Kevin Baxter writes about soccer and other things for the Los Angeles Times, where he has worked for 24 years. He has covered five World Cups, three Olympic Games, six World Series and a Super Bowl and has contributed to three Pulitzer Prize-winning series at The Times and Miami Herald. An essay he wrote in fifth grade was voted best in the class. He has a cool dog.
Angel City had just one player under contract when it traded for the rights to Julie Ertz, a two-time World Cup champion midfielder, and Sarah Gorden, a 2021 finalist for National Women’s Soccer League defender of the year.
That was 15 months ago. The team has played an entire season since then, and neither Ertz nor Gorden has made it to the field yet.
Ertz, who gave birth to a son in August, is not under contract with Angel City and might never play for the team. But Gorden, who tore the anterior cruciate ligament in her right knee less than two weeks into the team’s first training camp, is expected to make her debut Wednesday night in a preseason friendly with Mexico’s Club América at BMO Stadium.
Angel City will begin its second NWSL season with an international exhibition match against Mexico’s Club América on March 8 at BMO Stadium.
And though missing a full season to knee surgery in the prime of her career wasn’t the way Gorden saw her time with her new team beginning, she’s convinced Angel City is getting a better player than the one it acquired in December 2021.
“I absolutely feel like this year of recovery has prepared me mentally in ways that I never would have been able to prepare if I didn’t get injured,” she said. “Recovering from a major injury, there’s ups and downs. It’s a lot of isolation, a lot of time by yourself. And there’s so many more mental battles in it.
“When the small hard times [come], I feel so much more prepared to deal with it.”
The year off benefited Gorden in other ways too. Because she gave birth in college, then embarked on a professional career immediately afterward, finding quality time to spend with her son Caiden, now 9, has been difficult. But last year she got the chance to go from being a soccer player to being a soccer mom.
“I definitely didn’t get to give my son the attention he obviously deserves because I was juggling being a single mom and being a professional athlete,” she said. “Last year, I got to devote so much [to] those little things, like going to games, just being there to cheer him on, not having to worry that I’ll be out of town.”
“It was really difficult. I was playing the best soccer I’d ever played, and so getting traded to L.A. was something I really wanted.”
— Sarah Gorden, on missing out on Angel City’s inaugural season
“So in some ways, it was a blessing in disguise,” she said of the injury. “I had more time to spend with my family. I had more time to devote to my son. I also had more time to work on my mental health, to work on the mental parts of the game and to recover my body, not just my knee, but my entire body, which has been playing professionally for a long time.”
The rehabilitation from surgery also left her with more time to devote to her fledgling modeling career and to HoodSpace Chi, the nonprofit she founded 2½ years ago to address mental health challenges girls of color face though the use of yoga and meditation.
“I saw the disparities of resources in those communities regarding mental health. That’s why I started it,” said Gorden, who has been one of the NWSL’s most persistent voices on racial injustice. “That really is my biggest single social justice pursuit. Meditation and yoga and creating space in your life can help everyone.”
However, it took a career-threatening injury for Gorden to create that space for herself. In her final season with the Chicago Red Stars, the only NWSL team she has played for, Gorden logged more minutes than any player in the league. The next season, she didn’t play at all.
It lasted just a few minutes, accounting for just a fraction of John McCarthy’s seven-year professional career, but his performance in goal in last November’s MLS Cup final has been life-changing.
Instead, she had to watch as Angel City, which also lost former national team stars Christen Press and Sydney Leroux to injury, fell five points shy of a playoff berth during its first season.
“It was really difficult,” Gorden said. “I was playing the best soccer I’d ever played, and so getting traded to L.A. was something I really wanted. I came in with this vision of who I was going to be on this team. There was so much excitement from the city and the community for our team. I felt like I was missing out on something I was supposed to be a part of.”
Gorden acknowledged she threw herself a short pity party after the injury, then she threw herself into her rehabilitation with the same intensity she had used on the field. Coming back from a serious knee injury at age 30 won’t be easy, but Angel City coach Freya Coombe has been impressed by Gorden’s progress and attitude.
“She looks fantastic,” Coombe said. “She’s still as good defensively and willing to put her body on the line as she always has done. She reads the game really well. And she knows what it’s like now not to play. She’s had a whole season out. I think that gives you a different angle and appreciation for the game.”
LAFC began its MLS Cup title defense with a blistering start, scoring three first-half goals before holding on for a win over Portland at BMO Stadium.
“I view the sport differently,” she said. “I feel much more grateful to be a part of it. In the past, I’ve always felt like I was kind of chasing something. Now I feel like I just kind of [am] there and enjoy the moments.”
“I feel like a more present person and player,” she added. “I feel like I’m in a great place.”
⚽ You have read the first installment of On Soccer with Kevin Baxter. The weekly soccer column will take you behind the scenes and shine a spotlight on unique stories. Look for it every Tuesday morning at latimes.com/soccer.