Route Two Soccer: Chicago’s Win Over Houston Bodes Well for Their End-of-Season Hopes

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It’s been a puzzling season for the Chicago Red Stars. They were supposed to dominate during the World Cup break, when they held onto most of their key players even as all the other top teams were decimated. But they struggled mightily during that period. Then they came out of the World Cup break on fire, reeling off five consecutive wins, only to turn around and lose back-to-back games to the two worst teams in the league.

Looking at the roster, they should easily make the playoffs. And yet here they are, right in the thick of a tough race over the final month.

It’s always hard to make predictions about this team, but on the evidence of this weekend’s performance against Houston, they might just have kicked things back into gear at the key time. It was an accomplished, comprehensive, and thoroughly dominant result, and a demonstration of just how good this Red Stars team has the potential to be.

As I flagged last week, Chicago has faced significant problems this year in the central defense, and that was addressed directly by coach Rory Dames’s lineup as the two best center backs on the roster were finally moved back into the central defense. Julie Ertz and Tierna Davidson bring a huge amount of value in their other roles, so it’s certainly not an easy choice to place them at center back. But for a team struggling to keep a tight ship, it made sense.

To some extent, the change was informed by the opponent. The Dash are one of the league’s weakest teams at building play through the middle, making it far easier for Chicago to get by without Ertz in the holding role to break up possession. Where they do pose a threat is in quick counters and out wide. Dames countered this by matching the ever-adaptable Casey Short up against Kealia Ohai, and by using the lightning-fast Sarah Gorden on the opposite flank. This arrangement shored up the middle by removing the shaky Katie Naughton, and strengthened the wide defense.

It also had an additional advantage: with Ertz and Davidson at center back, Chicago were ideally suited to pass through and around a scurrying Houston press. Few, if any, central defenders in the league are as comfortable on the ball as this pair. If the Dash are closing down Morgan Brian or Dani Colaprico coming for the ball, it was very easy for Davidson or Ertz to simply dribble forward to create new angles.

The only real danger here was overconfidence. At times, Chicago seemed to double down so much on beating the press that they played themselves into danger. But once they found their rhythm, it was extremely comfortable for the Red Stars to build from the back.

And this set the tone for the whole game. Chicago didn’t dominate possession, nor did they play a tiki-taka style. Instead, they held possession comfortably while drawing the Dash forward, and then pounced, moving the ball quickly into space. You can see it from the goals.

For the first, Morgan Brian received the ball around the halfway line, picked her head up and saw a clear, direct vertical line. One beautifully weighted pass, a single touch from Kerr, and Chicago scored. The whole move took 8 seconds.

For the second, Davidson intercepted a pass, found Nagasato in tons of space, who passed to Kerr, who dropped the ball back to DiBernardo. In those few seconds, Nagasato had raced forward and was now ready to receive another simple, lovely vertical pass from DiBernardo. She then slid the ball between two converging defenders to Kerr, who let it roll and then unleashed a shot. Five passes in about 12 seconds. 2-0.

For the third, Naeher gathered the ball, passed to Brian, who advanced it to Colaprico, who sent it back to Davidson, who found Short out wide. Short received the ball well behind the halfway line, had time to watch the forward runs, and launched a ball over the top. McCaskill ran it down, beating Amber Brooks who inexplicably let it roll, and shinned it past the keeper and into the net. Five passes in 15 seconds. 3-0.

This is what we’ve been expecting from Chicago for so long. They have the personnel to attack with lightning speed and precision. Not because their players are particularly pacey, but because of their collective ability to pick out passes, isolate defenders, and capitalize on space.

Obviously, it doesn’t hurt to have Sam Kerr leading the attack. We all know how good she is, and yet her conversion rates continue to astound.

But this is by no means a one-woman show. After a poor start to the season, Yuki Nagasato is back in good form. Dani Colaprico also seems to have righted the ship and found some of the precision that usually defines her game. But perhaps the most important cog in the machine is Morgan Brian. After several lost years between 2016 and 2018, it’s now been roughly a year that she’s been mostly fit and very good. But her performances over the past few weeks are another step above. She still might never get back to where she was at the end of 2015, but for the first time in a very long time, it feels like she’s back in the conversation for being one of the best midfielders in the league. Her calm possession and incredible field vision are critical to this style of play, and if she can keep it up, it could be the difference that finally earns Chicago that playoff victory they’ve been seeking for so long.

Nothing is set in stone. Chicago have looked great before, only to fall away just as they seemed to be poised to grab hold of the league. And while they could afford to live without Ertz against the relatively frail Houston midfield, they might not have that luxury against a team like Portland or North Carolina. And for all the great performances lately, they haven’t been getting the best from Vanessa DiBernardo, another key player who looks like she’s carrying some significant nagging injuries.

So everything could very well still fall apart. But if anyone can disrupt the duopoly at the top of the league, Chicago is probably your best bet. If they can continue to play like this, they can beat anyone.

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