Mal Swanson Is Back! And So Are The Red Stars

Almost a year ago, the USWNT played Ireland in two friendlies. As much as I appreciate Ireland’s grittiness and physical play, I deeply, deeply, do not appreciate that those things, along with inept refereeing, led to a terrible injury for Mallory Swanson—one that would keep her away from professional soccer for 11 months, including the most recent World Cup. 

Swanson had been on fire, scoring seven goals for the national team in January and February of 2023 alone. And some end-of-year stats made her dominance at the beginning of the year even more obvious: Despite not playing at all after April 8, the day of her injury, she was the USWNT’s top scorer of 2023. Put another way, she scored seven to everyone else’s combined 29 goals—that’s almost one-fifth of every U.S. goal scored in 2023—all by one player in just two months (the national team didn’t play any games in March). The team wasn’t functional in 2023, but Swanson sure was. Until she wasn’t.

No team wants their star shooter to suffer an injury, but it shouldn’t be debilitating. The U.S. was winning games in the beginning of 2023, and winning games can obscure a lot of issues within how a team is actually doing. So when Swanson was cruelly taken out of the picture, it became painfully clear that, in many ways, the team had been riding her coattails.

The USWNT suffered, and continues to suffer from, a yearslong spate of injuries that doesn’t seem to be letting up. What might have happened at the 2023 World Cup if we had had a healthy Cat Macario? Sam Mewis? Christen Press? Tobin Heath? Who knows. But those possibilities feel more removed; each was injured for quite a while before the World Cup, so they never could have been considered in any substantial plans for the tournament. But when it comes to Swanson, there’s an alternate universe in which she was spared by the soccer gods that fateful April day and went with the USWNT down to New Zealand and Australia. If her pre-injury form is any indication, she would have scored a shit ton of goals for the team. What hurts the most is that the possibility feels so plausible, like the team just missed it by a millimeter twist of fate. 

Unfortunately, we don’t live in that dreamscape. Swanson did get hurt, and it was awful. In the Ireland friendly, Swanson tore her patellar tendon and, as she told Mewis on her podcast The Women’s Game, her kneecap dislocated into her thigh. She had surgery, and about a week afterward, became seriously ill. Her knee had become infected, she said, deeper than even the patellar tendon lies. The infection, and the pain that came with it, changed her perspective. Whereas after the initial injury, she still had hopes to make it to the World Cup in a few months, later she wasn’t thinking about playing anymore. Instead of dreams of New Zealand and Australia, her mindset was, “I literally just need to feel better, because I was so sick,” she told Mewis. She underwent a second, emergency surgery to stem the infection, then was on IV antibiotics for six weeks afterwards. 

In an interview on her husband Dansby Swanson’s podcast, The Express Podcast, the pair discussed how terrible 2023 was, and how Mal was able to get through it. She recalled that a day before her first surgery, she thought, “Whenever I meet God one day, I want Him to look at me and tell me, ‘I’m proud of how you handled that situation.’” It was largely that unwavering faith, along with the support of Dansby and other family members and friends, that she said carried her through the hardest year of her life. 

Swanson seems to have felt ambivalent about the World Cup while it was going. “I didn’t really watch. I feel it would have hurt too much,” she told Mewis. “But that doesn’t mean that I wasn’t completely, fully supporting.” On Dansby’s podcast, she elaborated. “This whole rehab process, I was never gonna play the what-if game, because you can just spiral down if you play that game,” she said. Especially considering how the tournament went for the USWNT, it seems that Swanson’s emotional distance was a supremely healthy choice.

To make matters worse, things weren’t going well for Swanson’s club side. Her injury preceded a very poor season for the Chicago Red Stars, who finished dead last in the league in 2023, marking the first time they didn’t qualify for the postseason since 2014. Coach Chris Petrucelli—who took the reins after reports of longtime manager Rory Dames’s abuse led to his removal in late 2021—was sacked with one game left in the regular season. Indeed, the very livelihood of the team was in limbo after owner Arnim Whisler’s December 2022 promise to sell the club in response to his complicity in Dames’s abuse went unfulfilled until Sept. 1, when a group of new investors finally bought the club.

