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How an injury renewed Sarah Gorden’s fight for mental wellness and social justice

Angel City had just one player under contract when they traded for the rights of Julie Ertz, a two-time World Cup midfielder, and Sarah Gordona finalist for 2021 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 have made it to the field yet.

Ertz, who gave birth to a son in August, is not under contract with Angel City and may never make an appearance for the team. But Gordon, who tore the anterior cruciate ligament in her right knee less than two weeks after the team’s first training camp, is expected to make her debut Wednesday night in a pre-season exhibition game with Mexico’s Club América at BMO Stadium.

And while missing a full season due to knee surgery in the prime of her career wasn’t the way Gorden saw her time with her new team begin, she’s confident Angel City will get a better player than the one who made it in December 2021 bought.

“I definitely feel that this year of recovery has prepared me mentally in ways I could never have prepared had I not been injured,” she said. “Recovery from a serious injury has ups and downs. It’s a lot of isolation, a lot of alone time. And there are so many more mental battles in it.

“When the little hard times[come]I feel so much more prepared to deal with them.”

The year off benefited Gorden in other ways as well. Since she gave birth in college and embarked on a professional career immediately afterwards, it was hard to find quality time to spend with her son Caiden, now 9. But last year, she had the opportunity to go from soccer player to soccer mom.

“I definitely haven’t been able to give my son the attention he clearly deserves because I’ve been juggling between being a single mom and a professional athlete,” she said. “Last year I had to spend so much[on]those little things like going to games, just being there to cheer him on, without worrying about being out of town.”

Sarah Gorden passes the ball during the NWSL Championship game between the Chicago Red Stars and the Washington Spirit in November 2021.

(Jeff Dean/Associated Press)

“It was really hard. I played the best football I had ever played, so a move to LA was something I really wanted.”

— Sarah Gorden, on missing the first season of Angel City

“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 whole body, which has been playing professionally for a long time.

Rehabilitating from surgery also left her more time to dedicate to her fledgling modeling career and to HoodSpace Chi, the non-profit organization she founded 2½ years ago to address the mental health issues of girls of color through yoga and meditation.

“I saw the differences in resources in those communities with regard to mental health. That’s why I started it,” said Gorden, one of the NWSL’s most persistent voices on racial injustice. “That’s really my biggest social justice drive. 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 himself. In her final season with the Chicago Red Stars, the only NWSL team she has played for, Gorden logged more minutes than any other player in the league. The following season, she did not play at all.

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 from a playoff berth during its first season.

“It was really hard,” said Gorden. “I played the best football I had ever played, so a move to LA was something I really wanted. I came in with this vision of who I would be on this team. There was so much enthusiasm from the city and community for our team. I felt like I was missing something I needed to be a part of.”

Gorden acknowledged that she threw a brief pity party after the injury, after which she threw herself into her rehabilitation with the same intensity as she did on the field. Coming back from a serious knee injury at the age of 30 won’t be easy, but Angel City coach Freya Coombe has been impressed with Gorden’s progress and attitude.

“She looks fantastic,” said Coombe. “She’s still so good defensively and willing to put her body on the line like she always has. She reads the game really well. And she knows what it’s like not to play now. She’s been out for a whole season I think that gives you a different angle and appreciation for the game.”

Gordon agrees.

“I look at the sport differently,” she said. “I feel much more grateful to be a part of it. In the past, I always felt like I was chasing something. Now I feel like I’m just (being) there for a bit and enjoying the moments.

“I feel like a more present person and player,” she added. “I feel like I’m in a great place.”

You’ve read the first episode of On Soccer with Kevin Baxter. The weekly football column takes you behind the scenes and highlights unique stories. Search it every Tuesday morning latimes.com/football.