In this weekly series, I will be highlighting a player from the weekend who was their respective team’s unsung hero, win, lose or draw. A player who does the dirty work, does the little but important things in a game, and someone who didn’t exactly fill up the stat sheet but found other ways to contribute.
This week I’ve chosen Chicago Red Star defender Katie Naughton.
The Elk Grove Village native was selected in the 2016 NWSL College Draft in the second round, going 19th overall to Chicago. She was one of seven players selected to join Rory Dames’ squad that year, and one of the three local players selected by the team. The 23-year-old center back played her college ball at Notre Dame, appearing 87 times while scoring 11 goals in her four-year career. In her rookie season, she played in 17 matches and quickly became an important building piece for Chicago. So far in 2017 Naughton has played in 14 games, and has become one of the five defenders Dames can rely upon to rotate in and out of the starting XI on a game-to-game basis.
Chicago 2-1 Orlando:
Chicago is undefeated at home and they don’t get scored on very often. In fact, the Red Stars have only allowed 13 goals (second-best) and just five goals at Toyota Park, also second-best. But heading into this game, Chicago were without their two regular starters: Julie Ertz and Sam Johnson (Ertz would enter the game in the second half). Orlando, on the other hand, were coming off an explosive 4-1 win over Kansas City, surely taking the field with a bit of confidence. I had thought that the game would be a little more even, to be honest, especially considering that Sermanni had moved Marta into the middle, the spot where Ertz would’ve been. And initially, Orlando took advantage of that mismatch, dominating and controlling 70 percent possession in the first 20 minutes.
Naughton had the challenge of handling not one world class player, but two; international-level competitors Marta and Alex Morgan. It was certainly an adjustment period for the Red Stars with Ertz and Johnson not around, but like I discussed in an earlier piece centered around Arin Gilliland, this group is capable of rotating players on the backline and being successful no matter who is lined up. Wave after wave of Orlando attacks came, but Naughton and her teammates held on, not getting down or panicking for even a second.
In the 22nd minute, Orlando had a nice spell of possession, switching fields and finding Marta to distribute from her central role. Pride midfielder Dani Weatherholt attempted to speed the play up, wanting to slip a pass to the cutting Morgan. Naughton read the intention just in time, stepping in front to escape the possibility of Morgan receiving it and turning for a 1v1 with Chicago goalkeeper Alyssa Naeher.
Throughout the first half, Naughton and her backline were clearly doing some extra communication, realizing that Orlando were building confidence after each run into the final third. Leading the way for the Red Stars defense were Casey Short and Naughton, working to make sure the outside backs Gilliland and Taylor Comeau were on the same page positioning-wise. And while the Pride continued to put pressure, no matter how much knocking they did, Chicago answered the door every time.
Chicago would find a goal in that first half, courtesy of Sofia Huerta and Christen Press (of course). This partnership has certainly been profitable for the Red Stars side; the team is 5-0-2 this season when these two link up for a goal or assist.
Just before halftime, though, Naughton was called upon again. This time it was Marta who attempted to take her to the end line on the left side. The Brazilian and five-time FIFA Player of the Year was doing her dance, hoping to shake Naughton to get into the box. Access completely denied, Naughton waited patiently, not diving in for one second. I enjoyed this play because the Red Star showed off her footwork. She contained the forward long enough and won the ball; not many defenders that go up against Marta wouldn’t have already been on the ground at this point. Chicago went into the locker room with a 1-o lead.
The second half was a different story for Chicago. To reduce the amount of time and space they were giving Orlando in the middle, they brought Ertz to shape things up. Immediately Orlando pressured once again on the left side, with Marta sliding over to make it to the end line of Chicago but Naughton once again stood her ground and won the encounter. The presence of Ertz was clearly helpful, as she took on some of the defensive duties, while Naughton and Casey switched the attack more to try and get Orlando unbalanced.
In the 88th minute, Naughton would make one more play to beat Morgan’s attempt at scoring, beating the USWNT star to header, clearing it to squash the chance of Morgan turning in Chicago’s own 18.
Part of the problem for Orlando was they were not willing to have patience in the final third. Too many times they rushed passes, tried to force themselves forward, and just did not get into the box enough. For Chicago, they were opportunistic, making a few passes before all the sudden they were off to the races, with Press leading the way. While Orlando did manage to score, it was in the 93rd minute and too late. While it wasn’t a perfect defensive game for Chicago, Naughton and the backline got the job done well enough to grab all three points.
With the loss, Orlando slipped to seventh place with 19 points while Chicago pushed past North Carolina into first place with 28 points.