Clearly, season openers can be deceiving. After a rough start against the Portland Thorns on Matchday 1, the Chicago Red Stars have put in a series of high level performances to leave them with 7 points through 5 matches. While against Portland they looked leaky in defense and bereft of ideas in attack, Chicago has found both an offensive and defensive chemistry that’s got them looking like a serious contender in the league.
The Red Stars defense deserves praise first and foremost, especially without the marshalling of team captain Julie Ertz. The back line of Casey Krueger, Kayla Sharples, Tierna Davidson, and Sarah Gorden looked significantly more comfortable against Gotham and Kansas City, and for a majority of the match against Houston (although they sadly switched off for Kristie Mewis’s late winner). Krueger and Gorden’s ability to recover on long balls down the lines is a huge part of Chicago’s new possession-oriented gameplan, while Sharples and Davidson have showcased a wide range of short and long passes to help unlock defenses.
Meanwhile, the attack began generating the volume of chances that fans got used to seeing during the Challenge Cup, and better yet, they started putting some of them away too. Perhaps most important to this attacking resurgence has been the form of Mallory Pugh, who is looking more and more like the immensely talented US international of a few years ago. Pugh’s dribbling, passing, and shooting have terrorized defenses in the last few weeks, and she was responsible for all three of Chicago’s goals coming into their match against North Carolina. Kealia Watt and Makenzy Doniak scored two of those goals, both beautiful strikes that indicate some serious finishing ability in Chicago’s front line.
Of course, a match against the Courage in the searing heat at SeatGeek Stadium was always going to test the mettle of this team. North Carolina were coming into the match with a bit of momentum themselves, handing Racing Louisville a 5-0 shellacking the previous week.
Head coach Rory Dames opted to move Sharples to the bench and start Arin Wright in the left back position, shifting Gorden to left center back. The change was part of a larger strategic shift that seemed perfectly concocted to thwart the Courage’s high octane attack. Rather than choosing to build from the back, Dames and his staff opted to allow North Carolina the majority of the possession. Wright played almost as a left wing-back, frequently pushing forward to support the midfield. With Wright pushing up further, and Rachel Hill dropping deeper, Chicago gained a huge numerical advantage in the midfield, and challenged the Courage to play through them. Key to all of this were dominant performances from Morgan Gautrat and first-time starter Sarah Woldmoe, as they continuously broke up North Carolina’s play and won possession in dangerous parts of the pitch. When North Carolina tried to bypass the midfield with direct passes to their forwards, Davidson and Gorden did an excellent job intercepting through balls and handling balls over the top, while Wright and Krueger played stellar one-on-one defense on the wings to keep Lynn Williams and Jess McDonald from getting into any dangerous central positions.
The turnovers generated in the midfield led to the sort of chances that North Carolina are more used to generating than trying to defuse: pacey wingers isolated against retreating defenders. Kealia Watt in particular found herself on the end of a number of through balls, and it was her bullet strike in the 28th minute, destined for the top corner but for Casey Murphy’s excellent save, which led to Chicago’s set piece goal. The goal itself was also brilliantly executed. Tierna Davidson’s lofted corner was headed back across goal by Morgan Gautrat, and Murphy was this time only able to redirect the ball into the path of Rachel Hill, who poked it over the line.
From there, Chicago’s press stifled nearly every attack the Courage could muster. Alyssa Naeher made a lovely save on Lynn William’s header in the 66th minute, but otherwise North Carolina looked out of ideas.
The result was not just a 1-0 win and three well earned points, but a bit of history: North Carolina’s one shot on target is a new franchise low. Chicago will hope that their momentum will carry through the current international break, as they face the third place Washington Spirit on June 19th.
Image courtesy of WGNTV.com