Since joining the National Women's Soccer League from the Women's Professional Soccer league back in 2013, Sky Blue FC have never managed to reach the mountaintop of the league. In fact, their lone NWSL playoff appearance came in their maiden 2013 campaign where they were eliminated in the semifinal round. Sky Blue FC, with a win over Chicago Red Stars in the Challenge Cup on Wednesday, could secure their first trip to an NWSL cup final in franchise history.
Ahead of the semifinal on CBS All Access, Sky Blue FC defender Midge Purce opened up on several topics, including what it's like to play in the Challenge Cup "bubble," running for Harvard's Board of Overseers and working on forming a coalition for Black NWSL players.
Sky Blue FC entered the 2020 season with a new coach in Freya Coombe and several newly acquired players, including Purce, who was acquired over the offseason via trade with Portland Thorns FC. She's an attack-minded player who can play anywhere from outside back to forward, and because of her ability to catch fire and score goals at a rapid pace, she is considered one of the more versatile athletes in the league.
By adding new pieces, and coupled with the offseason news that Sky Blue FC would be training and playing games at the state-of-the-art facilities of Major League Soccer's New York Red Bulls, the acquisition of a player like Purce signaled a turning point, as the club continues to make strides for success following several season as the bottom-dwellers of the league.
Purce's move to Sky Blue FC came during an offseason where she participated in Identification Camp for the U.S. women's national team, and running for Harvard's Board of Overseers -- a prestigious governing body for the university, that includes a thorough process of nomination and is currently holding elections, which end on Aug. 8. She was inspired to run on a platform of climate crisis, divestment of fossil fuels and divestment from the prison industrial complex -- all of which she says are very important to her.
"Running on behalf of that, and I just really want to serve those people in the best way that I can," Purce explained. "I think the [Harvard] alumni students are pushing something, not only groundbreaking, but super important. I just want to make sure that their voices and their perspectives are adequately represented in high conversations."
Clubs began preparing for the 2020 season came to grips with the immediate halt due to concerns over the COVID-19 pandemic. Many teams had been in training less than a week before the stoppage, despite others having players in club cities for longer periods of time. For Purce, it was particularly rough to see the improvements made with her new club and then have that progress put on hold.
"Coming to Sky Blue, I was really, really, excited about [it]," said Purce. "When I got here I was even more excited after we had our first week of training.
"When that week stopped, it was devastating, not just for me," Purce recalled. "We're losing so much time. Just months of training that can progress you so much when you're learning a new style, under different coaches that are teaching you things that you've never seen before."
The uncertainty surrounding the return to play impacted all sports leagues across the country. For NWSL, the announcement of Challenge Cup was an opportunity play professionally again in a competitive, high stakes tournament for everyone involved. As the tournament approached, we all experienced a nationwide outcry and call to action in support of the Black Lives Matter movement after the death of George Floyd at the hand of police brutality. The viral video sparked protests across the country, and for the Black NWSL players, they found themselves dealing with COVID-19 on top of heightened tensions.
The league expressed a showing of solidarity and intentions to support players who chose to use their platforms to help the movement, but after hearing from other Black players in the league on difficulties in approaching non-black teammates and sparking conversations to raise awareness, Purce spearheaded the beginnings of a Black Players Coalition within the league in an effort to make sure all Black NWSL athletes were supported.
"As a community within the NWSL, we were very fragmented. There wasn't a way where we could have conversations with each other or explain experiences," Purce said.
She elaborated that Sky Blue FC and North Carolina Courage are two teams with a larger percentage of Black and non-white players on NWSL rosters, which has mostly aided in the support among those players and quickly recognized that may not have been the case for all NWSL clubs.
"It's been really easy for me and I've been supported," said Purce. "But I had that support that I knew I would have from my black teammates, and that's just not the case on all the other teams."
After engaging in additional conversations outside of the league, including insight from Jeremy Ebobisse of the Portland Timbers in MLS, Purce hopes to continue the work in an effort to aid Black women in similar ways that coalitions have supported Black male athletes within professional sports. She wants to push the conversions forward on the intersectionality of Black women within the sport, but wants to do so through a unified and organized front.
"They want to include us and that's a very exciting thing, and I recognize them for acknowledging that and for being supportive in that, but we were like 'let's get our house in order first' and I thought it was necessary that we create our own coalition first.
"It's just been a really beautiful thing to see all of these women come together and be supportive at a distance during a time when our country is in a pandemic, we are arguably in the middle of a race war, [there's] an extreme discord and we're at a tournament in Utah playing soccer and it's hot and it's hard to breathe," she said.
Purce is placing emphasis on the overall goals of the NWSL Black Players Coalition as opposed to any immediate official recognition of its current existence from the league front office. The end game is to uplift present Black players in the league, while establishing a league-wide space for future Black NWSL players, and that currently includes electing a board, where Purce is nominated for executive director.
"I think this coalition is really important, not just for the league, but what it looks like to play soccer for Black women in America, and in the world," Purce said.
Sky Blue FC has their semifinal appearance on the horizon, Purce's second semifinal trip in three years. She returned from a knee injury and played 62 minutes in the quarterfinal against Washington Spirit. She's no longer on the injury report and seems ready to roll. Her current focus is on her larger community and on the individual performance ahead of her. Whether it's transitioning into a leadership role off the field, or her ever-changing positions on the field, she's not listening to critics on whether or not she should play higher or lower come Wednesday.
"I don't really care that it's not coming off the way that I wanted to right now," Purce said. "It's been five games. I've been learning a lot and I'm super confident in it going forward. I'm really excited about it. I enjoy attacking from a deeper role. I enjoy being spaced up and taking people on and having space to dribble instead of somebody riding up my back the whole game.
"I've played up top for a really, really long time and it's allowed me to look at the game, enjoy and learn from it. Being an outside back is a completely, absolutely different lens and I'm just learning so much. I honestly can count on my hands the number of times I played outside back in a four back, it's single-digit numbers and I'm just really excited to be progressing in it."