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Sam Kerr, all grown up

Photos and Graphic by Nikita Taparia

Going into Sunday’s 2019 National Women’s Soccer League Championship, one has to wonder if we’ve finally run out of things to say about Sam Kerr.

This year, she won her third consecutive NWSL Golden Boot, she’s considered a front-runner for league MVP, and she’s led the Chicago Red Stars to the first final of the club’s history. All of these things have been well documented, as has her ascension to the international elite — both in terms of her on-the-field accomplishments and the rampant speculation rising up around her as the end of the NWSL season looms.

And yet, even now, American soccer culture has not fully reckoned with the legacy of one of its brightest stars. At this moment, Kerr is both a beacon of the potential of a stable league and a reminder that evolution is still necessary to ensure that light keeps shining.

Kerr isn’t necessarily the highest-profile international to play in the NWSL — for that distinction, she’s competing with the likes of Marta and Amandine Henry — but she’s unique in that her star has risen through years of playing in the NWSL itself. She has a history in this country, and it has molded the way that she plays.

A decision looms for Sam Kerr – and the NWSL

In a 2014 video for the Western New York Flash, then-teammate Carli Lloyd joked that “sometimes people need to think in order to get better. Sam plays great and does unbelievable stuff when she doesn’t think (even) one percent.”

Kerr’s first two years in the league saw her figuring out life as a professional in a new country as a teenager, learning from seasoned pros like Lloyd and Abby Wambach. Her talent was undeniable, but she was an up-and-coming player with fewer heavy expectations than her American counterparts, tucked away in relatively isolated Upstate New York, playing in a league that hadn’t quite gotten its foothold yet.

Before the 2015 season, Kerr was traded to Sky Blue FC, in a move that included the draft pick that eventually led to Sam Mewis playing for the Flash (now Chicago’s opponent in Sunday’s final). If her time in Western New York evoked the life of a teen prodigy, Kerr’s time at Sky Blue was the college experience. Many of the squad’s top players lived together in a house on the Jersey Shore. They hung out at the beach, and they fostered a dog. They briefly adopted a watermelon they found on the side of the road.

And in 2017, after dealing with a period of injuries, Kerr exploded. She set the single-season NWSL scoring record with 17 goals, and she put up wild numbers up against playoff-caliber teams, scoring four goals against the Seattle Reign in one match (a record) and winning her first Golden Boot.

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But that team was a far cry from a serious one, both on and off the pitch. The individual talent was there, but Sky Blue as a club was a mess — one that turned into something much darker the following year. Kerr was clearly a generational talent, but she was going to have to go somewhere with more support if she wanted to take her work on the pitch to a new level.

So, Kerr took a look around her, and made some moves. Some of these were distinct to the experience of a star soccer player, specifically the massive three-team trade that brought her and Nikki Stanton to the Chicago Red Stars, and also sent both Christen Press and Carli Lloyd to Utah Royals FC (eventually) and Sky Blue, respectively. This was a major step, unique to a special player, but it also mirrored the normal life changes of many people her age. She got a better job in a new city; she moved in with her partner. She started fostering many more dogs.

And if there were any concerns that Kerr wouldn’t be able to fit into a playoff-caliber squad, she dispelled them with another Golden Boot-winning campaign. Early in the 2018 season, the Red Stars struggled to find ways to support their new star on the field, but over time, the dependable connection between Kerr, Yuki Nagasato, and Vanessa DiBernardo started to form in new and exciting ways.

Much has been said about Kerr’s background in Aussie Rules Football — the sport she first loved, taking after her father and brother. The athleticism underlying her game supports the comparison. But her style for the Red Stars has emphasized less her background back in Australia and more a sport deeply ingrained in the city she currently represents.

Sam Kerr plays soccer like a basketball star.

She makes runs off the ball with her hands down, creating pick plays that make space for her teammates to run in on. She takes shots out of Steph Curry’s playbook; the goal this season that broke her own NWSL scoring record was an across-the-body, no-look effort. And while she somehow didn’t get any with the Red Stars this year, she prizes goals scored with her head above all else. Sam Kerr lives to dunk.

And even with the higher expectations and the intense workload, the spontaneity inherent to her game never went away. Ask her about her own work just this year, and you’ll get short quotes that belie an intentional lack of forethought — that tendency to play her best when she’s not thinking, even one percent. A wicked backspin shot at close range to chip Goalkeeper of the Year finalist Aubrey Bledsoe? “I don’t really know, I just do things, I guess.” The best way to beat the Portland Thorns, a team her club hadn’t vanquished in six years? “Score a few goals, I guess.” How to celebrate her team’s first semifinal win? “Have a few drinks, to be fair.”

