(Image courtesy of Chicago Red Stars twitter)
After a 2-week international break, the Chicago Red Stars returned to action with a weekend draw against the Washington Spirit, followed by a mid-week loss to the heavily reinforced OL Reign. The results dropped Chicago down to 6th place in the league.
Chicago entered the international break riding the high of a dominant 1-0 win over North Carolina. While the scoreline wasn’t emphatic, the result was never in doubt, with the Red Stars press and midfield control suffocating North Carolina’s possession.
Head coach Rory Dames made one change to the lineup for the game against the Spirit, reinserting Kayla Sharples at center back and shifting Sarah Gorden out to left back in place of Arin Wright. Notably, the midfield three were unchanged, with Sarah Woldmoe getting her second consecutive start alongside Morgan Gautrat as dual defensive midfielders. In a repeat performance of their work against the Courage, Woldmoe and Gautrat bossed the midfield, breaking up passes and springing the forwards behind Washington’s back line on numerous occasions. Chicago took 16 shots in total in the match, many of them coming off of turnovers generated by the midfield.
Meanwhile, Washington’s attack was disrupted by the loss of Ashley Hatch in the 35th minute to an apparent head injury. However, Trinity Rodman and Ashley Sanchez did their best to trouble Chicago’s back line, capitalizing on long balls over the midfield press. They fired a warning shot when Sanchez forced Alyssa Naeher into a good save off of a one-on-one in the 60th minute. Then, in the dying minutes of regular time, Trinity Rodman scored what appeared to be a late winner off of a similar breakaway opportunity. Rodman, recently ranked by ESPN as the 10th best player in the world under the age of 21, latched onto Andi Sullivan’s ball over the top, chested it beautifully into the open space in front of her, and slotted her shot underneath the onrushing Alyssa Naeher for her first league goal in the NWSL. Rodman’s touch, pace, and composure are seriously impressive for her age, and that goal is sure to be the first of many scored during her career.
Chicago showed some serious grit to push for an equalizer, and their persistence paid off when they drew a penalty in the first minute of stoppage time off of a Sam Staab handball. Morgan Gautrat stepped up and convincingly dispatched her first penalty as a Red Star, giving Chicago the point that their performance deserved.
Without a lot of time to rest before their midweek match, Rory Dames opted to play a heavily rotated squad against OL Reign. The starting lineup featured five changes from the weekend, with Bianca St. Georges, Nikki Stanton, and Alyssa Mautz getting their first starts of the season. Meanwhile, OL Reign were coming off three straight losses, although it was only a matter of time before their supercharged lineup (thanks to some major additions from their counterpart, Olympique Lyonnais) started clicking.
Unfortunately for the Red Stars, that time had come. In the first minute, Lyon transfer Dzsenifer Marozsán released Sofia Huerta in behind, and Huerta’s half-cleared cross found its way to Shirley Cruz. Alyssa Naeher was only able to palm Cruz’s controlled volley into the roof of the net, and Reign had their early statement.
That moment was an indication of just how dominant Marozsán, Cruz, and Quinn would be in midfield. Chicago were never able to string possession together, with the Reign midfield constantly cutting out passes and starting dangerous counterattacks. In possession, the Reign had the composure and quality to play through Chicago’s midfield pressure, both passing through the middle and working the ball wide to deliver dangerous crosses into the box. Former Red Star Huerta was a constant thorn in Chicago’s side, giving their fullbacks trouble all night with her dribbling and pace. Huerta’s 18th minute cross led to the Reign’s second goal, as striker Bethany Balcer showed great hustle and strength to power her header into the back of the net. For more on OL Reign’s new acquisitions, check out Justin McMullin’s full write up on the Reign’s performance.
It was ultimately a disappointing performance for Chicago, with the lack of passing fluidity leading to a limited number of chances, and the defense struggling to contain the Reign’s talented attackers. Chicago were never really allowed to build from the back, with Naeher forced to play long clearances that rarely led to retained possession. Katie Johnson and Vanessa Dibernardo worked hard to try and get on the ball, but weren’t able to do much against a solid Reign defense, and Makenzy Doniak looked extremely isolated as the lone striker. Some of Chicago’s disjointedness in possession was also likely due to the unfamiliarity that this particular lineup had with each other. Dames’s substitutions in the match continued the trend of squad rotation, with Tatumn Milazzo, Sarah Luebbert, Zoey Goralski, and Ella Stevens all coming on in the second half. Most notable was Milazzo’s performance at left back, where she was defensively solid and showed an eagerness to get forward in support of the attack.
At the end of the night, the 2-0 result was perhaps a little flattering to the Red Stars. The Reign sat a little deeper in the second half but continued to create chances, and Alyssa Naeher was forced into some great saves to keep the scoreline respectable. Chicago will go into the weekend looking for another bounceback performance, as they host Racing Louisville on Saturday afternoon at SeatGeek Stadium. This will be Chicago’s first ever meeting with Louisville, and will see Savannah McCaskill and fan favorite Yuki Nagasato return to Bridgeview to face their old club.