The Chicago Red Stars entered 2017 with high hopes. After several strong seasons that ended in the semifinals, this year was supposed to be their turning point. And not just in terms of results. They were going to be more flexible, would take better advantage of their talented roster, would develop and grow. But now after another disappointing semifinal result, it’s time to take a look back and see what happened to those promises.
The Big Change
There was one big change, and it was an enormously successful one. After starting the season at center back, Julie Ertz was soon moved up into the midfield, where she had an immediate impact. Ertz is a dynamic defensive player, exceptionally disruptive, and capable of initiating quick attacks after winning possession. Those skills become more valuable in a more advanced role, and Chicago used her to great effect.
In the early stages of the year, coach Rory Dames even experimented with playing Ertz in an attacking midfield role. While she is not anyone’s idea of a playmaker, her physical presence, disruptive abilities, and aggressive attacking ability all were useful in that advanced role. However, as the season progressed, she mostly played in a pure holding role, occasionally coming forward but mostly sitting back and shielding the defense.
On the whole, the Ertz experiment was a success, even as the effect seemed to diminish as the season progressed. But this wasn’t just about Ertz; the whole team seemed to wilt in the final several months, eventually stumbling into the playoffs as the 4th seed after a strong start.
Why did this happen?
The simplest answer might be injuries and fatigue. While Chicago was notable all season for the sparseness of its injury report (often listing everyone as fully healthy), it was also clear that many of those ‘fully fit’ players were actually carrying some knocks. Key players like Alyssa Naeher, Danielle Colaprico, Christen Press (just to name a few) have looked less than 100% for months. That might be due to the wear and tear of the season.
Sometimes teams just peak at the wrong time, and that might be what happened with Chicago. However, the story of Chicago’s failures shouldn’t be reduced purely to a problem with the players on the field. Because this team was also hampered by a serious lack of tactical innovation, something that became all too clear in the semifinal this weekend.
The 442 Diamond: Constraints and Limitations
Chicago spent virtually the entire season in the same tactical setup: a pinched 442 diamond, which is characterized by tucked in wide midfielders. We saw this again on Sunday, with Colaprico and Huerta (neither of whom would fit anyone’s idea of a traditional winger) playing in the wide positions.
This setup offers a very stable base and is excellent for choking off threats through the midfield. The pinched in wide players offer support, and can easily collapse on the ball when needed. And at least theoretically the diamond facilitates a short-passing midfield game. By moving away from the 442 as ‘two banks of four,’ you generate some forward impetus in attack.
However, the diamond is also severely limited. It features no true wide attackers, offloading the entire responsibility for width in the attack to the fullbacks. Of course, the modern fullback is generally expected to contribute significantly to the attack, but in most systems is given support by some form of wide attacker. In the diamond, there is no such support. That can be an advantage—since it gives your fullbacks a lot of empty space to run into—but is also a danger. Without clear partners to link up with, the fullbacks can easily become isolated. They may find it difficult to join the attack at all, which effectively condenses the team’s attacking options to a very narrow pathway down the center of the pitch.
Furthermore, the diamond also cedes wide spaces to the opponent’s attackers, to potentially devastating effect. On Sunday, North Carolina’s wide attackers (especially Taylor Smith down the right) were given endless expanses of green space to race through. With the Red Stars fullbacks stuck back in their defensive third, there was no one to stop those free runs. Casey Short did admirable work defending deep, but without her and Gilliland moving forward to join the attack, Chicago was left with a clogged midfield and nowhere else to go.
Route One Soccer with a Route Two Roster
When it works well, a diamond can give those players a chance to shine. But once countered, it offers very little flexibility. Facing off against North Carolina’s 4-2-2-2 ‘magic square,’ Chicago were deprived of space in the midfield and pressed back deep in defense. Without any real wide attackers, they could not push back Carolina’s fullbacks in order to relieve pressure.
And this was by no means the first time that Chicago has run into problems with their diamond. In fact, their persistence with this setup is one of the most baffling things about their season. For all the claims early in the year about fluidity and flexibility, they arguably were the most rigid team in the entire league.
In principle, a diamond can provide a useful staging ground for a strong midfield possession game. And at times this year, we saw the Red Stars finally seeming to produce the sort of technical soccer that has long been promised. The problem is that this depends almost entirely on the opposition’s willingness to let you play. As teams have increasingly packed the midfield and pressed their fullbacks high, Chicago’s central players have been starved of both space to operate and outlets for relief.
This is compounded by the apparent desire for Press to stay high up the pitch, rather than having her drop back to receive the ball and initiate attacks. Without her support in the midfield, passing lanes grow even more clogged, and attacks fizzle into wasted possession or costly turnovers.
Ultimately, against teams willing to adapt to circumstance, Chicago has been reduced to a caricature of their direct style. Instead of quick ball movement opening up lanes for through-balls, they are forced to resort to lumping the ball forward and hoping for knockdowns. This is hardly a good use of their resources under any circumstance and was an unmitigated disaster against North Carolina. On long ball after long ball, players like Mewis, Zerboni, Dahlkemper, and Erceg rose far above their Chicago counterparts to easily control the ball and restart their attack. It was as ineffective as it was baffling.
If Chicago were a fast, physical team with players of limited skill but maximal effort, this would make perfect sense. Route one soccer is an effective way to level the playing field against superior opposition. It allows your strong defensive unit to stay deep while giving you a modest chance at a lucky break on the attacking end.
But a team with Dani Colaprico, Vanessa DiBernardo, Christen Press, and Yuki Nagasoto in the middle of their attack has no business playing that way.
Where to Go from Here?
Chicago is blessed with an excellent roster, and much of the credit for that goes to coach Rory Dames, who has built this team up year by year. Dames was nominated for manager of the year, at least partially in recognition of that work. However, there’s a difference between assembling a top-level group of players and getting the most out of those players once you have them. And on the second front, it’s hard to say that Dames’ reign has been a success.
A team picked by many to win the Shield instead finished a distant fourth, and played one of their worst games of the season in the semifinal. And that’s not too dissimilar from what happened in 2016, either.
All in all, a team with a stacked roster and limitless potential has now spent the past two seasons barely staying above water. Over 46 games (regular season plus two semifinals) Chicago has managed a goal difference of only +5. That’s a shockingly weak result for a team filled with such good players. And it suggests that whatever the proximate causes for their poor performance in the semifinals, there are deeper issues with the team as a whole.
It would be surprising if Chicago made a coaching change in the offseason, but for the first time since the start of the NWSL, it’s no longer outside the realm of possibility. And regardless of who takes the helm in 2018, the priority will need to be significant tactical evolution. Playing direct helped turn Chicago into a playoff team, but unless they can diversify their options, they are unlikely to take the next step forward.