Photo by Tim Nwachukwu/Getty Images
Whether you call it ‘turmoil’ or ‘adversity,’ the team has battled its way into the NWSL semifinals.
If there was one word to define the 2021 National Women’s Soccer League season, it would be ”turmoil.” For the Red Stars, a word thrown around a lot is ”adversity.”
The Red Stars’ season started with a 5-0 loss to the Thorns, the team they’ll face in the semifinals Sunday in Portland, Oregon. In that match, Julie Ertz went down with what would turn out to be a season-ending injury.
Then they lost starting goalkeeper Alyssa Naeher, who suffered a knee injury in the Olympic semifinals.
As the Red Stars worked to find cohesiveness and establish a new identity on the front line, they leaned heavily on defender Sarah Gorden, who became the anchor of their back line in the absence of Ertz and Naeher.
They finished the regular season with an 11-8-5 record for 38 points and earned the No. 4 seed in the playoffs while navigating multiple league scandals.
Three NWSL head coaches and one general manager resigned or were fired in 2021. In late September, The Athletic published a story in which former players accused former Courage coach Paul Riley of sexual coercion. Riley subsequently was fired from the Courage and had his U.S. Soccer coaching license suspended. Lisa Baird resigned as commissioner.
The news was a catalyst for a stronger, more concerted effort by the NWSL Players Association to create change in the league.
”It’s been difficult,” the Red Stars’ Kealia Watt, a union rep, said last week. ”There were a couple of weeks where everyone was like, ‘I don’t know how we’re going to continue to play.’ It was just so much. Obviously, the victims who spoke out and victims who haven’t spoken out but who have endured abuse like that, it’s even harder for them.”
The union established a list of eight demands for the league, including creating an investigation committee, and said all have been met.
In the first week after The Athletic’s report, Red Stars coach Rory Dames said the team’s staff followed the players’ lead about how they wanted to proceed with their soccer responsibilities. He consulted players about whether they wanted to train and how they wanted to train.
The Red Stars had one match postponed in the fallout from The Athletic’s report before returning to finish the season.
”The most important thing is that players feel safe,” Dames said. ”Our group has done a really good job. I don’t know how else I would phrase that. How they’ve navigated everything, we’ve followed their lead.
”When it’s time to go on the field to train or play, they’ve been really good at putting their focus there for whatever amount of time that entails.”
Red Stars players have said that combining their job as pro athletes with their fight to establish a safer league has been challenging.
On Sunday, that challenge will continue when they face the top-seeded Thorns at Providence Park. The Thorns won the preseason Challenge Cup and claimed the NWSL Shield for having the best regular-season record.
Historically, the Red Stars haven’t fared well against the Thorns on the road. In the last four seasons — excluding the 2020 Challenge Cup, which was played in Sandy, Utah — the Red Stars are 0-5-1 against the Thorns in away games.