Red Stars, Sarah Gorden make NWSL history

The Red Stars made NWSL history by becoming the first franchise to make six consecutive trips to the postseason.

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Sarah Gorden has many titles.

She’s a mother, a daughter, a teammate, and one of the best defenders in the NWSL. After the 2021 NWSL regular season in which she played every minute of every match, she earned Chicago’s first Iron Woman award.

“I’m lucky to be able to put my body through that,” Gorden said. “I do listen to my body, I’m not crazy, but every time it was a game day, I felt ready to go.”

Gorden said she gave herself five minutes to be emotional about receiving the award. It made her think back to her rookie year in the league, when she wasn’t starting and only playing limited minutes for the Red Stars. Instead of being deterred by that, Gorden remained committed to the game and ways she could improve her play.

She invested in her mental health, which positively impacted her performance, and led to improvement every year. This year, she was tasked with playing a new position and taking on a more prominent leadership role when Julie Ertz went down with an MCL injury.

Ahead of the 2021 season, coach Rory Dames talked with Gorden about his expectations for her at outside back. After Ertz’s injury, Gorden was moved to center back. She didn’t expect to play the entire 2021 season at that position, which kept her in a state of limbo mentally and physically.

“At [the beginning of the season], I was doing fitness after games,” Gorden said. “I was thinking I had to get a lot more miles in because you run a lot more at outside back. At that time, I was looking forward to going back to outside back.”

Gorden said there was some disappointment in her position changing because of the groove she had found playing outside back. She eventually settled into the mentality that she’ll be ready to play wherever the team needs her. That mentality has contributed significantly to her identity as a natural leader.

“Whenever we’re going into three-game weeks, everybody talks about who gets rest,” Kealia Watt said after the Red Stars’ 1-0 victory against the Orlando Pride last week. “Sarah is never even part of the conversation. She is so tough. I truly don’t know how she does it. We would not be where we are without Sarah.”

The Red Stars made NWSL history when they secured their sixth consecutive playoff appearance, becoming the first franchise to make six consecutive trips to the postseason. They will play Gotham FC in a quarterfinal match at 2 p.m. Sunday SeatGeek Stadium in Bridgeview.

Gotham FC is coached by former Red Stars assistant Scott Parkinson and boasts one of the most dynamic attacking lines in the league, led by Midge Purce and Carli Lloyd. The challenge will be slowing them down, controlling possession and winning the one-on-one battles.

Gorden said the Red Stars’ backline lives for this kind of matchup. The league announced Wednesday the upcoming expansion draft will be held Dec. 16 in Los Angeles. This draft will be for the two expansion teams — Angel City FC and a team in San Diego — joining the league in2022. Last year, the Red Stars avoided a significant roster shake-up from the 2020 expansion draft by trading forwards Savannah McCaskill and Yuki Nagasato to Racing Louisville in exchange for full roster protection.

It will be nearly impossible to secure that type of roster protection with two teams participating in this year’s expansion draft. Gorden says that the 2022 Red Stars roster likely will look different.

“We all know it’s going to get crazy in the offseason, and it's completely out of our control,” Gorden said. “The group is probably going to change. A lot of teams are going to change. If we want this group to win, this is the time.”

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