The 2024 season, then, is an opportunity for a restart for the club. After appointing former U.S. Soccer chief legal officer Karen Leetzow as president, the postseason started with a bang with the hiring of Lorne Donaldson as head coach in December. Donaldson was most recently the manager of the Jamaican national team, which he led to a berth in the round of 16 after an impressive second place finish in a group with heavyweights France and Brazil. Importantly, he has held various leadership positions at youth club Real Colorado, where he helped develop many prominent NWSL players, including one Mal Swanson, whom he has known for decades. It then came as perhaps not a surprise, but definitely a relief, to Chicago fans when it was reported that Swanson would be staying with the club, despite—or maybe, because of—all the changes to its leadership and roster. 

Swanson’s multi-year, $2 million contract with the Red Stars, in part motivated by her husband’s similarly long contract with the Cubs, is a testament to her faith in the new ownership and the idea that the Red Stars franchise can return to its legacy of success. “In Chicago in past years we have been so great because of the players and our training environment—we made it super competitive,” Swanson reflected on The Women’s Game. “I think it’s no secret that kind of just started to dwindle out because of various different reasons.” Instead of an entirely blank slate, Swanson envisions the team “building a new culture with the foundation of what the good culture was with Chicago, because we … were top of the table most every year.” But more than anything, she’s just happy to be back on the pitch. “Coming off of last year, if I’m being completely honest,” she said, “I just wanted to play again and just be able to compete.”

Fans’ delight after news of her re-signing, however, was short-lived. The first weeks of January spelled loss after loss for the Red Stars, including the departures of club centerpieces Tierna Davidson, Casey Krueger, Yuki Nagasto, and Arin Wright via free agency and a trade. Who, we NWSL followers asked, would make up the Chicago side? 

As it turned out, the Red Stars’ retention of Swanson through 2028, which was made official on Jan. 16, was a shining light in what would ultimately be a dizzying sequence of creative moves by the front office, which brought Leilanni Nesbeth, Sam Staab, Shea Groom, Maximiliane Rall, Natalia Kuikka, and Nádia Gomes to the club. The leadership’s intentions were further made clear on Feb. 5, with the hiring of Richard Feuz as general manager. In an interview with The Equalizer, Feuz said that his priority in his new role was “the players and staff and feeling safe to come to work every single day. If we can bring back this joy on but also off the pitch, I’m pretty sure we have the players to have a great season and to bring back Chicago where this organization deserves to be.” 

Fans were hearing about the club’s plans for player safety, but the team’s footballing style and cohesion was inevitably a question heading into the season. Thankfully, NWSL opening weekend brought answers. 

The first good sign from the Red Stars in their first game was that Swanson was not only available to play, but in the starting lineup. For the record, I was not aware of this until I tuned into the match in the second half, and Swanson’s face flashed across my screen. I did a double-take—remember, it had been almost a year since she stepped foot onto a professional pitch—and promptly felt my eyes well up. Mal was back!

Maybe I shouldn’t have been surprised. Swanson had trained with the USWNT before the CONCACAF Gold Cup as a non-rostered player, and Twila Kilgore said that she “looked phenomenal in training,” per Just Women’s Sports. But the timing and severity of her injury had been almost too much to bear as a USWNT diehard, even in the context of anticipating her comeback. Consider Mewis and Press: Two players integral to the USWNT and who have spent years trying to come back from injury, still with no avail. Sometimes, it’s easier not to hope at all.

But Swanson made it back, and she played for 80 entire minutes in her first game. This, after she said in February that getting back to full fitness was a concern for her, was huge. Mal is back back. 

In that match on March 16, away against the new/old Utah Royals, Chicago put up a 2-0 win with goals by Ally Schlegel and Ava Cook and a goalkeeping masterclass by Alyssa Naeher, who just can’t seem to stop playing out of her mind. Though Swanson didn’t notch any goals or assists, she had bursts of brilliance, threatening the Royals’ backline time and time again.

