Authors’ note: Quotes in this article were edited slightly for clarity.
This is the third of five interviews featuring Racing Louisville’s international players that will be published during the off-season. These profiles are a collaboration between the Beautiful Game Network and Fleur de Lis FC. Bekki Morgan from Beautiful Game Network is a contributing author on this article.
Vanessa Kara was going to play professional soccer. She might have been the only one who ever truly believed that she would, but her vision and ambition have driven her to overcome every single obstacle and roadblock that has ever been put in her way. Kara has overcome being constantly overlooked by so-called talent evaluators, having multiple torn ACLs at the worst possible times, going undrafted after being told that she was going to be picked in the 3rd round, being invited to her first professional camp only to see the world enter into a pandemic, getting a chance in an NWSL camp and injuring herself within the first 15 minutes, and finally making a roster only to see that her dream wasn’t all the it was cracked up to be. Why does she still go on? According to Vanessa, “I just think I love this game more than anyone.”
Early Ambitions and Roadblocks
Vanessa was born in Burlington, New Jersey and started playing soccer at the tender age of five, but it was not until she entered the eighth grade that began to get truly serious about it. She had played on local teams, usually a year up, but neither she nor her parents had any idea about the options for players of her skill level until she decided to join the Players Development Academy in New Jersey. PDA is a youth soccer club that uses a year-round training program to develop players to their full potential. The desire to reach her full potential is still one of the driving factors behind Vanessa’s ambition. Even after getting her first international call up with the Dominican Republic, she said “My aim hasn’t changed. It’s the same. It’s to see how good I can get, to pursue growth.”
Having a clear vision has always been one of Vanessa’s strengths. When she was still in high school, she doggedly pursued two dreams: playing professional soccer and getting an engineering degree. She first realized that a career in professional soccer was possible by attending the now defunct WSL’s Philadelphia Independence (coached at the time by Paul Riley) matches with her PDA teammates. After attending these matches, she thought that she could have a career in professional soccer even if she couldn’t yet work out the logistics of it.
Unfortunately, or fortunately, to hear her tell it, life kept throwing out roadblocks to derail Vanessa from her dream. In high school, she missed both her sophomore and junior years due to multiple ACL injuries. Since those are the two prime recruiting years for colleges to see players, it meant that Vanessa would not be able to show what she could do on the field to any Division I coaches. People around her told her that she would never play Division I soccer, but she refused to believe them and worked hard to prove them wrong.
“I never had immediate gratification. It was always like: grind it out, grind it out. It made me more resilient. I don’t think I would be playing pro if I hadn’t had that adversity and those injuries.” said Kara of her battles with ACL issues.
At Drexel and Florida
Ultimately, Kara received two Division I offers, one from Drexel and one from St. Joseph’s (PA). According to her, the desire to get an engineering degree was the deciding factor in her ultimate choice. “St Joe’s didn’t have engineering and I knew I wanted to study engineering. I love Drexel, but I kind of did choose it by default.” Whether it was by default or not, Vanessa quickly showed that Drexel made a great decision in offering her a scholarship. She scored 11 goals in 18 matches in her freshman season at Drexel and was named the 2015 CAA Rookie of the Year. Even though she always believed in her dream, her initial success at Drexel came as a surprise. “I didn’t even expect playing time at Drexel, let alone breaking records as a freshman,” she stated, recalling her record for most goals by a freshman at Drexel.
She suffered another setback at the end of her junior year at Drexel when she again tore her ACL. This time, the injury took a year to heal. She used a medical redshirt at Drexel to complete her engineering degree. Again, a setback was turned into an opportunity. Having completed her goal of obtaining an engineering degree, her dream of becoming a professional soccer player now became the larger focus. A new chance to improve her game came through an offer from Florida Gators’ coach Becky Burleigh. “The medical redshirt brought the opportunity where I could still graduate with my engineering degree and have a year of eligibility left to go see how much better I could get. That’s always been my thing. How good could I get? I wanted to pursue growth, so that brought up that unique opportunity. Becky Burleigh expressed interest in me and I couldn’t walk away from a coach where we aligned so much on the outlook on the game and life. That brought me to being a Gator and that was really exciting.”
