When Nikki Stanton left the National Women’s Soccer League and the Chicago Red Stars to pursue an opportunity playing in Norway, little was known about COVID-19.
It was January, a month before the virus swept across the globe, and Stanton was blind to the challenges coming and eager to be engulfed in a new culture and new training environment.
Shortly after arriving to play for Club Klepp IL, she felt completely isolated from her closest friends and family during one of the most challenging times the world has faced.
“We were able to have a full season,” Stanton said. “What was really hard was watching everything happen in America from afar. I’d wake up every morning, go on Twitter and be in tears seeing what was going on.”
Stanton, who re-signed with the Red Stars on Monday, was emotional over the distance between herself and her family during the pandemic. Watching NWSL players fight against police brutality and systemic racism, knowing she couldn’t support them physically, was more challenging.
She approached Klepp about wearing Black Lives Matter shirts and was denied and told that racism didn’t exist in Norway.
“I said, ‘one, that’s not the point, and two, yes it does,’ ” Stanton said. “But it was about standing in solidarity. That was really hard to hear.”
Returning to Chicago is about more than having the comfort of friends and family. Stanton is committed to joining her teammates and peers in the league in creating actionable change in their communities. Specifically, Stanton said now that she’s back in the U.S., it’s important that she learns from her peers to better understand how she can help.
Stanton already has plans to work with teammate Sarah Gorden and her nonprofit, HoodSpace, and the Chicago KICS football club.
When Stanton left to play for Klepp, she played in the NWSL for six seasons and needed to switch things up, she said.
Improving her speed on the ball was the most significant growth area for the midfielder, who said the pace of play in Norway was much faster and forced her to adjust. She added that her season with Klepp strengthened her confidence and her awareness on the field.
Stanton is joining a new-look Red Stars team.
Coach Rory Dames was vocal this offseason about adding depth to the midfield, and with Stanton’s return plus the addition of Sarah Killion Woldmoe, he has accomplished that.
Dames also has expressed that moving U.S. Women’s National Team star Julie Ertz to the midfield could be possible. After acquiring Mal Pugh and Woldmoe, Dames said that everyone should be on notice that every day will be a competition.
Stanton said this will be the most competitive environment she’s been a part of since signing with Sky Blue FC in 2014. When she spoke to Dames about her role, he was complimentary about her tackling ability and how her skills translate to multiple roles.
“He told me that he could give me any role, and he knows I’ll go out and do it,” Stanton said.
The championship expectations are already brewing for the Red Stars, especially after the team’s offseason moves.
The Red Stars made it to the NWSL Championship in 2019. Now, Stanton said it’s time to make it back to the final and win.
“I absolutely think that this is the year,” Stanton said. “I think we kind of have a chip on our shoulders. I say we as if I never left.”