June 27th, 2020. For many fans of the NWSL, that summer day marked the return of the league, and professional sports in the United States for the time since COVID-19 swept through the nation, with the inaugural Challenge Cup.
For Zoe Morse, it marked an occasion in which the rookie defender earned her first start as a member of the Chicago Red Stars; five months and 12 days from the day in which she was selected 19th overall. Both before and throughout the game, the same three words came to her mind. The same three words her former college head coach, Steve Swanson, told her whenever she would find herself in a rut during her playing days at the University of Virginia.
“‘Keep it simple,’” Morse said. “It’s still the game of soccer, I’ve been playing it since I was three. Play simple, play how you know how to play.”
Morse, a native of East Lansing, Michigan, said her love for the game can be attributed to the many powerful women in her life, whom she says always inspired her to push for the highest level of whatever she wanted to do. She would mention both of her grandmothers and her former club coach Stacy DeLonge, a current Michigan State Spartans assistant coach.
Morse’s biggest inspiration behind her desire to play professional soccer though came from her mom, who played collegiately at the University of Michigan.
“She got me into soccer young and was my coach for a little bit,” Morse said. “She was always there for me as a guide throughout my soccer career.”
“I just wanted to make her proud. She helped me get into it, and always made it a fun situation.”
The first hints of interest in Morse from college-level programs started while she was in eighth grade. During her freshman year her alma mater started to come in contact with her due to a significant link between UVA’s women’s soccer program and Morse’s club team.
“My club coach and Steve Swanson played college soccer together,” Morse said, “and my coach spoke so highly of Steve. He said, ‘You should really give it [University of Virginia] a go.’, so I reached out, and luckily they wanted me.”
When visiting, Morse instantly fell in love with the team and coaches, calling it a family environment that she could see herself in immediately. Morse, who admitted to being a “huge nature and outdoorsy person”, would also fall in love with the beauty of Shenandoah Valley, which shows in her choice to pursue an education in environmental science and public health.
Upon her arrival to Virginia, Morse instantly became a key figure for Swanson’s team, being named to the 2016 All-ACC Freshman team.
“I didn’t even know that was a thing.” Morse laughed. “It caught me by surprise. I just wanted to play well for my teammates. Those awards come out before the season fully ends, and I just wanted to focus on the games.”
Earning accolades, however, would be commonplace for Morse throughout her career. She would be named to the ACC Women’s Soccer All-Academic Team twice (‘17 & ’18 seasons), the ACC Academic Honor Roll in 2018, and in her senior year would be named to the 2019 ACC Championship All-Tournament Team, CoSIDA Academic All-District second team, named to both Scholar All-Region and All-Region second teams by United Soccer Coaches.
Despite all of that Morse never let those achievements take up too much of her thought process, which is something she hopes her former teammates noticed.
“I think they’d describe me as someone who will never stray from the path I want to be on,” Morse said, “while also trying to be the best person I possibly can be for everyone around me.”
Fast-forward to after Morse was drafted 19th overall earlier this year on January 16th, where there were a few significant interactions welcoming her to the league. The first interaction came from a couple of notable alumni from her alma mater.
“Danielle Colaprico and Morgan Brian (Gautrat) sent me a selfie saying, ‘Welcome to the team! We’re so excited to have you!’”, Morse said. “It was nice to have a little bit of home in the new place I was going to. They helped me feel comfortable coming in and made me feel super welcome with that text and when I got here (Chicago), too.”
Despite the long unforeseen wait between being drafted and her eventual debut, Morse was always confident NWSL games would be played in 2020. Once the Challenge Cup was announced, Morse was not only excited but also ready to get to work right away.
“As a rookie I was just excited to play, having waited so long,” Morse said.
Morse was also grateful for what the Challenge Cup provided in a team sense.
“We really got to live with all of our teammates and spend a lot of time with each other,” Morse said. “I don’t think I would’ve gotten that much time in Chicago to see everyone at once, apart from training.”
Away from the field, Morse is a self-admitted “sucker” for tiny house shows.
“I’ve watched and finished just about every show on Netflix about tiny homes,” Morse said, stating she feels she has all the background knowledge she needs to try it. “I really want to try it, I just need to jump in at some point!”
Morse also admits to being a big reader and having an interest in books about dystopian societies both here and elsewhere, such as Hunger Games and Divergent. Currently, she’s reading a book titled “Sapiens”, which she says is about the history of humans.
As far as comfort food?
“Dark chocolate,” Morse said. “Whether it’s with peanut butter, granola, ice cream. Literally anything. If there is dark chocolate involved, I will be eating it.”
Games will be starting again this month as part of the Fall Series which sees the possibility for Morse to make her SeatGeek Stadium debut, albeit without fans. However, she is already excited to meet them all, especially the younger generation.
“For me, I want to talk to some of the kids who come to games,” Morse said, “they’re the next generation of soccer in the area. So I want to just get to know them a little bit more, what kids soccer is like around here, what they like to do in their free time. I love interacting with kids.”
When the day does come where fans are able to come back and fill the seats, Morse talked about how much that day will mean.
“It will mean everything, honestly,” Morse said. “At that point, it’ll be a long time coming with everything that happened this year. Whenever it does first happen, I’m just so excited to hear that first loud roar.”
“I already know that the fans here are absolutely incredible. Just from the virtual support we’ve gotten, social media, all different kinds of things. I’m super excited for that moment.”