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Red Stars Iron Woman Sarah Gorden embodies the spirit of Chicago

(Daniel Bartel/ISI Photos/Getty Images)

When talking about Chicago Red Stars defender Sarah Gorden’s Iron Woman year, one has to begin further up the field than might be expected for an NWSL center back.

“We talk about this a lot,” USWNT defender and Gorden’s center-back partner, Tierna Davidson, says with a laugh. “Sarah’s taking people on 1v1 from the backline.”

“In the box, preferably,” Gorden interjects.

Gorden and Davidson have an easy rapport on and off the field, one that was tested early this season on Chicago’s backline. After losing Julie Ertz for the year in their first regular season game (a 5-0 loss to the Portland Thorns), the Red Stars started giving up goals they weren’t accustomed to conceding. It took the unit some time to recalibrate and become the tight-knit group that Gotham FC will have to contend with when they meet in the NWSL quarterfinals on Sunday afternoon.

Much of the defense’s growth during the regular season can be attributed to Gorden’s steady presence. She earned Chicago’s first Iron Woman title after playing every minute of every game — 2,160 minutes in 24 games, to be exact. (For this accomplishment and more, Gorden was named to Just Women’s Sports’ Best XI.)

Gorden is not only the anchor of the unit but also a fierce defender when caught in isolation. She jokes that her defensive responsibilities haven’t kept her from getting forward with the ball, though it’s frequently a work in improvisation.

“It’s actually really fun, like a moment of freedom since center backs don’t really get much freedom,” she says. “But I will say there are times where that’s not actually my plan. I don’t really see a path. … In my head, I take the first person on and I’m like, ‘Oh s–t!’ And then the next [person] and I’m like, ‘Oh, s–t!’ So I’m yelling that the whole time. But there’s other times where it really is open, so I’m like, ‘Oh, I’m gonna go.’”

Detours up the pitch notwithstanding, Davidson thinks one of the stabilizing factors of their partnership is Gorden’s ability on the ball, which complements her own strengths.

“Sarah obviously has quick dribbling abilities. Me, not as much — I’m more on the passing side, not dribbling people as much. But I think that we just offer very different problems for teams to have to solve,” Davidson says. “If you want to force it to Sarah’s side, great, you have to deal with her taking the ball up the field. And if you force it to my side, great, you have to deal with passing distribution. It really is kind of a ‘pick your poison.’”

Gorden, a third-round draft pick of the Red Stars in 2016, originally broke into the team’s starting XI as an outside back, despite playing some center back at DePaul University. During Chicago’s second-place run in 2019, she spent parts of the season in the central defense with current Houston Dash starter Katie Naughton, becoming indispensable even as Ertz and Davidson returned from the World Cup. Gorden finished that season at fullback, where she’d also anticipated playing this year.

With the injury to Ertz factoring into the lineup shuffle, however, Gorden has stayed in the middle and held the spine of the team together through every game, including when Davidson was away at the Olympics.

Gorden is a natural 1v1 defender, and often the fastest person on the field. When Davidson (or backup center back Kayla Sharples) pushes forward for Red Stars set pieces — from which they’ve scored 10 goals this season — Gorden can be found standing at the halfway line in acres of space to cover for any possible counterattacks.

Gorden relishes the opportunity.

“Those few times we were playing in a three-back throughout the year, we would always joke like, ‘This is crazy!’ But we loved it because we got to defend 1v1 so often,” she says.

Teammate Casey Krueger, who also has experience swapping roles in the outside and central defense, laughs that Gorden has “saved our butts so many times in the backline.”

“She can play honestly any position in the back. It’s tough,” Krueger adds. “Even though it’s from center back to left back to whatever it is, it doesn’t seem like it is, but it’s a totally different position, totally different mentality, totally different responsibilities, types of running. I can go on and on. And the fact that she can do it seamlessly speaks volumes to how great of a player she is.”

Chicago has relied on both the steadiness of the backline and the excellent play of central midfielders Morgan Gautrat and new addition Sarah Woldmoe to support an attack that is still finding its identity. This has required Gorden to handle the nuances of central defense while also maintaining a connection with the midfield in front of her.

