When the NWSL announced the 2017 schedule complete with a new TV deal, fans realized with excitement that after two 20-game seasons, they’d get 24 regular season chances to watch their favorite teams this year. At five years old, the league is young, but it has already brought memorable moments, especially this year.
Let’s take a look at some of the highlights of the first 12 weeks of the season for the Chicago Red Stars.
Step By Step
A short preseason found most teams still trying to settle their form, the Red Stars included. Their first three games in April saw them go 1-2-0. With two road losses to Houston and Portland, the Red Stars’ lone April result came in their homecoming at Toyota Park against FC Kansas City. It was a game that still had the frustrations of early season growing pains, but Chicago came away with the win. However, more important than the first 3 points of the season, we got to see Julie Ertz in an attacking role for the first time in 2017. Lined up as 10, it was Ertz who scored the first Red Stars goal of 2017
As the Red Stars entered May, Julie Ertz was still their lone scorer three weeks into the season. Christen Press had yet to score, missed a penalty, and pundits were ready to claim her season a bust. Rory Dames had emphasized that his players needed to be more ruthless in front of goal. Over four weeks in May, Chicago would go undefeated, including two victories over top seeded North Carolina Courage. By the month’s end, six players had earned a place on the score sheet for the Red Stars. Including a late game equalizer, courtesy of a Christen Press header.
The month of June saw the conclusion of a seven game undefeated streak for Chicago. A one goal victory over Seattle and a late game equalizer via penalty kick against Washington were just some of the highlights. The more impressive victory came over a red-hot Sky Blue FC team featuring Samantha Kerr. Chicago found themselves down early but contained Kerr to the point of irrelevance. A second half pair of world class goals from Vanessa DiBernardo and Sofia Huerta propelled Chicago to victory.
In their 12th game of the season, the Red Stars kicked off their second half with a win over Orlando Pride. Their second match of a four game road trip, the Red Stars entered Orlando on short rest and some player rotations on full display. Sarah Gorden was given her first start of the season, bringing Casey Short off the bench. Short made an immediate impact when she subbed in and drew a late game penalty. The attempt was converted by Christen Press, while a goal line clearance from Danielle Colaprico sealed the win for Chicago.
Room for Growth
The NWSL is currently 15 weeks in and parity is still relevant for those in the upper half of the table. 8 points separate the first-ranked team and sixth-place team, while 3 points separate teams sitting at second, third, fourth, and even fifth place. Despite the standings and the wins, Head Coach Rory Dames has made his own adjustments throughout this season to not have his team be as predictable as they have been in the past.
Those changes have involved rotating players in the midfield as well as trying out different forward pairings. The Red Stars surprised many by signing Japanese international, Yuki Nagasato (she has yet to play due to injury). Chicago has put their roster depth on display this season, an area many had questioned. Rookies Lauren Kaskie and Morgan Proffitt have seen quality playing time this year. We have even been witness to a 3-back formation late in games featuring either Alyssa Mautz or Taylor Comeau.
By the halfway point time last year, Chicago’s offense had scored five fewer goals (10) than they currently have in 2017 (15). They also have six players netting goals in the first 12 weeks, versus four players last year.
Despite the increase in goals this season, six of Chicago’s twelve matches have only seen one goal against their opposition. While in some games one goal is all it takes to win, other times one goal is all it takes to keep the other team in it. Chicago has shown it can produce multiple goal games, and they will want to produce those results more consistently down the stretch as the race for playoff positioning gets closer.
With the second half of the season underway and their last three games of the season on the road, the Red Stars will want to continue to capitalize on their opportunities in sweet home Chicago. When asked about the importance of utilizing home field advantage, Christen Press mentioned that getting points on the last road trip help set the tone for the first game back, saying:
“I think through that whole time we did pretty well. We took a lot of points. It was not an easy stretch for us. But the worst part is that we have to do it again. I think we have another set of games on the road, we’ve got to get used to taking points on the road, so that when we come home we can have a little bit fun.”
Language and Behavior
The Red Stars Week 15 match against Orlando Pride was the final game before the FIFA break. Chicago came away with the 3 points and a first-place standing. That’s right, a 2-1 victory in front of the largest crowd to date in their history: nearly 4,800 fans were in attendance. Only twice have the Red Stars played before bigger crowds: the 2014 and 2015 doubleheaders with the Chicago Fire.
