Analysis

Re-tooled Red Stars, rejuvenated Sam Kerr have ambitious goals for a brighter future

ISI Photos-Craig Mitchelldyer

The 2017 NWSL MVP says she still hasn't conquered this league, yet. As she and Chicago sought change, their objectives aligned.

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PORTLAND, Ore. – “That was a cake being baked for a long time.”

Arnim Whisler is still in awe of his team’s big offseason acquisition, speaking as if doing so too loudly will wake him from his dream. The Chicago Red Stars, intent on honoring a trade request from their star and captain, Christen Press, managed to do so while also acquiring Sam Kerr, the National Women’s Soccer League’s best attacking talent.

“Once it was clear it was time to move on [from Press], we were going to protect the other 19 players and make sure we had an even better chance to make the final,” said Whisler, the Red Stars’ owner.

It wasn’t an easy task, but as January’s NWSL college draft approached, planets started to align. As trades with Press’ preferred destinations of Portland and Seattle failed to materialize, Kerr became available, as did Carli Lloyd in Houston. The eventual three-team trade landed Press’ rights in Houston, Lloyd at home in New Jersey, and Kerr with Chicago.

“Now we’ve got to keep her, but we got a chance,” Whisler says. “We need to make her happy. It’s up to us, now.”

The money was the thing that was the eye-opener, but I’m all about being here, on the field and off the field, instead of having dollars in your bank account.

- Sam Kerr

Those words speak to a question that amplified around Kerr this offseason. Now 24, Kerr has entered the prime of her career, and with 40 goals in her last 44 games between the NWSL’s Sky Blue FC and the Australian W-League’s Perth Glory, the Australian international has positioned herself as one of the world’s elite attacking talents.

Why, then, has she not cashed that check, jumped to Lyon or Paris Saint-Germain, and turned her growing highlights into growing Euros?

“I’d be lying if I said I hadn’t talked to European clubs,” Kerr confessed, shortly after joining the Red Stars in Portland this preseason. “But when it came down to it, I felt like I still had so much to prove and so much to do with this league.

“Once I felt that maybe I’ve conquered this league, then I’ll leave. But right now, there’s still so much for me to do.”

Haven’t conquered the league? Kerr is coming off an NWSL-record 17-goal season, a campaign that included four multi-goal games, three hat tricks, and the league’s first four-goal game. Her July 8 hat trick against FC Kansas City came over the game’s last 12 minutes, bringing Sky Blue back from a 2-0 deficit while scoring all of her goals against the world’s best defender, Becky Sauerbrunn.

You could say that, on an individual level, if you’ve conquered Becky Sauerbrunn, you’ve accomplished all you can as an attacker. Kerr, however, wants more:

“I know I won MVP last year, but that doesn’t mean anything when we didn’t win the championship,” she says. “If we win the championship this year and I score no goals, I’ll be more proud of that than winning the MVP.”

Sorry, Sam, but we want the goals, too, and not just for the numbers. The unmatched athleticism, the punctuating back flips, and the sense of timing that can produce a hat trick out of nothing? That is the Sam Kerr Show, one that’s become emblematic of everything that the NWSL hopes to offer going forward.

On multiple levels, Chicago is betting that show will continue. For the first time in years, the Red Stars are shaking up their formation, doing so to showcase Kerr at its point. Over the last few seasons, Dames has chosen 4-4-2 variants, often with some sort of diamond midfield that leveraged the talents of Vanessa DiBernardo, Danielle Colaprico and Julie Ertz. This year, though, the plan was to feature those three in a triangle behind Kerr, who’d be the feature talent in a more fluid, technical 4-3-3 that could take Chicago to the next level.

That’s the hypothesis, at least, one born out of the team’s need for solutions. For three years running, Chicago has seen its season end in the league’s semifinals. Kerr’s acquisition, combined with the team’s new approach, was designed to take the Red Stars to that next level, but with DiBernardo, Ertz, Yuki Nagasato and Casey Short carrying injuries heading into the season – one that will see Kerr on national team duty for its first month-plus – Chicago may have to grind out its early results.

