As a group, Red Stars players rarely get too emotional, win or lose. A tough loss is usually followed by dampened spirits and the clear promise to clean up mistakes, and a big win provides a feeling of accomplishment with the understanding that preparation for the next one begins now. There have been tears following the final whistle after championship losses, but those able to speak to media have frequently been able to pull through their responsibilities with an even keel.
But when captain and eight-year veteran of the team Vanessa DiBernardo was asked after Chicago’s 1-0 loss to the San Diego Wave at Soldier Field to say what 10-year veteran Alyssa Mautz—retiring after the match—has meant to her as a teammate, she began with “I’m going to get emotional. I’m not sure if I can.”
What followed was an outpouring, with both players crying and laughing at the same time. Mautz chimed in as DiBernardo composed herself, with tears in her own eyes, “We’ve been through a lot.”
Especially after a closely-fought match, a player never knows when they’re going to be hit with a wave of emotion, and the postgame presser’s significance was likely influenced by just how quickly Mautz’s departure became a reality. Mautz said she hadn’t been actively looking for other opportunities, and she was getting minutes as a substitute wingback in Chicago’s new system, but a call one day from alma mater Texas A&M presented an opportunity she couldn’t turn down.
“They just kind of called me out of the blue, I never was searching for anything,” she said after the game. “It was just the right time I guess to start thinking about it. I never thought I would retire in the middle of the season. It kills me a little bit.”
To say Mautz has been with the Red Stars since the beginning almost understates exactly what a presence she’s become not only to the team but to the colleagues she’s worked with every day for the last ten years. Her entry into the NWSL wasn’t as heralded as some others—she re-joined Chicago after playing with them in the WPSL Elite, but she wasn’t picked up by the team until the fifth round of the 2013 Supplemental Draft. She scored 16 goals in 143 appearances, mostly in the heyday of the Christen Press era from 2014 to 2018. Mautz also spent some time in the Australian W-league, playing for both the Perth Glory and Adelaide United.
Within her biography is a story of resilience and a love of both her teammates and the game of soccer. She only got one season in Women’s Professional Soccer, playing for Sky Blue FC, before that league folded. She then turned to the Red Stars and the WPSL, and Chicago has remained the closest professional team to her hometown of St. Louis.
She played across the globe, both in her time in Australia but also with a brief stint in Russia, which she told The Equalizer in 2019 that she did not enjoy very much. She coached privately, and even took nannying jobs to keep her professional soccer career alive. On Saturday, she was one of only three non-national team capped players still in the league, alongside Lauren Barnes and Tori Huster. That number is now down to two.
She found a home with the Red Stars, and said on Saturday there’s no other club she ever wanted to play for, but then adversity hit in a different way. Mautz suffered two back to back ACL tears in 2019 and 2020, sidelining her for the team’s run to the 2019 NWSL Championship, and the entirety of the 2020 Challenge Cup. In 2021, her mom passed away, and she said that her return to the field afterward was hard. Her influence on the field became more limited as she dealt with injury, but her presence in the locker room was essential.
She said on Saturday that the first moment that springs to mind as her favorite game as a Red Star came during that period, when she watched the team win the first NWSL semifinal in their history in 2019. “That crowd, it gave me goosebumps, just to see that and the fans get so into it. It was incredible,” she said. “And I was just so happy for my teammates to finally get over that hump.” Mautz is known both within the team and across the league for her competitive spirit, and her willingness to do whatever was necessary to help the team.
Her greatest memory being a match she couldn’t play in probably best encapsulates her role as a supporter, fierce competitor, and friend for many of the other players she’s worked with over the years. “Mautz is like the definition of a Red Star. She’s gone through so much, yet she still has the back of everyone else,” said DiBernardo. “Everything that she brings on the field is that hard work, that dedication, that grittiness to win every ball that is contagious and infectious, and it’s just like, the energy that she brings is something that we will truly miss here.”
DiBernardo used the word we, but one has to wonder if there’s also a little bit of I in that statement as well. The Red Stars are changing out of necessity, but Mautz was the last Red Star left that would have been at training when DiBernardo walked in on her first day as a rookie in 2014. Someday, sooner than when she began, DiBernardo will be sitting center at the press conference table herself, while the next Red Star tries to sum her own legacy up. Such is the nature of sports, and is a credit to both players’ longevity.
But it also speaks to some of the idiosyncrasies of women’s sports that 10 years with Alyssa Mautz still doesn’t feel like quite enough time, and what being there from the beginning really means in terms of professional standards and recognition. The Red Stars were guests at Soldier Field on the weekend, in a very successful doubleheader that nonetheless had the club scrambling to honor someone who meant so much to the locker room.
“I told the team before the game they weren’t playing for Mautz, we wanted to play like Mautz,” said head coach Chris Petrucelli, who only got to work with the veteran for part of a season. “… This was very quick for us, and we also don’t get to control a lot of things here at Soldier Field, so maybe we didn’t quite have enough ceremony for her.”
But if Mautz didn’t get the win this weekend, or a crowd of 23,000 fans chanting her name, perhaps the best send-off was the one from DiBernardo in a media room, under field level, speaking honestly about a teammate and friend: “She has been the legacy of what a Red Star is, and I’m so excited for her and her next opportunity, but she’s going to be truly, truly missed here.”