A brace from Christen Press sealed the win, both goals the result of fantastic service via Jen Hoy, and Huerta. Not all of the game was in perfect harmony, Head Coach Rory Dames was ejected at half time for what was revealed later to be ‘Language and Behavior.’ In post-game comments to media, Dames explained his reaction was the result of past transgressions, saying:
“We had that center referee in our preseason game in Portland. Called a penalty kick against us. Sarah [Gorden] should’ve got sent off on it. Sandra from PRO Referee sent Mark Parsons and I an email after the game when we were out there, apologizing. That it wasn’t to his discretion, these are the rules that’s what it should’ve been. Play Portland at Portland in the regular season. Same guy in the center. Get the PK call against us, fair enough. We obviously we felt should’ve had a PK in the 1st half. More importantly, Christen’s been in physical therapy 3 days a week since that game because of how bad her ankle got blown up on that play. So, there’s also a responsibility to protect the players. So, we cycle back into this. And for me at the end of the half Christen’s going away, it’s a professional foul, you pull her, she tries to make way, you pull her again. It’s not a referee’s discretion if that’s a yellow card or not, that’s a yellow card. I mean there’s so many grey areas, but that’s not a grey area. So, I waited. I waited to see what he did and when he didn’t do it [issue a Yellow] I felt that I finally needed to stick up for my group. I think we have the least amount of Yellow cards in the league, so it’s not like we go flying around. So, what I asked was ‘If Alex Morgan gets in behind us in the 85th minute and we grab her and pull her, is it just going to be a talking to?’ and then I said some other things to him. So, he was in the right to send me off. No doubt about it. But I would get sent off again if that’s the case. That’s not a referee’s discretion. It’s a professional foul. It doesn’t make a difference where it is on the field or what’s happening, that’s a professional foul and that’s a yellow card. And so that particular center referee likes to talk to the players, likes to interact, likes to feel like he’s very important in the game, and that’s fine. But then you’ve got to sort that out on the back end.”
When asked if he could elaborate on those ‘other things’ he said to the referee, Dames replied:
“No, it might’ve been on the camera actually. We don’t yell for cards, we don’t get up [argue] that’s not how we do things. The first two years, I think we’ve led the league in cards. So, we’ve been on both sides. That’s not how we do things. But that wasn’t about whining for a card. That was the principle of the same referee for the third time. And we’re just not ok with it.”
The history between teams and officials isn’t new in professional sports. We’ve seen it exist in other leagues like MLB and umpire Joe West, or the NFL’s Mike Carey and Superbowl XLII, but we’ve yet to see something of that caliber in a women’s pro league, let alone the NWSL. At the very least, this is a post game acknowledgment of it. If penalty kicks, own goals, and hat tricks are a trend in NWSL this season, so is Rory Dames speaking out for his players.
Several Red Stars have been called up to participate in the upcoming Tournament of Nations. USWNT players Julie Ertz, Alyssa Naeher, Christen Press, and Casey Short were all named by Head Coach Jill Ellis to the 23-player roster.
And Sofia Huerta has been invited to train with the national team camp throughout the duration of the tournament. U.S. Soccer will be pursuing a change of association on her behalf. Huerta’s international experience dates back to 2012 when she played for Mexico during the U-20 FIFA world cup. A change of association needs to be approved by FIFA before Huerta could play for the U.S., and it seems that U.S. Soccer has seen her play in the NWSL and realized what an asset she will be to the team.
It’s no secret that it has been a dream for Huerta to represent the United States. The invitation to train during the Tournament of Nations could be the first step in seeing Huerta on the pitch for the Senior women’s national team.
“It’s been a dream of mine forever. Everyone knows that I have played with Mexico, but haven’t for a while. That I’ve declined before because I have had that dream to play for the U.S. so finally getting called in is a dream come true, and I’m so honored to get the opportunity to potentially represent the United States.”
And we’re excited to see it happen too.
At Week 15 the Chicago Red Stars currently sit in first place in the league standings. After the FIFA break, it will be a marathon for playoff positioning.
Where do you think they will be in the standings at seasons end? What areas do you think they need to improve on? Leave your thoughts in the comments below.