“You have to constantly communicate with your midfielders, and you’re still trying to assess the game and check your shoulders and drop and stuff. So it can be difficult,” Gorden says.

“We’ve learned to find that connection with each other both defensively and offensively, knowing what pockets we’re going to be in when we have the ball, and to be able to talk to them when we don’t have the ball. It took a while to form that connection.”

Communicating on the field has been a work in progress, but off the field it comes naturally to Gorden, who describes herself as having a big personality. She’s become the Red Stars’ ambassador in many ways — including fashion — and the resident hometown kid for a team that sometimes feels removed from its namesake city while playing out in the suburb of Bridgeview, Ill.

“I feel like I am a true Chicagoan,” Gorden says. “I chose to go to college in Chicago, and I feel like my personal story and my adversity — what I’ve been through — really represents the city well, and I’m pretty much obsessed with my city.”

Davidson, in her third NWSL year, says having Gorden as a close friend has been key to her connecting with the area.

“Coming to a new city and having someone who’s grown up in the city and is kind of the definition of the city be one of my closest friends has really been a treasure,” she says.

“And then, of course, I’ve learned to like children.”

Davidson isn’t the only Red Star to bring up Gorden’s son, Caiden, unprompted.

“I always joke that Caiden is closer to every single person on the team than anyone else,” Gorden says.

Gorden, 29, has realized how special it is to have him grow up around soccer, and especially the women’s game. Now, he goes to his own soccer practices and brags about his mom’s team. Caiden’s presence also helps her teammates let their guards down.

“I think he brings out everyone’s softer side and can really just make people feel comfortable,” Gorden says.

For Halloween, the 23-year-old Davidson went trick-or-treating with the Gordens. After a last-minute costume decision, Davidson ended up walking around Chicago as a ghost in a sheet, with Gorden dressed up as Lara Croft from Tomb Raider.

The bond clearly goes both ways. When asked to talk about Davidson, Gorden responds with an effusive “yes” and jokes that she can see the newspaper headline reading, “Tierna and Sarah, best friends!”

“I actually look up to her even though she’s younger than me,” Gorden says. “Playing next to [Davidson], I know I can count on her, off the field and on the field, to rein me in when I need to be reined in and to push me when I need to be pushed.”

“I think that part of learning how to be a good defender is learning from different types of defenders, and Sarah is a very unique type of defender that you don’t see very often,” Davidson adds. “So I’ve been able to learn so much from her, just in terms of … ”

“When to let loose?” Gorden chimes in.

It’s that kind of banter that has helped Gorden and Davidson form one of the most reliable central backlines in the league. It’s also just another example of one of the many things Sarah Gorden is good at as a teammate and ambassador of the game.

Last year, when NWSL teams demonstrated in support of Black Lives Matter during the Challenge Cup, Gorden was outspoken about what the protests meant to her. In September, she founded the Chicago nonprofit Hoodspace to “help girls/women of color find their space of flow through mindfulness activities.”

“I feel a lot of responsibility on my shoulders to do these things,” she says. “To kneel before games, to work with the community, like I just wouldn’t feel good if I wasn’t doing something. Although it can be a lot, I was kind of made this way, doing a million things at once.”

Gorden relies on self-care, breaks when she can take them and the occasional 20-minute cry to keep her going when everything starts to feel like too much. Whatever the future holds, whether it’s a trophy with the Red Stars or something even bigger, Gorden is committed to remaining an open book.

“I just feel like for soccer, my goal has been and will continue to be to reach my ceiling, and I feel like I’m not there yet,” she says. “I feel like every year I continue to add more to my game. And so soccer-wise, I just want to be the best player I can be. Wherever the hell that gets me is fine with me.”

Claire Watkins is a contributing writer at Just Women’s Sports covering soccer and the NWSL. Follow her on Twitter @ScoutRipley.

2023 MVP Breanna Stewart Drops 31 Points in Liberty’s Huge Win Over Fever

breanna stewart and jonquel jones of the new york liberty celebrate win over indiana fever
Stewie and the Liberty dominated the court throughout Thursday's Fever home opener. (Nathaniel S. Butler/NBAE via Getty Images)

The New York Liberty dominated Indiana on Thursday night, winning by a whopping 36 points in the Fever's home opener. 

