A former member of the U.S. women’s soccer team walked into a Center City cafe recently and went unrecognized.
It was the kind of trendy place whose clientele would know a thing or two about the world’s game. They might notice someone who scored a goal against Brazil, just shy of four years ago, in the first of her six national appearances for America’s most popular soccer team.
Stephanie McCaffrey never became a star like Julie Ertz or Delran’s Carli Lloyd. She didn’t play in a World Cup or Olympics. But she achieved the dream that so many female athletes have of playing for the best women’s soccer team in the world.
Along the way, McCaffrey was mentored in national team camps by Lloyd, and in 2017 and 2018 was club teammates with Ertz for the National Women’s Soccer League’s Chicago team, the Red Stars. Before then, she played for the NWSL’s former Boston Breakers, in 2015 and 2016.
Longtime Red Stars owner Arnim Whisler called McCaffrey “a hard worker, just a real joy to be around — everybody loved having her.” He especially enjoyed her humor in the locker room, “always in fun, but serious when she needed to be.”
In February of 2018, McCaffrey began feeling severe pain in her back. By late April, she felt numbness in her face, which then spread down the left side of her body. After multiple rounds of tests, she was diagnosed with a rare neurological illness — the details of which she prefers to keep private — which kept her off the field for the rest of 2018. Last March, her illness forced her to retire at just 26 years old.
“The three months after that diagnosis … were, candidly, a nightmare,” said McCaffrey, who was living in Chicago at the time. “The nerve pain in my body was so bad I couldn’t really leave the house."
If the thing you strove to do for so long was suddenly taken from you, how would you react? McCaffrey needed time to find the answer. But not too much time, it turns out.
“The decision was, do I sit out for what would be essentially two and a half full years and then go back to play in the NWSL, or do I move on?” McCaffrey said. “The pain and the symptoms were so severe, I couldn’t fathom taking the risk of putting my body through that again. So I think I’m doing the next most fun thing, and that’s kind of how I made the decision."
Her father, Jim McCaffrey, a former NBA draft pick, works in high-end commercial real estate in London. She saw the amount of money that could be earned in that world, and thought about all she could do with it if she followed in her dad’s footsteps. So last summer, she enrolled in Wharton’s MBA program, with a plan:
“I came here so I can go into private equity and buy a women’s soccer team of my own,” McCaffrey said, as the crowd bustled around her in the cafe. “There’s no true equality" between men and women “without financial equality. So I’m pretty shameless and unabashed about the fact that I want to go make as much money as I possibly can.”
When she played for the Breakers, the team’s home stadium was Harvard’s small soccer field. Their locker rooms were a few nearby trailers. It was a stark contrast not just from the national team’s top-notch training environment, but from what she had as a collegian at Boston College. In contrast, the Boston area men’s soccer team, the New England Revolution, is owned by the NFL’s Patriots and plays at their well-appointed stadium.
“That was definitely when I first realized: Wow, not only is the [lack of funding] in women’s sports real, but inequality is real,” McCaffrey said. “I couldn’t imagine a men’s player ever doing this."
Nor could she imagine big-time male athletes making NWSL salaries. While a select group of national team stars get paid living wages, the maximum annual salary for most players in the league in 2018 was $44,000. The minimum salary in 2015, McCaffrey’s rookie season, was $6,842 — per year.
That’s a far cry from Major League Soccer, never mind other men’s sports where athletes make millions. In MLS, last year’s minimum salary of $56,520 was higher than the NWSL maximum salary of $46,200. The average salary in MLS is just over $376,000.
It’s even harder for women to break into sports team ownership, and not only because there are so few opportunities to buy sports teams.
“The reason we’re having a hard time getting people to dump large amounts of capital into investing in women’s soccer is that, in general, women don’t have tons of capital relative to men," McCaffrey said. "I think I have the quantitative skill set and — with Wharton — the business acumen to be the one who says, ‘OK, I’m going to make sports ownership-type money and give it back to the sport that gave me everything.’”
On the surface, Wharton seems an odd choice for a Bostonian with Chicago ties. Philadelphia doesn’t have a NWSL team, and the closest one, Sky Blue FC, plays in northern New Jersey.
But McCaffrey said Wharton’s “undeniable sense of community and belonging" appealed to her, as did the school’s strong real estate MBA program. And she has come to like her new city.
“My favorite thing about Philadelphia is [that] this is a sports town," she said “I would love for it to be more about soccer — unfortunately, [it’s] not yet. But it’s great to be living in a city where you can tell that people are proud to live here. It gives it a sense of community that, being a new person who moved here, it makes it feel a little more like home.”
McCaffrey still keeps in touch with her old teammates. She and Ertz get together often to kick a ball around.
“I still have some technique [but] I cannot move at all, so I just pass to her," McCaffrey joked.
Most importantly, she has better health and better spirits.
“I just eat really healthy, I sleep eight hours a night,” she said. “I drink little to nothing at all — which kind of stinks now that I’m in retirement.”
She still has fond memories of the “exclamation mark on a lifelong dream" of playing for the national team, but she has no regrets about where she is now.
“Would I have loved to go and play in a major tournament, and not be sitting here in business school? Yeah, I think that would be everyone’s first choice,” McCaffrey said. “But I think after getting sick, I’m trying to just be grateful for the moments I have had in my career. And having all the hard work of making it to that moment, and having it come to fruition, is something I’ll always remember.”
If she succeeds off the field, she might get a little more attention at that cafe — and from the rest of the soccer world, too.