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NWSL preseason preview: Sarah Gorden is looking for trophies and balance in Chicago

Sarah Gorden on building community in Chicago, taking mental space for yourself, and cringe TV.

Washington Spirit v Chicago Red Stars

Welcome back to our 2021 NWSL preseason preview! Today we’ve got Chicago Red Stars’ Sarah Gorden, talking about a tough Chicago winter, buying into the community, and trying to keep your mental game on track to be your best on the pitch.

You can read our previous preseason interviews here:

Michelle Betos | Jennifer Cudjoe | Shea Groom | Jess McDonald | Abby Smith

This interview has been lightly edited for clarity and length. It was originally recorded on February 10.

All for XI: How’s preseason going?

Sarah Gorden: We are in the middle, the thick of preseason. It is a lot of soccer going on, but it’s exhausting and fun and exciting. So all the things.

AfXI: That’s something that’s coming up where everyone’s like, we’re just so excited to come back and play and haven’t seen friends in months and last year was weird so it feels extra nice to see people. Is there that kind of energy happening right now?

SG: Yeah, for sure. So actually a bunch of us were here in Chicago the past month, and we were getting tested already and training together. So a lot of us had already been together the last few weeks. But yeah, it’s great to be back in a group environment and just be around people obviously playing the game we love. It’s just, it’s a good feeling, especially with everything that’s been going on the past year.

AfXI: One of the things that I’ve been hearing is that, in any preseason, that first week or so and people come back, there’s a lot of energy, so you kind of have to be careful, especially with newer players. Especially this one is a much longer preseason than you guys had before.

SG: I feel like every year that’s the common theme is, obviously there’s draftees coming in and then there’s also new players that are coming in. And so they do bring a lot of energy, which is exciting. But also you know how it is - nerve racking. And so it can get a little crazy at times. But this year, we don’t have that many new people starting the year with us. So it’s been very even-keeled, level energy. Very focused group. Much different than previous preseason.

AfXI: How do you ease back into preseason? Or maybe not ease? Do they just drop you right back in? Is it baseline testing? Or is it just getting the family back together and trying to get the vibe going?

SG: So for us, Rory [Dames] tells us come fit. We don’t ask any questions, we take care of that before we come. And we don’t do any testing. It’s just a matter of a lot of playing, playing big, playing mostly like eight-v-eight, 11-v-11, stuff like that. So we can really be free in how we’re playing but also get some fitness out of it. And when your coach tells you to come back fit, you want to come back fit. You definitely don’t want to be having to do fitness after a hard practice. So a lot of us came fit and ready to go. And kind of like you said, getting the family back together and kind of remembering how to play soccer, but also what our teammates like, getting that chemistry back, stuff like that.

AfXI: Are there any players you can see who came back and maybe have less of the cobwebs? Who’s coming back and adjusting really quickly?

SG: You know what, I am just impressed this year, or this preseason, with everything that happened last year in the last year and how so many people have come back and look fit and look like they’ve been touching a soccer ball last season and look good and ready to go. It’s like I said, much different from previous preseasons, because we don’t have as many new people to start, but everyone looks pretty good. Honestly, it’s been what, 11, 12 days of preseason, and I’m like, I need a game. It’s time for some real fun to happen here.

AfXI: You do mention everything that happened last year and the mental component. And I would hope that going into 2021 that players and fans and media haven’t forgotten how much struggle happened last year on and off the pitch with the racial justice initiatives and players discussing the various levels of support they felt from their clubs - or didn’t feel from their clubs. From your perspective with the Chicago Red Stars, what are your hopes on that front going forward through the year?

SG: Part of me really struggled last year and just wants to never go back to that emotional struggle. And then there’s obviously the realist in me that’s like, you know, we’re making progress. We’re in the thick of it now and we need to keep pushing our club and my teammates forward. And so, for me personally, that will be a balance, taking space for myself while still pushing and expecting more from my club and teammates. It’s that balance and I think that we want to keep moving forward, we want people to be better, and we’re going to continue to fight for these things. But at the same time, it’s been clear that mental health is very important. I think that balance is going to be a huge thing, especially for Black players this year. Finding that balance between holding teammates, clubs accountable and taking space for yourself.