More than a player: A movement in Chicago

Kerr’s acquisition, though, carries implications beyond spring 2018. Entering its 10th season of existence, Chicago is embarking on a rebrand, one that will celebrate the team’s commitment to women’s sports. That dedication fits the new cultural moment, Whisler notes, with women’s sport primed to take advantage of a growing social awareness.

“You can’t ignore what is going on over these last 18 months …,” Whisler says, alluding to the #MeToo movement, among other cultural phenomena. “There is a sea change in the tolerance for women to [demand more than] their traditional roles, or [being] second-class citizens, in not being treated equally, whether in pay, or sports, or media, or Hollywood, or financial markets.

“There’s a dramatic cultural change that has moved our way, too, in these last six years. I don’t think that can be underestimated.”

Whisler doesn’t expect Kerr to lead the Red Stars charge into this brave, new, late-arriving world, but her simultaneous ascension helps position to team to seize this moment in women’s sports. As some established leagues struggle to adapt to new tastes that seek inclusion, tolerance, and a greater mindfulness of athlete’s health, women’s sports offer some long-desired alternatives. And as fans seek those alternatives, the Red Stars want to be there, waiting, hopefully with a star like Kerr in tow.

“We are trying to help her realize the opportunity [of being in Chicago],” Whisler says. Kerr’s new home market transcends those of her previous teams in Rochester, New York, and Piscataway, New Jersey. It is, potentially, a better fit for the game’s fastest-growing star.

On and off the field, Kerr is somebody who checks all boxes: talented, of course; young, so she could stand the test of time; open, engaging, and fun in a way that draws new fans to her; and productive. Very productive. Even if the vision for a bold, new women’s sports landscape doesn’t manifest soon, Chicago will at least have a shot of getting over its hump, with Kerr poised to take the Red Stars to a true championship level.

That progression coincides with Kerr’s personal path, one that sees her on a third NWSL in five years. Mentally, she had plateaued in New Jersey, just as she felt she had plateaued with Western New York three seasons earlier. A move to a new place was a must if she was going to stay in the NWSL.

“You know when you need change,” Kerr says, “and both times, I needed change.

“I’m glad I left Western New York when I did, because I felt it was the right time, and I’m glad I left Sky Blue when I did, because I just felt it was the right time. If I’m not being pushed, then I feel like I’m not playing my best football.”

Those last four words, “playing my best football,” explain why Kerr is not in Europe. She could have gone to a place like France, but for somebody looking to challenge herself as often as possible, the lack of competitive games would have been a problem. Add in the off-field element -- something Kerr values highly at this point in her life -- as well as the World Cup and Olympics on the horizon, and (at least) another year in the States becomes an obvious choice.

“The money was the thing that was the eye-opener,” Kerr confesses,” but I’m all about being here, on the field and off the field, instead of having dollars in your bank account.”

That soccer-first attitude was apparent in Kerr’s first days with the Red Stars, when she elected to join her teammates for a week instead of flying straight home. She wanted to get in as soon as possible, meet up with players like DiBernardo and Alyssa Mautz, who she knew from the W-League, and get that new-team feeling out of the way as soon as possible.

The rest of Australia’s internationals, coming off the Algarve and SheBelieves Cups, elected to fly straight home and recuperate before World Cup Qualifying at the Asian Cup. Kerr? She just wanted to play soccer:

“Coming in three games, four games into the season and being the new girl isn’t that cool. I wanted to get that over and done with … I’m in a bit of a purple patch with my form, [so] I didn’t want to have a break.”

It is still the purplest of patches for Kerr, whose brief time in Portland should shorten the runway come her end-of-April return. By then, battling through all their injuries, the Red Stars may be desperate for points and goals. But in the wake of Press’ departure, Chicago couldn’t have found a better candidate to try and deliver both. With Kerr, the Red Stars are ready to clear a new path forward, both on and off the field.

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