Route Two Soccer: What’s Wrong With Chicago?

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Going into the 2017 NWSL season, the Chicago Red Stars were widely regarded as a leading contender for the title. Through the first ten games, they seemed to be living up to the promise, earning 18 points and playing an aggressive, exciting brand of soccer.

The back half of 2017, however, saw a serious downswing. The strong start gave them a cushion which was enough to hold off challengers for the final playoff spot, but they did very little with their semifinal berth, going down in a rough-and-tumble game against the North Carolina Courage.

There have been some signs of life this year, but the results have remained difficult to come by. Combining their ten games this year with their final fourteen of 2017–a full season’s worth of matches–they’ve picked up a meager 31 points.

NWSL results – based on most recent 24 games for each team

Now, 31 points isn’t nothing. It’s much better, for example, than the 17 points the beleaguered Washington Spirit have managed in that same period. But 31 points is well below a normal playoff pace and is well below what a reasonable observer would anticipate given the quality of players on this roster.

Any team will suffer ebbs and flows in performance, so one shouldn’t overreact to a few bad results. But a full season’s worth of results is more than just a blip or a bad run. It’s clear, at this point, that Chicago is stagnating. That certainly doesn’t mean they can’t right the ship. But it does invite some serious questions about why this is happening and what can be done to fix it.

Chicago has struggled with a serious injury crisis

When searching for theories, it’s hard not to start with injuries. After a consistently great bill of health for most of last year, Chicago’s roster began to run down toward the end of the year, and those problems have more than carried over into 2018. They’ve had to do without some critical players, starting with Julie Ertz, who has only recently returned and still doesn’t seem to be close to 100%. They’ve also desperately missed Vanessa DiBernardo, whose incisive passing is critical to unlocking the Chicago attack. Casey Short was one of the league’s best defenders in 2017, but has missed all of this season. Then consider that Chicago was missing some key players on international duty for most of April. Not least of which: Sam Kerr.

Given these conditions, Chicago has relied heavily on supporting players so far. These include Taylor Comeau and Sarah Gorden in defense, Nikki Stanton in the central midfield, and Alyssa Mautz, Summer Green, and Michele Vasconcelos in the attack. On the whole, these players have done reasonably well, but there is a reason that they are generally not first-choice when the full roster is available.

Of course, every team suffers injuries, so it’s not like the Red Stars are the only ones being forced to turn to second and third choice options. But Chicago’s list is arguably the worst of any team in the league. That has to be part of the equation.

Chicago has played a packed schedule

It’s also worth noting that Chicago has been forced to fit a lot of games into a compact schedule. In a nine-team league, every squad is going to have busier and lighter sections of the schedule, but Chicago hit theirs at a particularly rough moment. It’s certainly notable that the team is winless in their last six games, even as they’ve gotten back their internationals and some of their injured players. It’s unlikely that this is all due to tired legs, but it’s probably a factor. 

Unfortunately for Chicago, these effects aren’t quickly resolved, either. Players who are run into the ground early will need extended recovery breaks to get things back in order—breaks that the schedule simply doesn’t contain.

Chicago is still struggling with their tactical evolution

Last October, I wrote an autopsy on the Red Stars season, in which I argued for some necessary evolution of their playing style. Their rigid adherence to a midfield diamond was blocking many of the teams’ strengths in possession and passing, and doing little to take advantage of their greatest asset: Christen Press. This year, finally, Chicago seems to be making real changes. They have generally set up in a 4-3-3, relying heavily on their fullbacks to both push high and to drift inward—bolstering the wide attack as well as the central midfield. The goal has been to build a smoother attacking style, one organized more around controlled possession and less fixated on direct assaults.

Ironically, they made this change even as they swapped out Press for Kerr. I say ‘ironic’ because Kerr would have been far more suited to the direct style they played last year, while Press fits more naturally into a possession game.

That being said, Kerr is a world-class striker in any system. While things haven’t quite clicked yet, it’s only a matter of time before she reels off a string of goals. And the possession game is a better utilization of Chicago’s overall roster, particularly once they get DiBernarndo back. Her ability to thread the perfect through-ball has been sorely missed so far this year. In the long term, they’ll be a better team if they focus on cultivating more diversity in their range of play. Assuming that they still see themselves as playoff contenders (as they should), their goal should be to get ready to play their best in September.

If this style continues to falter, they may eventually be forced to revert to type. But for now, at least, it’s an experiment still worth pursuing.

We’re approaching make-or-break time for Rory Dames

Broadly speaking, women’s leagues see much less turnover in coaching positions than their male equivalents. Still, try to imagine a coach in the English Premier League or Serie A being allowed to spend this long with this talented a roster and this poor a run of results. It’s pretty difficult. Even in the comparatively lower temperature environment of the NWSL, Dames’ seat has to be getting just a little bit hot.

This by no means is meant to impugn Dames’ obvious qualities as a coach. His tenure at Chicago has been extremely impressive. He built this team up from the ground, assembling a squad of superb players who have grown and developed together. It’s been an incredible achievement, and one well-worth celebrating. Given all that success, it would hardly be unreasonable to give him more time to put things back on track.

At the same time, one can’t help but wonder if there may be diminishing returns to Dames’ contributions in this position. It’s the rare case for a coach to serve more than a few years in a position. Ideas start to go stale, personalities start to clash, motivations falter. This implies no personal failing of the coach; it’s just a natural part of the process. There are, of course, a few notable exceptions—coaches who survive for decades by reinventing themselves and their teams—but for every Sir Alex Ferguson, there are a dozen big names who hop quickly from team to team. 

This year, the NWSL has already seen two big moves, with Vlatko Andonovski and Laura Harvey swapping jobs. Each had seemed inseparable from the team they had built, but not only have Utah and Seattle survived the transition just fine, both teams actually seem revitalized.

A team like Chicago—stacked with talent and anxious to break their semifinal curse—may eventually be forced to consider whether it’s time to part ways. That decision certainly shouldn’t be taken lightly. Still, considering the malaise hanging over the Red Stars over the past twelve months, it’s worth at least entertaining the idea.

The darkest hour is just before dawn?

The Red Stars are an enigma, probably the hardest team in the league to assess. The underlying quality is obviously there, and it’s very easy to put a positive shine on things. Injuries, missing internationals, an evolving style of play—all these point toward a team primed for improvement. What’s more, while Chicago has struggled to find points this year, that has been primarily been driven by a surprising number of draws. A few more lucky breaks here and there could easily have turned a couple draws into wins, which would give them a lot more breathing room. And even without those extra points, they’re hardly in serious danger.  12 points from 10 games isn’t great, but it would only take a couple wins on the bounce to rocket them back up the table. That’s eminently possible, and should give Chicago supporters plenty of reason for hope. 

At their best, Chicago are one of the league’s most exciting teams to watch. For the sake of neutrals everywhere, here’s hoping that the optimists are right and that Chicago turns a corner sooner rather than later.