A sold-out crowd of 17,274 was in attendance to watch as star rookie Caitlin Clark finished the 102-66 defeat with nine points, seven rebounds, and six assists. It’s the first time since January 2021 — her freshman season at Iowa — that Clark's been held to single-digit scoring. 

"The physicality is definitely up there... I'm easily pushed off screens," she told reporters after the loss. "The game seems a little fast for me right now. The more I play and the more comfortable I get, it's going to slow down a little bit. It will be easier for me to make reads, see things develop."

The Fever were outscored by a combined margin of 57 points in their first two games — the largest two-game point deficit in WNBA season-opening history, according to @ESPNStatsInfo.

"We've got to get to a level of toughness," Fever coach Christie Sides in her own postgame remarks. "When things are going south on us, we're not stopping the bleeding."

"I have great perspective on everything that happens," Clark added. "It was the same in my college career. There were some moments that were absolutely amazing. And there were some moments I was not happy with how I played and how my team performed. That's just life, that's just basketball."

Liberty guard Sabrina Ionescu, who herself experienced a rocky rookie season following a much-hyped college career, offered up some insight on the matter.

"In this league, there are tough defenses all centered around not letting you get the ball, trapping, not letting you score," Ionescu said. "There were many factors that played into what was a tough first season for me in the league, but it helps you be able to figure it out. You have to have those experiences."

But it was reigning league MVP Breanna Stewart that truly stole the show, racking up 31 points, 10 rebounds, four assists, three steals, and two blocks on the night.

"In general, I just wanted to come out more aggressive coming off of last game," Stewart said after putting up the 24th 30-point game in her career.

Stewart she also commended the fans inside Indianapolis's packed Gainbridge Fieldhouse, noting that she hopes that level of support to continue across the WNBA.

"This is how you want every game to be and when it's a sell-out crowd, it gives you a similar playoff atmosphere feel," she said. "People want to be a part of this and the thing now is to continue to sustain it, continue to take the momentum that we have and turn it into something more."

WNBA Commissioner Admits to ‘Faulty’ Charter Rollout

WNBA commissioner Cathy Engelbert at 2024 wnba draft
Cathy Engelbert at the 2024 WNBA Draft in New York. (Cora Veltman/Sportico via Getty Images)

WNBA commissioner Cathy Engelbert admitted to a "faulty rollout" of the new charter travel initiative on Thursday, the Chicago Sun-Times reported.

Ahead of Tuesday's season opener, it was announced that the only teams flying private this week would be Indiana and Minnesota. The announcement came mere days after the league made a new charter flight program for all WNBA teams public. At the time, they said it would be implemented "as soon as we have the planes."

But as two teams out of 12 chartered to their first games of the season, others like the Atlanta Dream and Chicago Sky were forced to fly commercial.

A town hall meeting between Engelbert and the players was held in response to the confusion. Everything from the league's new media rights deal to private travel was covered in the meeting, with players submitting their questions ahead of time. Sky center Elizabeth Williams told Sun-Times reporter Annie Costabile afterwards that cross-country flights were prioritized.

"Flights that are across the country like [the Lynx] going to Seattle, crossing multiple time zones, or flights that usually require a connection, those were the priorities," Williams said. "That’s why New York didn’t go to DC with a charter, but Minny goes to Seattle."

What’s unclear under that metric is that the Atlanta Dream played the Los Angeles Sparks on Wednesday, which could technically be classified as a cross-country flight. 

On Tuesday, rookie forward Angel Reese shared a photo on her Instagram story lamenting the league's use of commercial flights.

"Just praying that this is one of the last commercial flights the Sky has to fly," Reese posted. The team still has at least three commercial flights awaiting them in the near future.

"Obviously, I think all teams should be able to get chartered," Reese told the Sun-Times. "But I know moving forward... going in the right direction, being able to have some teams [chartering] is cool. Within the next weeks, everybody will be flying charter, which will be really good."

On Thursday, Lindsay Schnell of USAToday Sports confirmed that the league intends to have all teams on charter flights by May 21st.

Brazil Wins Bid for 2027 Women’s World Cup Host

fifa womens world cup trophy on display
The FIFA Women's World Cup trophy on display in Bangkok after Brazil was announced as the 2027 host country. (Thananuwat Srirasant - FIFA/FIFA via Getty Images)

Brazil has been named the host for the 2027 Women’s World Cup, with FIFA announced early Friday. 

