NWSL Player Spotlight: Brooke Elby, Chicago Red Star and NWSLPA President

by Grant Wiedenfeld

Photo by Michael Cox

Brooke Elby has tasted a championship once before.

In 2012 she played on the University of North Carolina squad with fellow NWSL players Crystal Dunn, Kealia Ohai, Amber Brooks, et al. who went on a late-season tear and won the NCAA Division 1 tournament with a 4-1 victory over Penn State. Elby certainly hopes that this year’s Chicago Red Stars squad can make a similar run to the NWSL championship game to be held in Cary, North Carolina.

Since being traded to Chicago in the middle of the 2018 season, Elby has settled in and has seen the team jell down the stretch of the season. “This is a whole new team,” she says. “The mentality of the players is at a different level than when we’ve played Portland in the past.” Chicago has not defeated the Portland Thorns since 2013, but this Red Stars team is approaching the semifinal with confidence. “We’re ready to take on Portland, change that stat, and take this to the finals,” Elby hopes. Their tight-knit group will feel right at home in SeatGeek Stadium, where Chicago will host their first NWSL home playoff game since 2015.

Chicago’s new mentality centers on forward Sam Kerr. “Even from the outside, a lot of people can see her energy,” Elby said of Kerr. “She’s such a great character to have on our team.” On top of being so personable with her teammates, Elby confirmed that Sam “is in top form right now.”

More Calm in Attack
Chicago head coach Rory Dames and his staff also deserve credit for the success of the team and of Elby, who has taken on more of an attacking role. In April she scored her first NWSL goal. “It meant the world to me,” she said. “You can tell I have no idea how to celebrate, it’s just me jumping around. But having my teammates around me was the best part about it!”

Primarily a defender over her first three years in the league, Elby describes having a typical mindset to goals as “I hope and I hope that I get my chance.” She was usually overcome with excitement with the ball in front of goal. “I definitely skyrocketed some shots.”

She credits Dames with preparing her as an attacker on the wing, and helping her slowing the game down. “I’ve been able to focus more on my thought process in front of goal, calming my body down and staying composed.”

Calm is her middle name, surprisingly. Elby’s vivacious personality developed from a childhood that her mother, from Hawaii, might describe as highly energetic. Yet she named Brooke Kazuko Elby after her maternal grandmother, Kazuko — which means “peaceful, harmonious child” in Japanese. To hear Elby describe finding a calm awareness within the storm of attacking might surprise family members who knew young Brooke as a “jitterbug.”

Perhaps these contradictory qualities forged Elby as a leader. Her family’s favorite movie was Rudy, and she related to the diminutive underdog. “I didn’t hit five feet until my junior year,” she laughs. Equally fond memories of watching Miracle and The Mighty Ducks with her father have yet to translate to hockey stardom, but her taste in sports movies shows that Brooke loves both being part of a team and taking the lead.

Elby led the growth of women’s soccer at Flintridge Prep, near Pasadena, California, where her 2011 team captured the first outright league championship for the small, academic-focused school. Elby was awarded co-MVP as a senior that season, and last year she became the first female athlete at Flintridge to have her jersey number retired. “It was a really proud moment,” she explained, because since her time many other talented women athletes from Flintridge have gone on to play Division I sports. But she regretfully missed the award ceremony, attended by her influential coach Esteban Chavez and her parents, because the Red Stars had a playoff game that same weekend in September 2018.

Madame President
Some may know Elby as leader of the NWSL Players Association, where she currently serves as president alongside director Yael Averbuch and the four-player executive board. Elby first volunteered as a club representative before taking a larger part in building the union. She alluded to several “hard knocks” to her understanding, in the course of moving teams multiple times and seeing fellow players in situations without any protocols in place. “I wanted to be able to make a difference,” says Elby, humbly.

Most of that work happens off the pitch, but one game day in Chicago this spring had the NWSLPA president’s red phone buzzing. Wintry mix fell just hours before kickoff and officials had to decide to play or cancel. “My job is, first and foremost, the safety, health, and working environment of all the players. So I wanted to make sure that if players didn’t feel comfortable playing in that environment, we weren’t going to play.” The league ultimately agreed and moved the game to the next day. There must have been good karma brewing for Elby because her first professional goal would come in the late afternoon sun of that very game.

This year the Players Association has built partnerships with U.S. Club Soccer and Hulu. Elby describes their core mission of “making sure our players are getting the treatment they deserve” by working with the league. The NWSLPA also seeks player opportunities for product sponsorships and for internships, including a crossover program with Harvard Business School, that concern goals beyond soccer.

Elby’s verve and goodwill are striking. She describes the effect of all that she has learned in the union building process: “It teaches you a lot.” With the same entrepreneurial spirit she stepped into the role of Chief Marketing Officer for Beast Mode Soccer, with whom she still trains in the offseason in L.A.

Dream Finish?
A dream finish to the 2019 season would see the Elby and the Red Stars flying to Cary, North Carolina for the NWSL final, with her former UNC coach Anson Dorrance and assistant Bill Palladino looking on as Chicago wins the league title. She describes the “rare chemistry” of her 2012 Tar Heel squad in the same words as this year’s Red Stars, and hopes for a similar outcome.

When asked what Game of Thrones character she would recruit for the playoff roster — if NWSL rules allowed it — Elby waxed lyrical on Arya. “She’s always been that sort of tomboy who never took no for an answer. She has the passion and the tenacity that embodies the Red Star spirit. I also personally love her,” Elby confessed with a laugh. “I’d love to have her on the team.”

Watch for Elby, wearing number 23, for the Red Stars this postseason. Chicago hosts Portland on Sunday, October 20 in the second NWSL semifinal; the match airs live on ESPN2 with coverage beginning at 2:30 pm CT.

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