Analysis

Good news, Chicago: The NWSL's best goal-scorer is playing forward again

ISI Photos-Daniel Bartel

The Red Stars have tried Christen Press as a No. 10, but she's back up top, where she belongs - for now.

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Over the past two seasons, no player in the National Women’s Soccer League has achieved a more prolific strike rate than Chicago Red Stars’ forward Christen Press.

Press scored 18 goals over 26 games combined in 2015 and 2016, tormenting NWSL defenses with a series of jaw-dropping efforts. No one has scored more over the past two years in regular-season play, a fact that becomes even more impressive considering she’s missed a third of her league matches due to United States women’s national team duties.

Still, when Chicago lined up for its opening game of 2017 two weeks ago against the Houston Dash, Red Stars head coach Rory Dames didn’t line Press up at forward, but instead as the team’s No. 10, playing beneath forwards Stephanie McCaffrey and Jen Hoy.

I’ll still take her over any other forward in the league, any day of the week.

- Rory Dames on Press

Looking at the recent past, the move wasn’t unprecedented. Chicago played Press in the No. 10 role on numerous occasions during the 2016 campaign.

So, why would Dames play the league’s most effective forward in a midfield role?

As the coach himself will tell you, part of it is out of necessity.

For the past two years, Chicago has struggled to find a good fit for the attacking position, the highest point of Dames’ preferred diamond midfield. In 2016, the coach brought in Amanda DaCosta, but she picked up an early-season injury and never really found her footing before the Red Stars traded her this past offseason.

Another option has been Vanessa DiBernardo, who has played as the team’s attacking midfielder at various times and done the job well, if quietly. Yet, a dearth of wide players forced DiBernardo into a hybrid role on the left of the Red Stars’ midfield in 2016, a position in which DiBernardo has excelled.

However, this past weekend, Dames may have finally, and accidentally, stumbled upon the best solution to his midfield conundrum.

In the Red Stars’ opening-day loss to Houston, center back Julie Ertz picked up a knee strain. Unable to practice most of last week and still not 100 percent fit, Dames was unwilling to start Ertz in his backline against FC Kansas City, but he still wanted to find a way to get her into the starting XI.

His solution? Play Ertz as the team’s attacking center midfielder — a position she played regularly for Santa Clara University — and push Press into her more natural position up top.

The move paid dividends for Chicago on Saturday in a 1-0 win over FC Kansas City, with Ertz scoring the game-winning goal, earning a penalty, and nearly scoring on two other occasions.

The switch also allowed Press to make more runs behind Kansas City’s defense and stretch the field for Chicago. While the forward certainly could have done better in front of net (and missed a penalty kick in the second half), the new attacking combination made the Red Stars’ offense look more lively than at any point in recent memory. They only scored 24 goals in 20 games last season, eight of which were scored by Press.

Dames didn’t seem bothered by Press’ missed opportunities on Saturday, telling the media after the game, “I’ll still take her over any other forward in the league, any day of the week.”

Following the win, Dames said he isn’t set on his best XI, and he may still move Ertz into different positions. Nevertheless, if he was looking for a way to get Press up top and add some wallop to his midfield, playing Ertz as the team’s No. 10 seems like a good start.

Making the move permanent would, of course, have its pros and cons. On the upside, it would give Chicago’s its strongest possible midfield combination with Ertz attacking, Danielle Colaprico sitting deep, and DiBernardo and Sofia Huerta handling the duties out wide.

But moving Press up top for good would send either Hoy or McCaffrey to the bench and leave the Red Stars’ defense in the relatively inexperienced hands of Sam Johnson and Katie Naughton. Johnson only began earning regular minutes last year and, in a way, is still learning on the job after a collegiate career where she played as a forward. Naughton is only in her sophomore campaign after earning nine starts in 2016.

That Naughton-Johnson duo did earn a shutout against Kansas City, though, and Dames praised the two for their efforts. The Red Stars’ also have the benefit of buffering their center backs between Colaprico and goalkeeper Alyssa Naeher, two of the league’s best at their respective positions.

Dames is likely to continue tinkering in the coming weeks as he looks for the best combination for his team. Ultimately though, the league’s best goal-scorer needs to be close to goal. Press has proven repeatedly over the past two years that she has a devastating combination of speed, technical sophistication, and the ability to manufacture goals out of thin air. Playing the rugged Ertz in the attacking midfield role could free up Press for that role, and it might be the final piece for Chicago to make its first NWSL final.

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