Following the full-time whistle after Wednesday’s semifinal win against Sky Blue FC, Kayla Sharples shared a moment with her captain and United States women’s national team defender Julie Ertz.
“We were talking about that one play where I had two tackles in a row and got the ball in the middle of the field,” Sharples said. “There was a split second where I was conflicted on if I go to goal or if I go to the corner – so we were just laughing about the thought process behind it. A lot of my teammates laughed about that moment – they were saying “ I thought you had her, you could have gone to goal!”. At the end of the day, it was the smart move ”
The laugh wasn’t only about Sharples’ decision making, but rather one of all-encompassing relief that Chicago withstood a late surge by Sky Blue to reach their second straight league final.
Sharples herself came into the match in the 81st minute, tasked with shutting down the hectic 3-2 tilt she had been thrown right in the middle of. For her, and anyone on the Red Stars bench, the message was straightforward – stay prepared, stay focused, and make an impact.
“For me, coming in as a sub, especially in a close game like that – is a hard task,” Sharples said. “ The most important thing for me going in was to show up, work hard, and make an impact. I think that’s what I did. I wanted to take off some of the burden from the other girls who played eighty plus minutes and were a bit exhausted and had some tired legs. Whatever energy I could bring to riding out that game was huge for us.”
Sharples stands out as one of Chicago’s most interesting stories in its youth-laden run to the NWSL Challenge Cup Championship. Drafted in 2019 out of Northwestern, she only saw thirteen minutes of game time in her rookie season that saw the Red Stars reach their first final in their NWSL history.
For some players, going through such an arduous wait to jump start their professional career could be damaging to their confidence. However, Sharples had an ace in the hole. She was drafted alongside her club and college teammate Hannah Davison, someone she’s known for over twenty years.
“It’s been great to have Hannah by my side,” Sharples said. “The best thing about having someone like that as an outlet is seeing each other’s extraordinary growth. Having someone you’re that comfortable and familiar with is key in growing your own confidence. Especially our rookie year, where we didn’t see as much of the field as we would have liked to, it was a mental struggle. I think neither of us would change that rookie season, though. It made us stronger – I’ve always seen myself as a mentally tough player.”
That confidence and tenacity has been rewarded this summer, with Sharples and Davison anchoring a young back line in Chicago’s 0-0 draw against Portland in their second game of the tournament. In Sharples’ young career in The Windy City, her clean sheet against the Cascadia giants was a banner moment that proved she’s here to stay.
“I think throughout the whole tournament – especially the game against Portland – shows that I can hold my own,” she said. “I deserve to be on the field. Whenever I have that opportunity to show up and prove I belong, I’m going to play my hardest and help the team win. Players on the bench in Chicago – we’re accepting our role, but aren’t complacent. We constantly push ourselves to earn a starting spot, and push the starters to be better as well.”
Sharples and the Red Stars will look to bring that confidence and hunger into their second consecutive league final on Sunday and a chance to claim a trophy that has so far proven elusive for the club.
“We want redemption,” Sharples said. “We didn’t rise to the occasion last year, and having that chip on our shoulder this final means we have something to prove. We belong in this game, and we’re one of the teams to be feared.
“We also want all of our hard work in this strenuous process to be worth it. To win a title will make this month, and everything leading up to it, worth it. To bring it back to Chicago will mean so much. Our fans and supporters have been with us through everything. To be a team that made the semifinals six years in a row – we want to make the extra step. We love this city and love representing Chicago, so bringing a trophy home – in the time that we’re in – would be amazing.”