(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.