AfXI: Are you going to be doing more with Hoodspace this season? Because I thought that was so great as an initiative. And obviously Black women just don’t have the same access to mental health care as white women. Is that something that you’re looking forward to working on this season?

SG: Yeah, for sure. And I’ve only had one event for Hoodspace so far. And that was kind of just for any supporters, fans, friends, whoever wanted to come. But obviously going forward, I want to work with girls in Chicago, Black girls, or any girls of color in Chicago. So I do definitely want to get that started. And I always have these timelines in my head and then I end up being so incredibly busy, so it always ends up being a few weeks later. But I’m hoping within the next month or two, we can really get some programs running and really meet some girls from Chicago and get these initiatives going because that’s the whole point, is to give back and bring these things to Black girls in our community.

AfXI: I think one of the things Chicago Red Stars have done really well, whether as a club or with the players involved, is that they really seem to have bought into the community, which helps tie people in emotionally with the club. Would you say that’s an accurate reading of the vibe in Chicago? And if so, is that something that you guys discuss together, like, how can we keep that community thing going?

SG: We had a lot of discussions last year, but I also have to give a huge shout out to [director of marketing] Lindsay Goldner, who works in the front office and has been absolutely amazing. Like will personally text me and ask what she can do for me and how we as a club can be better. All the initiatives that you see on social media, she’s pushed so many of them and really getting the club in the community. So she’s been great. And there are some super bright spots among this whole fight, which is amazing to have teammates and front office staff and allies like that. But also at the same time, there’s a lot of people that were just kind of dragging along. And so it’s once again, going back to that balance, but yeah, there have been some really great people. And I love some of the things that we’ve been able to do. And a lot of those ideas have been from Lindsay and the front office. And obviously, we have our initiatives and things that we did in the Challenge Cup, and it’s been great to have such a receptive staff member like her and other people in the staff as well that have been open to these ideas and have really helped carry them out.

AfXI: Speaking of Challenge Cup, that’s coming back this season. I’m not sure anyone expected Challenge Cup would happen again. Does that affect how you time your preparation or your peaks, because Challenge Cup is first April 9, and then regular season starts in May. What’s the feeling heading into kind of a slightly altered schedule this season?

SG: I think the main thing is we came off of very short, chaotic season, and now we’re going into the longest season we’ve ever had. And like you said, it’s broken up into different parts for a tournament. It’s short, focused, very intense, versus a longer season where you know there’s going to be ups and downs, you don’t really have that with tournament. So it’s going to be much different preparation mentally, physically, and tactically, and definitely going to be another learning process, because we’ve never had a season like this before. But you know, we’ve already talked about it with the team. We actually want to bring home a trophy or two this year, which we haven’t done in the past, we’ve been so close. So our intent throughout the entire season is to win everything that we can. I think our coach said that we have four opportunities for a trophy. Obviously the last being the most important, but we will try and fight and try and get everything that we can this year.

AfXI: So in that sense, how would you describe where would you personally want to be by the end of preseason heading into that Challenge Cup? And what do you want to see from the team heading into that?

SG: So right now it’s still about just getting comfortable on the ball again, and really just enjoying the game right now and getting back into that headspace and so, by the end of the preseason, I would like to be right where I left off at the end of last season. Which for me, and I’ve always preached this, is when I’m mentally happy, confident in a good space, my physical game is great. And so it’s always balancing those two things out. And I’m hoping that within the next few weeks, it can really be back to where I was. So that’s my personal, what I’m looking for. And then as a team, it’s just having that energy and vibe in the locker room that translates on the field. And last year, it was difficult with everything going on in the Black community and with the pandemic. And so there were times where it was harder to have the right locker room vibe, and this year, we have more time together and we’ll hopefully be able to get that connection back and hopefully everybody will see on the field.

AfXI: You mentioned locker room vibe; you guys lost - she felt like a key Chicago player in terms of locker room vibe -Yuki Nagasato and then obviously Savannah McCaskill got picked in the Expansion Draft as well. With Rory like, I’ll play this game before the Expansion Draft and then we’re out. But the read is that Yuki is definitely someone who brings a lot to team culture and team vibe. How’s it been adjusting to not seeing her and hearing about BBB and stuff this season?

