This Is Our Town – Chicago Red Stars 2017 Preview

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WHERE WE LAST SAW THEM

Chicago Red Stars finished the 2016 NWSL season with a W-D-L tally of 9-5-6, coming in at 3rd on the table and earning themselves an appearance in the post-season, where they lost a tough game in extra-time to the Washington Spirit. Yet the early days of 2016 looked pretty bleak for the team, opening with a 3-1 loss against the Dash. But Chicago’s stellar backline quickly became the team’s bright spot. In their first season as Red Stars, goalkeeper Alyssa Naeher and outside-back Casey Short quickly became essential mechanisms of the overall defense, not to mention fan favorites. With their NWSL performances last year, both outside-backs, Arin Gilliland and Short, earned national team camp invites, as did defensive midfielder Danielle Colaprico.

The semi-final against the Washington Spirit was a riveting game that was forced into extra time after a classic Christen Press equalizer. The game was ultimately lost in the final minutes on a great team goal by the Spirit. Chicago had opportunities to put the game away with the threat of Press, Sofia Huerta, and mid-season acquisition Stephanie McCaffrey, but could not convert. The game ended in 2-1 score line, and you can bet that the disappointing result is going to be a major factor in motivating the team this season.

 

WHAT HAPPENED IN THE OFF-SEASON?

Immediately following their playoff loss, Chicago’s front office got to work in preparing for the 2017 season. All player contracts were extended following the conclusion of 2016; the players were either offered new contracts or had their player options exercised, months ahead of general preseason camps. The move signaled that Chicago would be looking to build upon last year’s successes with much of their core in place for 2017, including U.S. Federation allocated players Alyssa Naeher, Julie Johnston and Christen Press.

Several players (Naeher, Press, Johnston, Short, Gilliland, Colaprico) spent time with the National Team during the off-season, making appearances in various camps and friendlies, including March’s She Believes Cup. Since last October, Casey Short has appeared in six national team matches, with five starts. Since her stint with the national team, Short has seen her role split as an outside and center back. Her new role has brought significant attention as Head Coach Jill Ellis began utilizing a 3-back formation since late 2016. Her ability to adapt and execute on the pitch has led her to be a newly U.S. allocated player for 2017. Several other players (Naughton, Johnson, Huerta, Colaprico, Gilliland, Mautz, DiBernardo, Hoy) spent time working on their game in Australia’s W-league, with many of the players making significant strides for their respective off-season teams. Mautz and DiBernardo helped Perth Glory reach the Grand Final against Melbourne City FC. Sofia Huerta was named player of the month in January with Adelaide United. Huerta netted 6 goals in 5 matches during the month, she ended the season with 8 goals in a 12 match season. 

Chicago had minor off-season acquisitions, which included the rights to forward Summer Green, and made some key moves in the 2017 NWSL College Draft. Long-time fans of the Red Stars should be familiar with head coach Rory Dames and Chicago’s history of “winning the draft,” and always look forward to NWSL draft day. This year, the team looks to have achieved their goals on draft day, picking up players like Morgan Proffitt (M, Marquette) Michelle Vasconcelos (M/F, BYU) and Lauren Kaskie (M, UCLA). However, Vasconcelos announced she would miss the 2017 season as she is expecting, and plans to join the team in 2018 after her pregnancy. 

Chicago also unveiled a stunning rebrand with their “My Kind of Town” advertising campaign. After ten years in a succession of WOSO leagues, Red Stars players will be sporting a new crest and new team logos this season. Fans can help follow the team and participate in Red Stars social media movements and events using the hashtag #MKOT. 

 

PRESEASON PERFORMANCES

Along with introducing the rebrand, the team announced they would participate in a preseason tournament hosted by the Portland Thorns that would pit them against Houston Dash and the U-23 squad. The tourney went about as well as expected.  There was no clear winner of the event, and the Red Stars ended the preseason tournament 1-1-1. 

Ahead of the preseason matches, the Chicago Red Stars released their preseason roster. It included all 20 contracted players, new draft picks, and some non-roster invitees.

