When the Chicago Red Stars take the field on Sunday to compete for the NWSL Championship, they will do so with a core of players that have repped this city hard over the last several seasons.
One such player, Sarah Gorden, has been with the team since 2016, after being picked up in the third round of the NWSL College Draft. A Depaul alum and Chicagoland native, Gorden has played in every match for the Red Stars this season. Gorden has played at centerback and outside back, becoming an essential starter, and one of the most versatile defenders in the league.
When the Red Stars made history last weekend with a home semifinal win over Portland Thorns FC, it was Gorden who spearheaded the team’s lone, game-winning goal, after getting on the end of a loose ball to connect with Yuki Nagasato, who led Sam Kerr in on goal.
Gorden credits the moment with the overall current chemistry of the team— one that is supportive but holds each other accountable.
“I feel like we have such a cool team,” Gorden said in our post-training interview. “We have really high standards for each other. So, when that ball came in—that I eventually passed to Yuki [Nagasato]— I [thought] ‘I have to get to this, because Julie’s behind me and this is what she expects from me, and this is what I expect from myself. So, I think that the standards have really picked us up in the times that we’ve needed it.”
After four attempts at trying to break through and win a semifinal, the fifth time proved to be a charm. The Red Stars punched their ticket to the championship last weekend, due in no small part to earning home field advantage for their big game against Portland. With Chicago needing to close out a big game with a tight scoreline and no room for error, Gorden says the home atmosphere helped carry the team over the line.
“[The fans were] the difference in the game,” Gorden said. “I think we all know that. Being able to play at home and have our fans give us such a good turn out, it was really the biggest difference especially towards the end.
“[The semifinal] wasn’t pretty, but it was a really good team performance, the team defense was incredible.”
The Red Stars’ road to the championship has been a long one, one that featured familiar faces, while also saying goodbye to old ones and welcoming new additions. This season has been full of big moments, and big goals, but also included its share of low points. A losing streak in the middle of the season, Gorden told me, represented a new low for the team.
“It just feels like a really special season. We’ve had some really low points and we were losing to teams where we we like ‘We should not be losing to this team right now’ and I think that the locker room never got wild, people were never attacking each other, and we [were] able to turn a corner and go on winning streaks— it was the low parts that defined it all.”
“The hardest streak was definitely the World Cup one,” Gorden continued. “Because when you lose those leaders on your team, the leaders both on and off the field, it’s really hard. People have to step up.”
The Red Stars went through two three-game losing streaks at different times this season, both with and without their superstar players. Gorden says that the differences in those two moments helped cement who she wanted to be for the Red Stars, and what the team wanted to represent moving forward this season.
“I never knew what my role was going to be, but I’m someone who had to step up way more than I thought I would, especially when I was at centerback,” Gorden says. “That was a really hard time for us, I feel like. The losing streak when [World Cup players] were back, it’s a little bit different, it was like, ‘we know we’re better than this’. But during the World Cup? It [felt] like, ‘can we do this?’ And I think coming together and fighting our way out of that was really a defining moment for us.”
Gorden says it was in a team meeting during that losing streak when head coach Rory Dames asked the team for input and Gorden said the team needed to get back to their roots.
“Rory asked, ‘does anyone have anything to say?’ I raised my hand and said, ‘I feel like we’re not fighting for each other like we used to. Like it used to be. When I was a rookie, if I make a mistake, it doesn’t matter because I have someone behind me that’s gonna work their butt off to get there, and we haven’t been like that,’” said Gorden.
“I said that during our losing streak, and the game against Portland? That was who we were. Anytime Tobin [Heath] had the ball there was two of us there. Anytime Horan had the ball, someone’s stepping to her and there’s someone behind to cover. So, we really got back to our Chicago roots of playing together.”
While the team prepares for the biggest game in their NWSL careers, Gorden is also balancing the responsibilities of being a professional athlete and mom. It’s been a challenging two weeks with preparations for a semifinal and now a championship, all while having to navigate the ongoing teachers strike in Chicago. Gorden made it clear that she’s standing in solidarity the Chicago Teachers Union.
“That’s what I’m all about. Standing on the line and being like, listen, this is what we want and this is what we need for a better future and this is what we’re going to do to get it.”
Gorden paints the parallel between Women’s Soccer and the current fight of the teachers union, in that what they are fighting for now will lay a foundation for the future. Gorden said she’s had conversations about it with her young son, Caiden.
“He’s only 5, he’s still young. I try to explain things to him, about anything that goes on, in the most adult way possible but at the same time he’s confused, and still asks about going to school. Obviously it stinks that the kids are in the middle of it, and nobody wants that, but they’re fighting for something more.”
“For me, when I think about soccer, you know we’re here, we’re trying to pave the way for the future, and I see some similarities in the teachers strike. They’re trying to make a better place for our kids and I support that.“
Gorden has helped bring the fight back for Chicago this season, through her play on the pitch and by stepping out of her own comfort roles. All the while, she’s remained present for her responsibilities at hand, emphasizing that despite everything, there’s still more to give.
“I had a conversation with Coach Mega, like how can I become a better athlete this week? And it’s everything. It’s recovery, it’s nutrition, it’s the regular game plans. What are we going to do, how are we gonna play—but it’s more than that this week. How can we be better? That’s been the question of the week.”
Over the last three years Gorden has been a defensive option off the bench for the Red Stars, providing depth at centerback and, more recently, at fullback. However, it was during this season that saw her breakthrough as a consistent starter for Chicago. Her pace and recovery runs offered them assurance on set piece options, and more recently, as we saw in the semifinal, has become an additional threat in Chicago’s offensive attack.
Sunday will be the biggest game to date in Chicago Red Stars history, and it’s been a game the team has been chasing for the last five years. Reigning champions North Carolina Courage are an historically good team. If Chicago wants to win the championship, they’ll have to stand on the line together and fight.