Searching for an Opportunity
After a successful year at Florida that included 10 goals (5th in the SEC that year) all that remained to achieve her dream was to find a chance at a professional club. “I thought Florida had prepared me for the world, and it definitely was a stepping stone, but there was still a little bit of a gap. I was actually told I was going to be drafted in the third round.” Vanessa and her parents drove the two hours to Baltimore to attend the NWSL draft, but ended up now being drafted. Reflecting on this Vanessa said, “It was awful to deal with that. Then I just realized that was never my story. I was never noticed right away. It’s always taken me longer. I was like, this is fitting.”
Now searching for an opportunity in the NWSL, Vanessa worked even harder to stay in shape if the chance came to audition through an open try-out. A call came from North Carolina, but cruel fate still wouldn’t let Vanessa achieve her dream. On preparing for her chance in North Carolina she shared, “No one (was) going to know who I (was) going into North Carolina…so I went there and did the same as I always have done. I was super prepared, super fit going into their camp. I honestly had a great 7 days, then the pandemic happened. I think I was doing well and liked my chances. This was (prior to) everything that we knew about who Paul Riley was, so I was excited to be in that environment and such a winning culture. He was really kind to me when I was there actually and said that they would have liked to have me any other year. It was tough to get let go but I didn’t think it was a lack of ability there, so it was a little bit easier to manage that one.”
Having come so tantalizingly close to her dream, 2020 was an extremely tough year for Kara. In her own words, “2020 was the hardest year I went through, so many roadblocks. I had been through so much and then I had my great year at Florida. Everything was working out. I thought it would fall in line for me to finally get my dream of playing in the NWSL.
“Then the pandemic happened. I got let go from North Carolina and actually a couple of weeks later I got a call from Freya (Coombe) from Sky Blue saying that they were going to pull me in, right before (the 2020 Challenge Cup taking place entirely in Utah). I was like, oh my gosh, great. They said we just need you to be fit. Basically, they needed a human body at that point. I was like ‘great, I have one of those, I can do this.’ It was my dream, in my home state, it couldn’t be more perfect.”
“I go into train with them and 30 minutes into training with them, I tweak my knee from over-training that year trying to stay fit for so long because pre-season kept getting pushed back. I was only out for 2-3 weeks, but I ended up missing the Utah Challenge Cup. That was tough because the emotion of losing your dream in the NWSL, getting it handed to you, and then immediately losing it again I was like ‘why is this all happening to me again?’”
At this low point, her agent found an opportunity for her to play in Finland, which she fondly recounts, “It was amazing. The team took me in and instantly I opened up to the girls right away because I was going through a hard time. I was like, ‘I need help. I need friends here.’ I was so vulnerable about all that. Their return to me was just incredible. They really took me in. Any time they were doing something they made me feel part of their team and their families. It was the best experience for me. It was exactly what I needed for 2020, to finish it on a good note.” However, the Finnish league wasn’t necessarily challenging her as a player. After 3 months in Finland, she craved a greater challenge.
Landing in Louisville
Vanessa thanks her teammate Michelle Betos for the opportunity to join Racing. Betos and Kara were both training at the Keeper Institute in New Jersey where Vanessa would go to shoot on the keepers and work on her finishing. Betos knew her story and put in a word to Racing’s coach at the time, Christy Holly. She was invited into preseason and made the team, but her experience was far from great. Vanessa called the experience as a trialist “mentally exhausting.” Training camp took place for two and a half months due to COVID. Since she wasn’t on a contract, she never quite knew where she stood.
This wasn’t helped by Holly’s lack of communication with her and the other trialists. “His communication was non-existent. We never knew where we stood. We didn’t know if we were going home tomorrow,” Kara said of Racing’s former head coach.
Vanessa had to rely on the support of her future teammates. “The reason we made it through is that the team at Racing Louisville is really special. I know people say that, but this group of girls, the players who were already signed, they had our back. They let us know what was going on because we had no idea. It was mentally exhausting and of course, you deal with self-doubt.“
Relying on Teammates
Kara eventually made Racing’s squad but struggled to get any real playing time. During the preseason, she made the squad for 3 out of the 4 matches, totaling 17 minutes (16 of those in the 0-0 draw at Gotham). Once the season started, she only made the squad 6 times, making her single appearance for 5 minutes in the 5-0 loss at North Carolina.