The decision came after a vote at the 74th FIFA Congress in Bangkok, with Brazil earning 119 votes to the joint European bid’s 78. 

This will be Brazil’s first time hosting the Women’s World Cup, with the country having hosted the men’s World Cup twice before in 1950 and 2014. It will also be the first Women’s World Cup held in South America. The tournament will follow the same 32-team format as the 2023 WWC in Australia and New Zealand.

Brazil winning the bid was not entirely surprising after FIFA issued a report just last week, stating that the Brazilian bid had pulled ahead as host following technical inspection. After evaluation, Brazil was given a score of 4.0 out of 5, compared to the 3.7 awarded to the Germany, Belgium, and the Netherlands.

Brazil ranked higher in a number of key areas, including stadiums, accommodations, fan zones, and transport infrastructure. Though considered to be a frontrunner, the US and Mexico withdrew their joint bid prior to the technical inspection period, saying they would instead focus their efforts on 2031.

On Friday, Brazilian Football Confederation (CBF) president Ednaldo Rodrigues called it a "victory." 

"We knew we would be celebrating a victory for South American women's soccer and for women," he told reporters. "You can be sure, with no vanity, we will accomplish the best World Cup for women."

"We are working on a transformation, not only for the country but for the continent," added bid team operational manager Valesca Araujo.

Brazil intends to use 10 of the venues utilized at the 2014 men’s World Cup, including holding the final in Rio de Janeiro on July 25th. The CBF's proposal outlines that the 2027 tournament run from June 24th through the end of July. Last summer’s World Cup began at the end of July and concluded on August 19th.

Another notable element of Brazil's newly unveiled plan to grow of the women’s game is that "all [men’s] clubs wishing to take part in high-level national and continental competitions must now provide a structure for a women’s team." While the definition of "structure" was not specifically identified, the country has set targets with CONMEBOL to help increase the number of women’s club teams in the country.

In last week's inspection findings, FIFA noted that selecting Brazil as the next WWC host could "have a tremendous impact on women's football in the region."

Chelsea Eyes Weekend Finale With WSL Title in Sight

chelsea players celebrate win against tottenham in the wsl
Chelsea beat Tottenham on Wednesday, moving to the top of the table in an effort to win departing coach Emma Hayes some silverware. (John Walton/PA Images via Getty Images)

Chelsea did what they needed to do on Wednesday in order to make Saturday's slate of season-ending WSL fixtures interesting: Beat Tottenham.

The Blues are now number one in the league, with an edge over Manchester City on goal differential thanks to an eight-goal outing against Bristol City last week. 

Yesterday's result tees up a league finale for the books as Chelsea looks to send coach Emma Hayes off with another trophy to add to her cabinet. The Blues will play FA Cup winner Manchester City at Old Trafford on Saturday, while City is away at Aston Villa.

"We will be leaving nothing on the pitch, we will be giving everything and no matter what the result is," Chelsea midfielder Erin Cuthbert said after Wednesday's win. "At least we can look each other in the eye and say we gave everything."

It makes for a thrilling end to Chelsea's Emma Hayes era, as the decorated WSL coach will take over the USWNT in June. And it comes after Hayes all but conceded the title race early this month after Chelsea fell to Liverpool 4-3.

"I think the title is done," Hayes said at the time. "Of course, mathematically, it's not, but I think the title is done. Our job between now and the end of the season is to keep pushing until the end, but I think it will be very difficult.

"We will never give up. But the title is far from us; it's not in our hands. I think City are deserving, their consistency has put them in that position. Of course, we will go to the end, but I don't think the title will be going to us this year."

Be it mind games or Hayes truly thinking her team was that far off, her words lit something in Chelsea. Their following two performances showed the team’s determination to have a shot at some silverware.

As for Saturday's schedule, Hayes believes her team is facing the "tougher of the two games."

"It's a fitting finale for me, being my final game," she told BBC Sport. "As I said to the players if someone gives you a second chance in life, make sure you don't need a third one. We're in the position we want to be in, and we'll give it everything on Saturday no matter what."

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