Red Stars at dusk: The promising, problematic project in Chicago

Daniel Bartel-ISI Photos

Chicago's built a consistent contender, but a steady approach may be keeping Rory Dames' team from getting over the top.

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Chicago is the NWSL’s best team. Chicago is top of the table. These, now, are ridiculous sentences. Writing them feels like beginning a book report after reading only the Cliff Notes. They make as much sense as what came back when I ran the Thailand FA’s website through Google Translate. And yet, a month ago, both of those things were true.

Now, with five games left to play, Chicago has spent the wealth of a five-game unbeaten streak that put it near the top of the standings. The Red Stars head into this weekend losers of three straight, a string of results that’s left the team barely hanging on to third, reverting to a pattern that, in the past, has undermined the squad.

In 2013, Chicago failed to make the playoffs at all. The following season, it came close, but a string of late-season draws left the Red Stars on the outside looking in. 2015 was the year Chicago not only cracked the top four but also hosted a playoff game. Even then, Chicago followed up a 6-1-3 first half by going 2-2-6 to close the season.

Last year, Chicago again made it to the playoffs, this time after finishing in third. But again, there were questions. The Red Stars followed an eight-game unbeaten streak at the start of the season with three straight losses in July. What if they hadn’t, again, found a slump? And what if they didn’t close the season by going winless in four?

Chicago, as a team, has always struggled with long-term consistency, often doubling down on months-long unbeaten streaks with winless ones that undo whatever happened before. With its current swoon, the team has gone full-on reenactment, leaving doubts about whether the Red Stars can truly keep up.

Is staying the course really so wrong?

In many ways, what Chicago is doing is not abnormal. There are far stranger things in this league. The Disciplinary Committee. Sky Blue insisting on going down by three goals in every game. The Boston Breakers, just in general.

But where other teams ebb and flow with some normality, Chicago does it to an extreme. North Carolina, for example, hit a little speed bump in the middle of the season, but the Courage picked right back up and now it has a five-point lead and the chance to clinch a playoff berth this weekend. Second-place Portland has had struggles — the Thorns lost to Kansas City two weeks ago — but like North Carolina, those are anomalies rather than the beginning of some great unraveling.

Last year, when North Carolina was still Western New York, the Flash had its own rough start to the season. But Paul Riley, ever the optimist and a master at leveraging leftovers, worked his magic, turning a group of young players and random veterans into the unlikeliest of NWSL champions. What Riley did with the Flash, and what he’s continued to do with the Courage this season, in many ways flipped what was becoming a pretty predictable script.

For the NWSL’s first three years, we saw the gap between the haves (Portland, Seattle and Kansas City) and the have-nots (your Washingtons, Bostons, Houstons, Sky Blues and until a year ago, Western NY/North Carolinas) widen considerably. Those top-tier teams could attract seemingly whoever they wanted, while everyone else was left with scraps: the random allocated players and decent draft picks they were dealt. Why would you go play in front of no one in New Jersey when there’s a chance to call Providence Park home?

Chicago, somehow, always managed to stay out of that conversation, living as neither a have nor a have-not. The Red Stars forged an entirely different path.

Chicago has rarely gone for the trade that explodes Soccer Twitter or tried to lure a big star from Europe. Its approach was instead about building from within. Before acquiring Kristie Mewis from Washington this week, the biggest trade in Red Stars history was acquiring Alyssa Naeher from Boston, but exchanging a couple draft picks and a defender already on her way out for the national team (Whitney Engen) for the U.S.’ then-third-string goalkeeper is hardly a blockbuster.

Of the 20 players currently listed on Chicago’s roster, all but four have spent their entire NWSL careers in Chicago. Other Red Stars, like Casey Short and Summer Green, were on the rosters other teams but never played a single minute elsewhere. Chicago has taken a solid base from its 2013 squad, added in Julie Ertz and Christen Press in 2014, and supplemented around the edges. Bringing in an international like Japan's Yuki Nagasato seems more like an exception that proves a rule.

The limits of the current course

Given where Chicago was four years ago, the plan has clearly worked. During the 2015 World Cup, the band of rookies they picked up in that year’s college draft blossomed. Players like Sofia Huerta, Danielle Colaprico and Arin Gilliland have become some of the league’s best players and Chicago’s biggest contributors.

On one hand, Chicago’s willingness to stick with the same group of players, allowing them to grow and develop within one system, is admirable. No other team has put so much stock in the homegrown angle. Three or five years from now, the thing that the Red Stars are doing could finally be fully cooked. Out of the oven will pop a championship, done to perfection.

But perhaps there’s also a reason that no other team is doing things the Chicago way. In the short term – like, over the course of a season, which is really the goal – it doesn’t make much sense.

When Riley was the building the Flash last year, he brought in players who he knew would step up in big games; serious veterans who’d been there before, recognizing that there’s some inherent value in the journeywoman. It’s through players like Jess McDonald, who’s on her fifth NWSL team, or McCall Zerboni, who’s been around since the Women’s Professional Soccer days, that the Flash was able to fight off the Thorns and Spirit in two extra-time playoff games and claim last year’s title.

Portland, similarly, has plenty of big-game players. Christine Sinclair, for example, is about as veteran a presence a team could hope to have. But it’s with Danish international Nadia Nadim, a player with every bit of confidence you’d want in a striker, that you see what Chicago’s missing. That the Thorns ended up with her at all, going shopping after Alex Morgan’s departure, speaks to a decidedly different approach.

The Red Stars lack any of those types of players, because with the exception of Ertz and Press, no one’s really played anywhere else. And however admirable or noble it is that Chicago is hesitant to go outside its system, it may also be setting up the Red Stars to get left behind.

Chicago’s already dropped from first to third in the course of a month, and depending on other results this weekend, it could be out of the top four by Sunday night. That’s a pretty precarious position to be in when the difference between pretender and contender could be just one key signing.

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