Even in the monumental moment before kickoff against the Thorns in Bridgeview, Illinois, on Sunday, Kerr locked eyes with Morgan Brian, smiled, and then made a money symbol with both hands. She goes out there to have fun, because that’s who she is, but also because that’s how she wins games.

Behind a heavy 2019 workload, Julie Ertz leads Chicago into another postseason

Kerr’s sense of joyful wonder also extends to the way she connects with her teammates. On multiple occasions this year, Kerr has been caught on camera mirroring her teammates in games, particularly when watching them in goal-scoring opportunities. She kicked out to no one as she watched Arin Wright open the scoring in a 4–0 rout of Reign FC in June. In August, she jumped as high as she possibly could as Casey Short made a dunk of her own, scoring the single most important goal in Chicago’s season and giving them a crucial victory over the Orlando Pride.

On Sunday, as the final whistle blew, Kerr ran right to her bench. Sam Kerr wants to score goals like an icon, but only as much as she wants her team to succeed. And she wants her team to succeed very badly.

That want was on full display this summer, playing with Australia in the World Cup. With her team down 2-1 to Brazil, Kerr somehow forced a goal into the back of the net using what appeared to be some sort of mind control. She never touched the ball, but seemed to influence its movement as Chloe Logarzo’s searching cross into the box skipped across the goal line.

A few minutes later, she did it again, generating a Brazil own goal through sheer force of proximity — a goal that went to VAR and controversially stood despite the fact that Kerr had performed her Jedi mind trick from an offside position. Australia notched a dramatic group-play win.

Then the task turned difficult, and the Matildas couldn’t get out of their first elimination game. If one had to list systemic ills, the Aussies were ultimately brought down by a lack of center-back development and controversial coaching upheaval not long before the tournament kicked off. But the lasting visual of their failure was of Kerr, their captain, as she sent a penalty kick over the crossbar in the sequence that allowed Norway to end Australia’s tournament in the round of 16.

So, Kerr went home to Chicago to take up the responsibility of scoring most of the goals that carried her club to their first championship game. She’s an easy player to collaborate with, and could likely succeed in almost any scenario, but in the last two years, Chicago specifically has also proven to be a good fit. The city is huge, she’s got a professional setup, and the team culture fits her style of play. The Red Stars as an organization have always been good at keeping life in perspective, and they retain top talent by treating their players with the kind of respect that allows them to live as fully-formed adults off the field.

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In her time with the club, Kerr has responded to that trust and respect in kind. Sure, she’s scored many goals for the team (which she openly considers to be her job), but in the weeks after her World Cup return, she was distinctly generous with big words like “love” and “home.” She had considered taking more time after a tough tournament before rejoining her club, but in that moment, she decided that Chicago, among her Red Stars teammates, was where she wanted to be.

“I love being (in Chicago), I love playing, and it kind of takes your mind off everything that goes on around you,” she told reporters after her return. “I feel really comfortable here, the girls make me feel really comfortable, so for me this is my home. That’s the only reason I came home, is to be home and be in my own apartment, and be back with these girls that I love.”

Within the terms of that almost flippant honesty, you believe her when she asserts her dedication to this team. But she’s also always left open the possibility that it might someday be time to move on. Now 26, Kerr’s moving into the athletic peak of her career, and the future might require just a little bit more growing up.

Despite being recognized for everything she’s achieved in the last three NWSL regular seasons, Kerr has never walked away from the playoffs with a Championship. Sunday’s game against Portland was the first time she’d ever scored in a postseason match. She’s hitting her stride, along with a Red Stars team that also finally looks like they might finally be ready to stamp their names on history, and it might be an opportunity that presages an even larger move.

Chicago, a team built to last, now faces its must-win moment

Since the World Cup, Kerr has been followed by rumors of offers from Europe, a natural progression as she continues to excel both in the NWSL and the W-League. As much as Kerr openly loves Chicago, her next decision might not just be about that.

The Red Stars insist they’re working with other NWSL owners to set up a way for Chicago to make a comparable offer to what she might receive from a big European club, and despite all current speculation, no final decisions have been made. But one has to empathize with the dilemma now facing Australia’s chosen daughter. You can be perfectly happy where you are, and still understand that now is the only time to jump.

Before any futures are decided, though, she has the present to deal with. Chicago is in their first NWSL championship, and they’re facing the greatest dynasty in American women’s club soccer history, the North Carolina Courage.

Kerr has some serious work to do if she wants to walk into the offseason with a clear head and a job done. But who’s going to bet against the three-time Golden Boot winner, the Australian wunderkind, now at the height of her powers? And who’s going to root against the prodigy now all grown up, still rocking a kit that’s just a little too big, willing her teammates on to glory?

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