the 31-year-old recently won the 2015 FIFA Women’s World Cup less than seven months after making her return to the international stage from an involuntary five-year hiatus. Chalupny recently talked about her special bond with the Red Stars, her memories of playing for the club during its amateur days, and her recent decision to step away from the international stage at the end of the year.

Having already participated in a World Cup and won an Olympic gold medal with the United States by age 24, Chalupny was considered one of the game’s brightest young stars at the end of the past decade, before being sidelined due to concussion issues. Throughout her absence from the U.S. Women’s National Team, which lasted from late 2009 to late 2014, the feisty defender-midfielder never lost her passion for the sport, even in the midst of the American top flight, Women’s Professional Soccer (WPS), ceasing operations prior to the 2012 campaign.

Instead of contemplating a move abroad, or even retirement, Chalupny opted to join Chicago and play in the Women’s Premier Soccer League Elite (WPSL Elite), an amateur division that allowed standouts to continue competing at a high level while awaiting the future of the domestic women’s game.

“Everything happened so fast when WPS folded, in terms of trying to find a team to play on,” remembered the former St. Louis Athletica and Atlanta Beat ace. “A lot of players chose to go overseas, but I felt like I wanted to help grow the sport in the United States. That being the case, I thought the Red Stars were a good opportunity. I talked to (team owner) Arnim (Whisler) and felt that he was in it for the right reasons. He also sold me on the city of Chicago, which I’ve come to be really fond of.”

Since joining the club in 2012, Chalupny has become the undisputed captain and leader, as well as a fan favorite admired for her professionalism, work ethic and approachability. Many a postgame photo show the U.S. international posing with supporters and patiently signing autographs.

“My original reason for coming to Chicago was hearing why Arnim was involved as well as his plans for the future and for growing the sport,” she offered. “That’s also the biggest reason why I’m still here. I feel that we have an owner with great intentions and that no one within the organization is here for personal gain but because they all believe in growing the game. It’s so important to have a professional team here that young girls can look up to and aspire to one day play on.”

Red Stars Head Coach Rory Dames has cherished working with his international star. While lauding Chalupny’s perseverance in bouncing back from her USA hiatus and from being without a paid playing opportunity just three years ago, he was quick to also make mention of the other Red Stars who helped the team to a second-place finish in 2012.

“Lori is in a class of her own in terms of being a captain and a leader,” said Dames. “What I’ve found most impressive is that she went about her business exactly the same in the WPSL Elite as she does in the NWSL. She very well could have walked away when WPS ended, especially considering her situation with the national team. The fact that she kept going and went on a journey to ultimately winning a World Cup says so much about her but also about all the other players back then who allowed her to continue by also playing for free.”

Chalupny’s reflection on the 2012 WPSL Elite campaign speaks volumes about her character and about what the game of soccer has meant to her over the years.

“Looking back, that’s probably been the best season of my career,” said the Chicago captain. “We were all there just because of our love for soccer. It had nothing to do with making money or even pushing individual greatness. We simply wanted to do whatever it took to keep playing our sport. Because of that, we were able to take a step back, get rid of all the obstructions that can cloud your view sometimes and just play for the same reason we started playing when we were eight or nine years old. That has really stuck with me.”

Unfortunately, the Red Stars missed out on winning their first ever domestic league title in agonizing fashion in 2012, as they fell to fellow former WPS side and current NWSL outfit Western New York Flash on penalty kicks in the final. Three years later, Missouri native Chalupny remains determined to help the club redeem itself at the professional level, a goal that may just be within reach, given Chicago has led in the table for long stretches this season and stands a great chance at punching its first playoff ticket since the NWSL’s inception in 2013.

Said Chalupny, “Ever since we lost that final, my sights have been set on winning a championship for this city, for (Head Coach) Rory (Dames), for (team owner) Arnim (Whisler) and for our staff, all of whom have been putting so much work into it. The fact we came so close in 2012 would make it all the more special if we could lift the trophy this year.”

Bringing the NWSL crown home to Chicagoland would add to an already incredible year for Chalupny, who just nine months ago was coming off a second consecutive postseason-less campaign with the Red Stars and appeared unlikely to ever represent her country again. Given the unexpected highs of 2015, which included her 100th USA cap back in May and being honored with the captain’s armband in the Americans’ 7-2 win over Costa Rica this past Wednesday, it’s not surprising the defender-midfielder is starting to contemplate how to best go out on top.

While Chalupny this week announced her retirement from national team play at the end of the 2015 victory tour, she will hold off on making a decision on her club future until the end of the NWSL season. The former North Carolina Tar Heel’s special bond with the Red Stars and the region has many fans hopeful their wishes of seeing her lead the squad for yet another season may come true.

“I love Chicago,” said Chalupny in wrapping up her reflections on her time in the Windy City. “Being from St. Louis, there’s obviously a rivalry there, especially in terms of sports teams. But I have only great things to say about the people here and about how much I’ve been welcomed. Of course, I’ve had such great teammates too. I know it’s a cliché to say that, but I absolutely mean it. My best friends are players I’ve played with on this team. That just goes such a long way in making something enjoyable. My four years here has been truly special.”

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