The team’s first match against Portland saw a bit of a “B-level” type team, as five potential starting players were not available for the match. Defender Julie Johnston was celebrating her wedding and several of her Chicago teammates were in attendance. The game ended up as a 1-0 loss. Despite missing several key play makers, the overall tone of the match didn’t lack opportunities on goal for Chicago with quality chances from Courtney Raetzman and Vanessa DiBernardo. Although a disappointing result, the lone goal was the result of a penalty kick. The penalty was awarded for a foul that was more due to poor decision making and a sloppy collision between Sarah Gorden and Allie Long than any intentional foul.

Off-season acquisition Summer Green also saw significant minutes in the preseason tournament as well. Green collected an assist on a Christen Press goal in Chicago’s game against Houston Dash. The match would be Chicago’s first preseason victory, notching a 2-1 win over the Dash. The Red Stars’ final game of the tournament ended in a 0-0 draw against the U-23 side, and tested the team’s depth, sending players like Taylor Comeau, Lauren Kaskie, and Morgan Proffitt onto the pitch. All three games offered a glimpse of potential roles of depth for the roster as well as a three back formation. It will be interesting to see when and if Chicago would use a three back, considering it has a strong outside back duo in Casey Short and Arin Gilliland.

 

WHY WE SHOULD TOTALLY OVERREACT AND PANIC

Out of three preseason matches, the Red Stars failed to generate a significant offense without players like Christen Press and Sofia Huerta at the helm. Chicago managed just 5 shots on goal in their preseason loss to Portland, 4 in their win over Houston, and managed to come up with a whopping 2 in their draw against the U-23 team. Naturally, it will take time for chemistry and rhythm to be reestablished but with most of last year’s roster returning, the Red Stars should find it sooner rather than later.

However, while preseason matches are more of an opportunity to analyze players, and for coaches to try new formations, many wondered if Head Coach Rory Dames would dabble in the 3-back formation that’s become the National Team’s featured structure of late. The 3-5-2 was unleashed against the Dash, and Chicago came away with the victory. The final match against the U-23 squad ended in a scoreless draw, and the Red Stars would next host Notre Dame in a final preseason match back in Chicago where the squad would end their preseason with a 3-1 victory.

With the regular season fast approaching, the same questions remain as before. Is there enough center back or center mid depth? And where or who are the wingers? Granted, some of the answers could be forthcoming as players like Proffitt, Comeau, and Naughton have impressed in their preseason form. But at the moment, the unknown looms large for Chicago.

 

WHY WE SHOULD ALL BE MAD EXCITED AND HYPED

Now take that thing you just read, flip it and reverse it.

It was preseason, everybody.

As I said above, much of the 2016 roster that made the semi-final will be returning. The 2014 and 2015 draft class are clearly the “core” and future of this Red Stars team. Rory Dames has already taken steps to build upon their considerable talent by selecting draft picks to help build depth and ensure the core will stay intact with a potential expansion year ahead. Not to mention that many of the players have retained their playing form with off-season opportunities in Australia’s W-League and U.S. National Team camps.

The team has shown us already that they have the ability to adapt and execute, which is a definite positive. Having a stable opening match in a 4-back formation with non-regular starters, to the next match in a 3-back formation that saw a win, isn’t something to take lightly. It will be interesting to see how the team will line up on opening day.

Oh yeah, and they’re all pretty good players.

When asked about the potential of heading to the final this season, Christen Press thinks the team has their sights on the championship “The group is so much more solid. For us, it’s our goal. It’s in our realm and reason to bring a championship to Chicago.”

Having several individual players with talent on a team is one thing, being able to have them all play well together is another. These players and coaches have reached the semi-final the last two years now. Each time ending in a heartbreaking fashion. Through roster moves, acquisitions, infamous draft picks, and now a rebranding effort, Chicago has developed a team and culture uniquely their own. It’s no longer a question of whether they can reach the playoffs, the question for 2017 is, can they win a championship?

And from my vantage point?

The forecast looks clear for the Windy City.


2017 Chicago Red Stars

Goalkeepers (2): Michele Dalton, Alyssa Naeher (FED-USA)

Defenders (6): Julie Ertz (FED-USA), Arin Gilliland, Sarah Gorden, Samantha Johnson, Katie Naughton, Casey Short (FED-USA)

Midfielders (8): Taylor Comeau, Danielle Colaprico, Vanessa DiBernardo, Sofia Huerta, Lauren Kaskie, Mary Luba, Alyssa Mautz, Morgan Proffitt

Forwards (4): Summer Green, Jen Hoy, Stephanie McCaffrey, Christen Press (FED-USA)