Unsung Hero of the Week: Gilliland’s Island

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In this weekly series, I will be highlighting a player from the weekend who was their respective team’s unsung hero, win or lose. A player who does the dirty work, does the little but important things in a game and someone who didn’t exactly fill up the stat sheet but found other ways to contribute.


This week I’ve chosen Chicago Red Star defender Arin Gilliland.

The 24-year-old has been in the National Women’s Soccer League since 2015, when she was drafted fifth overall by FC Kansas City but was quickly acquired by Chicago. Gilliland has played in 45 games for the Red Stars, and has been a force to be reckoned with from the moment she joined the club.

Chicago 2-0 Houston

After losing to Houston 2-0 in the first week of the season, the Red Stars flipped the script on Saturday. This time Chicago were the dominant team and a big part of that was Gilliland. The third-year player once was tasked with containing Kealia Ohai, Rachel Daly and later on Morgan Brian. Despite the considerable talents of those players, none found the net or even produced any particularly dangerous moves. That is evidence of a strong defensive performance from Gilliland.

But she’s not just a good defender. Back in her college days, suiting up for Kentucky, she was a serious threat up top–scoring 30 goals in her time as a Wildcat. And with Chicago’s reliance on attacking fullbacks there’s room for her to get back to those roots with the Red Stars. Early on in the game against Houston, Gilliland worked the right flanks aggressively, combining with midfielder Alyssa Mautz to generate some dangerous chances. In the 15th minute she reached the Dash end line after combining with Mautz on a give-and-go and earned her team a deep throw-in. Throughout the first half, her efforts to push forward created space on the right and pinned Houston back, giving Chicago real momentum.

In the last two seasons, Gilliland has played with several different backlines and players. In her first year, she was lined up next to Abby Erceg, Taryn Hemmings, Michelle Lomnicki, Rachel Quon, Julie Johnston (now Ertz) and Sam Johnson. In 2016 Gilliland, Ertz, and Johnson were the mainstays while adding Katie Naughton, Sarah Gorden, Courtney Raetzman and Casey Short to the mix. In fact, with the emergence of Short at left back, Gilliland switched sides from left to right without missing a beat, demonstrating her adaptability.  Now, in 2017, Chicago is working with the same group, but has achieved a new balance after moving Ertz in the midfield and working with a backline of Gilliland, Naughton, Johnson and Short.

In a recent post-game mix zone session, Gilliland briefly talked about the merry-go-round of a defense in Chicago that seems to be working:

“I think all five of us, me, Julie, Katie, Sam, Casey, we’ve all got a great dynamic, you really move us anywhere in the backline and we’re all gonna work well off each other no matter where we are.”

Gilliland went on to explain how that helps her team and what to expect:

“I think that’s the best part about our team we can move people to different positions and we can still be dangerous that way, so I wouldn’t be surprised if we changed things up again.”

As the game went on, Gilliland settled in for her defensive duties, chasing down Ohai a handful of times to put a stop to a potential threat. In the last two years, Gilliland has become known for her strong tackles, and that was on display this weekend. Her timing is near perfect, but those flashy tackles are often only possible because she has the pace to match even the quickest forwards in the league–putting her in position to make the crucial interventions.

Her individual effort to win the ball led to Chicago sealing the victory in front of 2,114 fans in the 61st minute. Gilliland went in for a crunching tackle with Ohai and the loose ball appeared at the feet of Christen Press who whipped in service that Danielle Colaprico couldn’t handle and it fell to Ertz for the powerful volley for the 2-0 lead and eventual win. Without Gilliland’s hustle, Chicago would’ve been racing back to defend their own goal as Ohai was on the verge of taking off down the sidelines with the advantage.

Gilliland would return to the game after the collision and played until the 90th minute, being subbed out for Gorden.

Chicago put in a strong team defensive performance on the night–with good organization and pressure that prevented Houston from getting the ball over the top.  Every time the Dash midfield looked for that ball, Gilliland and her teammates on the backline read the threat and shut it down, calling for double and triple teams for whoever possessed the ball in a dangerous area. She was composed in her decision making, knowing when to settle play down, or maintain shape again.

But that’s just who Gilliland is, the unsung hero who gladly does her part, and does it REALLY well on a consistent basis. She has been one of the main reasons Chicago has risen to the top of the NWSL over the last few years. If Gilliland can continue to play her part, Chicago could once again be in the playoff hunt in September.