SEATTLE – It's been over a decade since Shannon Boxx almost quit soccer entirely as a young professional. When she finally did retire, after a 1–1 draw against Brazil here on Wednesday, she did so as a World Cup champion and a player grateful that fate changed its course—and her mind.
“Fate happened. I was pretty much in the right spot at the right time, and I took advantage of it and created the opportunity. Here I am, 12 years later,” Boxx, 38, said after the game. “I’m going out as a World Cup champion and going out on my own terms, and it feels pretty amazing.”
Boxxused the first incarnation of women's professional soccer in the U.S., the Women's United Soccer Association, as a springboard to the 2003 World Cup squad. The team’s oldest debutante as an uncapped 26-year-old, she joined the new league from Saarbrücken in Germany and rediscovered her passion for the game that left her while she played abroad.
Despite battling Sjögren's syndrome and lupus, her career spanned 17 years and included an NCAA national title with Notre Dame, two Olympic gold medals and a World Cup win. She stayed strong enough mentally to recover from consistent physical setbacks later in her career, which included torn cartilage in her right hip and a torn MCL back-to-back in 2006.
“Perseverance and hard work—those things paid off for me,” she said. “I got knocked down a bunch of different times. I had injuries, I had illnesses, I had people telling me I wasn’t good enough.”
It's that perseverance that led manager Jill Ellis to call on Boxx again in 2015 as she came off her latest injuries and a pregnancy to make the squad as the oldest player besides Christie Rampone. It was a similar story as her 2007 selection, when she made the World Cup roster despite an eight-month absence.
Boxx kept finding ways to come back and make an impact, which Ellis said made her worth another look.
“I felt that I owed it to her to at least see if she could come back. She took the bull by the horns,” Ellis said. “It wasn’t a gesture for her to make the World Cup squad. … She deserved to be on that roster, and it’s so fitting that she goes out as a world champion.”
Boxx took on a leadership role in Canada, mentoring Morgan Brian as she learned the defensive-midfield position that Boxx played her entire career. It was Brian’s presence that allowed Carli Lloyd to become so effective higher up the field in the knockout round for the U.S., and Boxx pointed to Brian as the future of the U.S. team.
“I have no worries about how this team is going to do in the next Olympics and the next World Cup after that,” Boxx said. “It was really fun to play with that person that is a young player, and she is going to be the next generation, the next one that’s going to have to hold the fort down.”
Her optimism belies the challenge facing the U.S. with the short turnaround, three retirements and a roster reduced from 23 players in Canada to 18 in Rio. No team has ever won a World Cup and turned around to win the following Olympics, just a year later.
To avoid complacency settling in, Ellis has begun bringing newer, younger players into the national team mix. She reintroduced Samantha Mewis, 23, to the team and gave a senior debut to Jaelene Hinkle, 22, in the final 20 minutes on Wednesday.
Mewis replaced Crystal Dunn, 23, who was the top scorer and MVP of the National Women’s Soccer League in 2015, as well as one of the final cuts from the World Cup roster this summer. They’ll be battling with the established players carried over from Canada to make the Olympic qualifying roster in February and, ultimately, the final tournament next summer.
“Things are going to be very different,” Hope Solo said. “You’re going to see some young players who have never made a major tournament roster make their first tournament roster going into Rio. It’s going to be filled with surprises, and I think that’s exciting for everybody.”