Coming into the Chicago Red Stars season opener against a heavily reinforced Portland Thorns side, supporters were hoping to find answers to some key questions facing the team. As the final whistle blew at Providence Park last Saturday, Red Stars fans were left with more questions than answers.
Following the 2021 Challenge Cup, in which Chicago placed 4th in the West Division, there was some cause for optimism. Despite trading key creative influences Yuki Nagasato and Savannah McCaskill to Racing Louisville FC in the offseason, the Red Stars were creating an impressive number of chances. Their xG (expected goals) of 1.05 was second highest at the tournament, and they were taking over 13 shots per game. Combined with their xGA (expected goals against) of 0.27, the advanced stats painted an encouraging picture.
The only problem is that actual goals matter a whole lot more than expected goals, and Chicago struggled to put the chances they were creating into the back of the net. That was always going to be the issue for a Chicago team that has historically relied on otherworldly talent at the striker position (Sam Kerr most recently, and Christen Press before her). During the 2020 Challenge Cup, the team’s first tournament since losing Kerr to Chelsea, even creating clear cut chances was an issue, let alone scoring goals. The Challenge Cup showed that there are a number of creative sparks in the squad, and that a more ball dominant style of play could reap rewards. But in focusing on retaining the core of the squad during the offseason, Chicago failed to fill the gaping hole up top.
Makenzy Doniak is the only true center forward on the team, but head coach Rory Dames has opted to start one of the team’s many wingers in the number 9 position, and using Doniak as a substitute. Kealia Watt, Rachel Hill, Katie Johnson, and Mallory Pugh are all extremely capable attackers, but none of them have the nose for goal needed to put away the many chances Chicago was able to create in the Challenge Cup. Still, if the team could keep creating chances, there was always the possibility that some of them would start going in.
Unfortunately, Chicago struggled to create much of anything against an admittedly superpowered Thorns lineup. They took a total of 6 shots, only one of them on target, and generally looked flustered by Portland’s pressure. Passes were frequently misplayed, and the team lacked any of the fluidity they showed in the Challenge Cup.
More concerning were the five goals that Chicago conceded. Defense has always been a strength of this team, and with a solid back line of Sarah Gorden, Tierna Davidson, Casey Krueger, and Arin Wright, the ease with which Portland created chances was alarming.
Perhaps the most damaging outcome of Saturday’s game wasn’t the scoreline, but the concerning injury that Julie Ertz sustained in the first half.
Sounds like there's some initial optimism that Julie Ertz's injury is NOT worst-case—which would be great news for Ertz, Chicago and USWNT— but still waiting for official word. Red Stars say they have no update yet other than what they shared Sunday: right knee injury. #NWSL— Jeff Kassouf (@JeffKassouf) May 19, 2021
The injury appeared to be to her right knee, and results from the MRI she underwent on Monday have yet to be released. Ertz is key to both Chicago’s defensive stability and offensive threat, and a lengthy absence for her could be devastating to Chicago’s aspirations for the season. The team will need to rely more on Dani Colaprico and Morgan Gautrat (who was left out of the match against Portland due to a suspension) to hold down the center of the park, with Vanessa DiBernardo possibly needing to play a deeper lying role to help fill the gap left by Ertz.
Regardless of Ertz’s status, Chicago will hope to have a much better result at home to Gotham FC on Saturday. Gotham was Portland’s opponent in the 2021 Challenge Cup, and won their season opener thanks to a clinical finish on the counter from Midge Purce. While last Saturday’s game against Portland was disappointing, Chicago can still look to their Challenge Cup showings to remind them of their quality. Reintroducing some of the passing fluidity and composure that they showed in the tournament will help them both in generating goal-scoring opportunities and preventing Gotham’s counter-attacking threat. They’ll also have the benefit of playing in front of their home fans for the first time since 2019, and can count on a raucous welcome back to SeatGeek Stadium.
Chicago and Gotham kick off at 7pm Central on Saturday, May 22 on Paramount+.
Image courtesy of Chicago Sun Times.