On her season at Racing, Vanessa said, “This year was really hard for me, never really getting a chance. I disagreed with a lot with what Christy did and said and how he acted. It was so hard. I was put down a lot and my teammates were the ones saying to me ‘You’re good. You’re a good player. Don’t let it get to you. Keep Going.’ I hadn’t been rostered in a while, and when the thing you love becomes your job and it doesn’t go well, it was tough. My confidence was down a bit. I was wondering, do I love it less? Even with all of the adversity I had been through, I was like ‘No. I love it just the same.’”
Several of Racing’s players have commented on their teammates and how that made the team special. Her teammates helped her through a season where she didn’t get to see much on the field action. “Without them, I think I really would have walked away. It was really mentally tough. They extended themselves to make sure that I didn’t feel alone in what I was going through. It was incredible. I couldn’t recommend this group enough.”
A Tough Year for Everyone
Of course, Vanessa and her teammates weren’t the only ones going through a tough season. “I felt like it took me so long to get to the NWSL and it was my dream and I finally got it. Then I was like, “This is it? This is my dream? It can’t be like this.” It was a shock again to realize how much everybody was going through. My situation was tough and everyone’s situation was tough, but nobody was alone in it. It hit a point in August where we had a meeting with our sports psychologist and everyone was talking about their experience for the first time and I realized that we’re all going through it. We’re all going through something. We normalized so much behavior that shouldn’t be normal. I think that it’s widespread across the league because you are so grateful to be there, so grateful to have your dream and play soccer as a living that you do let these things go. I think as a culture we’ve just normalized it because we feel so grateful to have this league.”
Racing’s environment improved after Christy Holly was terminated for cause, but Kara thinks there is still work to be done. “I am optimistic about the future of it. Now that there is a spotlight on it, I feel like players now have a voice and that they won’t let so much go unsaid, take a longer time. I think each club has a structural thing to go after and highly invest in. I do think it’s the beginning of it. It won’t be fixed immediately, but I am optimistic about it,” Kara said about the future.
On Racing specifically navigating the future, she thinks the organization has started listening to players more. “I do think they are trying. I think people were trying to bring up issues they were having while Christy was here and they weren’t really well received, which is unfortunate. (Racing) were trusting their head coach, but once everything came out and he was fired, they did start to trust us more. Since then, I think they have been receptive. There’s good and bad and it’s learning lessons for everyone. It’s the first time they are managing a women’s team. They’ve done a good job of listening, and now they’re getting even more involved. I really do think Racing can be a great place for people to have their career.”
Forward Vanessa Kara will join the Dominican Republic for camp and a pair of friendlies against Trinidad and Tobago on Nov. 26 and 30. pic.twitter.com/glg0jvDfQ8
— Racing Louisville FC (@RacingLouFC) November 18, 2021
With the Dominican Republic National Team
Racing has many roster decisions to make during the offseason, so it is still up in the air as to whether Kara will return for a second year in Louisville. However, her recent call up to the Dominican Republic’s Women’s National Team has been a good opportunity to showcase her skills. The Dominican Republic has just recently begun to invest in its women’s team and for the first time has started to pursue players with Dominican heritage. Vanessa’s mother, while born in America, is Dominican. The team has started to look for players from Europe and the Americas to become more competitive. The team won its first match of the year with Vanessa scoring a brace.
International soccer wasn’t on Kara’s mind until very recently, “I was never in the national team pool. I was never noticed growing up, so I knew I wasn’t on the radar for the US. I didn’t really think of it. Then I was home for an international break, obviously before I got called into the DR, and I was telling my parents that I wanted to get involved with the Dominican Republic national team. I have no idea how to do it, but it’s something I really want. I got a phone call three days later from a recruiter. Literally, within 3 days I had a phone call and it was just there for me, so it was pretty remarkable to think about.”