SG: You know what, like Yuki just brings this light-hearted carefree love for the game and it’s like, the way she used the game is the way that most soccer players dream of playing. It’s just that free, I-love-this-sport kind of attitude. And I mean, it’s definitely a gold mine to get to that headspace and so even just in the past 12 days or whatever it’s been, I’ve thought of her and do miss laughing with her and what she brings to the team chemistry. Of course she’s a great player, don’t need to go into that, but it’s what she brings to the locker room that’s even better than that. And so yeah, it’s difficult but it is part of the game. Players move on, get traded. So we’re kind of used to it, losing friends and people we care about. We truly are. I mean, come on, in the past year we’ve learned to adapt and move forward and get better from it.

AfXI: That makes me think of Yuki in terms of - have you seen Ted Lasso yet?

SG: No.

AfXI: There’s a character on that show where every time he runs onto the field, he just screams ‘football is life’ and he’s smiling the whole time. That’s kind of the vibe that I get from all the descriptions of Yuki.

SG: Yeah. That’s her! That’s exactly the way she is.

AfXI: Alright, so wrapping up some fun and rapid fire questions. What kind of cleats are you wearing? Do you have any that you really prefer?

SG: I wear Mercurials and I just got the new colorway, it’s white with all the different pink, blue, whatever on it. They’re fire. They’re amazing.

AfXI: What are you watching or reading or playing right now?

SG: What am I reading, watching or playing? Honestly, I’m kind of a nerd. And I’m reading Radical Acceptance by Tara Brach. I am watching Atlanta and Schitt’s Creek and, I don’t know. I’m just playing life.

AfXI: I just started Schitt’s Creek. My friend told me you kind of have to power through season one. I think that’s kind of correct, even though season one was okay. And then from season two onward I got really invested.

SG: Okay, so it gets better. I’m like, why does everyone like this?

AfXI: I know. I’m like, these people are objectively awful.

SG: They are cringy! I’m like, cringing, I can’t even watch. I have to open my phone.

AfXI: Player on the team who deals best with the cold and player on the team who deals worst with the cold?

SG: Okay, who deals good with cold? I don’t even know. And it’s been a crazy winter because it’s snowed like every single day since we got here.

AfXI: Some teams they have that one player, like it’s in the 30s and they show up in the t-shirt and shorts.

SG: Wait, some of us did that the other day, I honestly can’t remember who it was. There’s always someone who shows up in shorts, probably multiple people. And I’m like, you need to put some pants on. But I think that most of us are probably used to it because we’ve been here for a while now.

AfXI: Yeah. I have a friend who lives in Chicago and the snow has really gotten to her.

SG: Right? I mean, the whole pandemic, quarantine, snow everyday thing is like, well, I guess I’m just gonna be in my apartment all day.

AfXI: Who deals the worst with winter, like who’s always in the biggest puffy jacket every single day?

SG: The whole team?! Like in the puffy jacket, and the other half is in shorts.

AfXI: So if you had to sum up your 2020 in a few words, or a sentence, what would it be? If possible?

SG: Oof, hit me with the hard question. With 2020 I would say it was eye opening, for sure. It brought me to a new level of understanding and empathy for my life and other people. And I would say it was one of those years that makes you really do internal investigation and look inside yourself.

AfXI: I had a lot of little come to Jesus moments last year. I was like, oh my God, who do I want to be as a person for the rest of my life, grappling with mortality? And what do I want my legacy to be? And I was like, um, these are some deep questions. I just want to play Nintendo Switch and sleep.

SG: Right. I just want to go back to college where I really had no questions about life.

AfXI: And lastly, if you had to sum up your hopes for 2021, in a few words or a sentence.

SG: I would say I’m hoping for progress. I’m hoping for presence, and I’m hoping for change, of course.

AfXI: If you had anything that you wanted to say to Chicago Red Stars fans at this point in preseason, to keep their eyes on for the future, just anything that you felt like you wanted them to hear from you guys, what would it be?

SG: I guess I would just say, we have an amazing support group, some amazing supporters and fans. So just that I’m grateful for everything they do from cheering us on on the field, to holding people accountable, to just supporting us as people and players. Always grateful for the supporters, fans, but also for the city obviously. I love Chicago, been here my whole life. So just grateful for everyone, but also for the spot that I’m in to represent the city.