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The long and winding road leads Gorden to the USWNT

Sarah Gorden was far from a highly-rated prospect growing up. But through hard work, her unconventional path has led her to the U.S. Women's National Team. ASN's John Halloran is here with her story.
BY John Halloran Posted
December 05, 2019
10:00 AM
ANYONE WHO watched the Chicago Red Stars closely in 2019 can’t be too surprised to see Sarah Gorden’s name among the 24 players called into the United States women’s national team’s December identification camp.

At the same time, anyone who wasn’t paying close attention can probably be forgiven for asking, Sarah who?

That’s because Gorden’s trajectory into her first U.S. call-up has been both swift and wildly untraditional.

The 27-year-old defender never starred for—or even played with—the U.S.’ youth teams growing up, nor did she play for a traditional, big-name NCAA powerhouse in college.

Instead, Gorden took one of the most unconventional paths possible. She missed her junior season at DePaul while pregnant, she wasn’t picked until the third round of the National Women’s Soccer League draft, and she spent the vast majority of her first three seasons in Chicago on the bench.

That all changed this past year, with Gorden making radical improvements in both the quality and consistency of her game. On a backline featuring three national team players, she not only won a starting job early in the season, but managed to keep it over more experienced players, and earned 25 starts over the course of 2019—more than twice the number she had in 2018.

In July, she won NWSL Team of the Month honors and her play this year proved instrumental in helping guide the Red Stars to the 2019 NWSL final, the first appearance in the championship game in franchise history.

“This year I finally got a taste for what I could achieve,” Gorden told American Soccer Now. “I saw my potential. I’m starting to get there. This is the first season I got to play every game, so I feel like I still have so much that I can do and now for the first time I know where I need to improve to get there.

“I feel like I’ve never been so motivated. And especially with the thought of a [U.S.] camp coming up. It’s an identification camp, but still it’s a camp and it’s a chance to show where I am.”

After several difficult seasons at the beginning of her career, Gorden admits that she never really saw herself getting this far.

“I was hardly even getting minutes or looks in games,” she said. “I can’t believe how many times I thought, ‘Why am I doing this? I’m a mom; I’m not making enough money to be sitting on the bench,’ [and] feeling like, ‘Nobody believes in you.’ [It was] kind of rock bottom of my soccer career.”

“I didn’t imagine this,” she added. “Even a year ago, I wasn’t a starter.”

As a third-round draft pick, teams clearly didn’t see Gorden as a finished product coming out of college in 2016. She would need time to develop. But at the same time, in the year she entered the NWSL, the league’s minimum salary was only $7,200. Trying to make ends meet, to say nothing of the challenges of being a single mom, would make it nearly impossible to find the time necessary to fully cultivate her potential.

Gorden says that being picked by the Red Stars, where her parents could help with her son and where the team eventually provided a nanny, was key in allowing that process to take place.

“If I didn’t get drafted by Chicago, I wouldn’t have been able to be in the league,” she explained. “I remember my rookie year, I was getting an $800 check each month and it wouldn’t even cover half of my son’s daycare. What are you supposed to do?”

“I don’t think other teams would’ve been able to provide [me with what I needed],” Gorden added. “I don’t think I would have had the same opportunity to succeed.”

A state champion in the hurdles in high school, Gorden also competed at the collegiate level in track and field. And in her early years in the NWSL, she never struggled to keep up athletically. However, it did take her a few years to figure out the mental side of the game, something she mastered this past off-season.

Now, she’s finding joy in the game where there once was stress.

But despite her individual improvement over the past year, the Red Stars’ 2019 season still ended on a loss and Gorden said she’s still struggling with that. She still hasn’t sat down to watch the championship game, where the Red Stars lost 4-0 to the North Carolina Courage, and she knows that Chicago’s roster will look much different next season.

“Our last game was a loss,” she said. “As much as I want to say that I’m happy to have found my way on the field, that I’m happy I found what I needed to do to get playing time, that I grew as a person and a player—I’m happy with all that, but I have a sour taste in my mouth from losing.”

This month, her focus with be on making a good impression with the U.S. team. Despite winning the World Cup, the Americans are light on depth at outside back and Gorden could have an outside chance at pulling off yet another surprise in her career.

“I want to go in there with the right attitude, the right mentality, and just keep my mind calm and do what I know I can do,” she said.

“I’ve never been to a camp, ever, not even as a kid. So, I don’t exactly know what to expect, but I just want to go in and be me and do what I can do.”

John D. Halloran is an American Soccer Now columnist. Follow him on Twitter.

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