The Chicago Red Stars entered the NWSL Challenge Cup as top contender with a core squad in place that featured a handful of U.S. women's national team players and several experienced players.
However, coach Rory Dames, who led Chicago to the championship games last season, warned reporters before and during the tournament that the team would utilize the preliminary round as an opportunity to give valuable playing time to newer talent on the roster, with scripted substitutions and matchday plans.
It has been a balancing act of rotating drafted rookies and first-year acquisitions. Establishing the attacking front has been a work in progress. In an effort to stack up the top line, the team acquired several forwards with NWSL experience who have yet to score goals, with first-year Red Star and league veteran Kealia Watt having the most opportunities on goal in the opening games.
As a result, Chicago enters its final match of the opening round in dead last, having only scored one goal and still search for win No. 1. The Red Stars will try to climb out of the cellar onbefore the quarterfinals.
Despite suffering a pair of one-goal losses and a scoreless draw, the defense has been the biggest bright spot for this Chicago squad. The back line has conceded three goals in the first round, including just once (vs. North Carolina Courage) in the past 224 minutes played. Defense has been a staple of Chicago's game and a part of its DNA. In between the lines of those first few matches have been standout individual performances, especially from defender Sarah Gorden.
"It's weird going from a player who didn't really play my first few years to actually being someone on the team who was considered influential both on the field and off," said Gorden.
The 27-year-old Chicagoland native was drafted by the club back in 2016 out of DePaul University. She has been a part of the club's roster every year since, and it was during the Red Stars' second-place finish in 2019 where she turned heads with her performances as either the center back or fullback. Her role this season was cemented again as she was given the start on the back line to kick off the tournament, but it's her position as a leader on and off the pitch that has impacted the team the most.
"Last year was a different transition in the way of really getting playing time and being a starter, and now I need to lead on the field and off this year. I would say it's much more about being comfortable with it, and taking that off the field later. I think a big part of that has been the Black Lives Matter movement because a lot of people have looked to me to help educate them."
The NWSL Challenge Cup was the first American team sports league back in action amid the COVID-19 pandemic, and the first since the death of George Floyd, which sent shockwaves around the nation. Several players across the league have shown solidarity with the Black Lives Matter movement in an effort to bring attention to the systemic injustices that Black citizens in this country endure. On opening day, there were images of players in shirts and arm bands donned with Black Lives Matter, and several players took a knee during the anthem and at the opening whistle in continued protest against police brutality.
The images were stark and emotional. Gorden, who was involved in the protest that day, says the message was taken off track from the original point as the images went viral and online discourse began.
"It was one of the most exhausting team days. Explaining what it meant for others to kneel, explaining what kind of a statement it was," Gorden recalled.
"I think that there are a lot of people who missed the point and who made it about themselves. And it's not a moment to be about you. I also think that the photo of Julie and Casey was exploited and put out there, nobody wants generational trauma being put on camera.
"The narrative got switched, but at the end of the day all of the Black players in this league want the right to peacefully protest, and still want that right. We want it to be out there that we are making the statement and making a point."
The discussion around whether or not the anthem should be played at a domestic club event, also entered the conversation. The league eventually announced a revised plan that gave players the options to stay inside the locker room during the pregame ceremony.
Gorden believes that being Black and an athlete are not two things she can separate, and as long as pregame ceremonies are part of the tournament, she intends to continue kneeling and speaking out in support of Black Lives Matter.
"The interviews that I'm doing are going to be about this movement. Obviously I can talk on soccer, but everything is centered on this movement right now. That's what I want to be talking about," she explained. "It is draining and I think that that's the biggest difference between being a white athlete and a Black athlete, is that you can't turn it off. Being a Black athlete, having a Black child, having Black family and friends -- you can't turn that off."
In light of all the emotional weight of navigating this time, Gorden is still finding time to excel on the pitch. She's got two Challenge Cup matches on her belt, and has become a staple on the back line. She has 100 percent success rate on her aerial duals and a 90 percent success rate of all her duals. But whether it's heading into a challenge on the pitch -- or off -- she wants to bring attention to the movement that has inspired her for more, and that includes being part of the early stages of forming a Black players coalition in NWSL, spearheaded by Sky Blue FC's Midge Purce.
"I think this year, it's been a big change, and being a leader off the field and finding a way to help people through all this, and not in a way that I'm a person who's going to hold your hand, but in the way that I'm going to hold people accountable for things that happen," Gorden explained. "We've been trying to make a Black players coalition, it's in the beginning process so we do have that chat going on and most of the Black players are on the same page that we want to keep the anthem going so that we can have our chance to make our statement to peacefully protest.
"The conversation that we're having is, how can we change what's going on in this country? Not whether the anthem be played or not. Why is it that when these things happen every rule that is made is to make white people more comfortable? Or to make the people who stood more comfortable? Enough of that. At the end of the day, when we're seeing another video of a Black person dying, that's much more uncomfortable than your choice to stand or kneel."
As the tournament has gone on, players and staff across the league have continued to show solidarity. For Gorden, it has recently become about integrating the things on and off the field as the Red Stars prepare for their final group match. As Chicago is searching for more goals and its first win, it's additionally trying finding ways to give back to the city it represents.
Gorden, with the help of her teammates Julie Ertz and Casey Short, spearheaded a fundraiser to integrate with the final preliminary match. The team will be taking part in "Pass it on" for Get Yo Mind Right, a free mental wellness non-profit therapy service for low-income communities in Chicago. It's part of an initiative by Healthy Hood Chi, ran by Gorden's friend, Tanya Lozano. The "Pass it on" initiative came about after Gorden had conversations with Ertz and Short about how to effectively use this time to give back to the city that she calls home with her son, Caiden.
"Everything started by looking for ways to help the Black community, thinking of Chicago," Gorden said. "Chicago is unfortunately notorious for shootings, on top of everything else that we're fighting against with systemic racism with police brutality. So, we were like where can we start? And honestly, it's within our own neighborhoods, homes and communities. It starts with the mental health of the people that live there. Yes, we want things to change within the system, but can we first start healing the people that live within these communities?"
Players have begun pledges based on performances and a potential win. Alyssa Naeher pledged money per save. For Ertz, she's pledging money for every tackle, and for Gorden, it's going to be for every pass completion. She has the potential to pledge significant money as her passing accuracy is among the highest of the team. Her passing accuracy sits at nearly 90 percent when in her own half. Gorden believes this is just the first many initiatives to come from the club.
"I think that we've been improving each game, each session," Gorden said as she elaborated on the upcoming match.
"I personally feel very ready for the game against Utah. I think it's a perfect way to test us before we go into the quarterfinals ... We have a very new team, we're working on a new system, so this was always going to be a building year for us. We've had to condense all that into just a month, which is difficult. So, under the circumstances, we're learning as quickly as we can."
The Red Stars may not have started their tournament play with the type of play that others expected of them, but they are ending the first round on their terms, and for the city of Chicago -- a place Gorden feels particularly proud to call home, thanks to her deep and complex family history. Being adopted and raised in Elk Grove, her roots to the city run deep, with her biological mother being from the city and her biological grandparents being from the Southside, and Gorden welcomes the added responsibility of playing for her hometown.
"These are things that are in your blood. I've always felt held to this city, and I wanted to raise my son here. I know that there's more difficult things in the process of making that choice, but it was important for me and for him to have that culture. It means everything to me to represent this city," Gorden said.
"I think that a lot of people put on these jerseys and they don't know the history of their cities, but I know the history of my city, and that's what makes it more emotional and that's what makes these decisions more important."