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And her joy to be back on the pitch again was palpable. When Schlegel scored, Swanson was the first one to reach her after sprinting, arms raised. While the team celebrated, Swanson didn’t stop grinning at the sky. 

After the match, Schlegel and Cook reflected on what Swanson’s return means for the team. In the post-match press availability, Cook said, “Her intensity on the field makes you want to run through a brick wall. And the way that she can create something out of what seems like absolutely nothing and do it over and over and over again. It’s amazing, honestly. And playing with her—she makes our jobs so enjoyable.” 

Schlegel concurred, and pointed out Swanson’s commitment to excellence: “Mal definitely might be the first one to help hold me accountable, and she’s the first one to tell me when I did a great job. I think that is honestly, as a teammate, something that I couldn’t be more grateful for.” Beyond her skill, Swanson’s leadership is clearly essential to the rebuilding team.

In an Instagram post after the match, Swanson reflected on the milestone. “Life is a beautiful blessing. Health is a blessing. This game that I love is a blessing,” she wrote. “And at the end of it all I am more than thankful to be able to do what I love again.” 

Sentimental celebrations aside, the first game of a season is just that—the first game. Winning against an expansion side is one thing, but what about against a seasoned foe, the perennially fantastic Seattle Reign? Chicago’s second match, on Saturday, would be a true test.

The match was Chicago’s home opener, and for 83 minutes Swanson displayed moment after moment of skill. She probed the Reign’s backline with creative passes, ambitious runs, and hold-up plays. Her game certainly wasn’t perfect; she sometimes had trouble solving pressure in tight areas, making some sloppy touches here and there. But those things will be honed with more games under her belt, and, far more important for a recovering athlete, Swanson played with excitement and without abandon. Her ideas were consistently creative, and her runs were always thrilling. She didn’t look at all like a player scared of a dirty tackle. And Swanson’s reputation seems to have remained intact as well; during both of the Red Stars’ goals, more Reign players were covering her than the actual scorers. Clearly, playing with relative imprecision didn’t stop Swanson from being incredibly dangerous. 

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In their 2-1 win, the Red Stars endured wave after wave of attacks from Seattle, only letting in an absurd goal from Ji So-yun, who was running circles around Chicago the whole match. Indeed, in both games, Chicago made far fewer shots than their opponents, around half as many total passes, and held about one-third possession. This is, ironically, similar to how their 2023 season shook out: Last year, they took the fewest shots of any club in the league. The difference is that this year’s team is much more defensively cohesive, and is dynamic enough to make things happen when they do have the ball. It’s obviously working; the Red Stars have never started a season with six points before, and no NWSL team has ever done it after finishing at the bottom of the table the year prior.

What’s next? For Swanson, continued improvement. After Saturday’s match, Donaldson said, “I don’t expect Mal to hit any kind of form until five or six games in—you know, she’s been out for a while. … When she hits her stride, then it’s gonna be even greater.” Hopefully, she lands a spot on the USWNT’s roster for the upcoming SheBelieves Cup; training with USWNT hints that Kilgore and incoming head coach Emma Hayes are interested in keeping her around. And if she makes it into the slimmed-down 18-spot roster for the Olympics this summer? Talk about full-circle.

For the Red Stars, the coming weeks present chance after chance to build momentum. If Gotham FC’s success last season is any indication, the NWSL is a league that is just balanced enough—indeed, just chaotic enough—that teams can drastically improve within a short timeframe. A recent headline out of Chicago points to more good things. Sam Staab, who arrived at the club in a shocking trade at the NWSL Draft in January, just signed a contract extension with the Red Stars through 2026. Staab is a key piece to the team’s new vision; she made the NWSL Best XI last season for good reason. In the announcement, Staab credited the club’s “commitment and vision to building a quality professional women’s soccer club” for her decision. 

The return of Mal Swanson and the Red Stars’ renaissance depend on each other, and both are looking hopeful. But Swanson’s comeback is not yet complete. When asked to sum up what she has learned from the challenges she went through in 2023, she said, “as much as I want to answer this question, I feel like it’s not done yet. … So maybe come back to me when it’s done.”


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