How will Morgan Brian fit into Chicago's complicated midfield?
Over the past three seasons, the Chicago Red Stars have been one of the most consistent sides in the National Women’s Soccer League, earning two consecutive playoff appearances and garnering widespread respect for their methodical approach towards building a squad.
Last week, however, the team made a rare big-splash move, trading freshly acquired Kristie Mewis to the Houston Dash in exchange for United States women’s national team midfielder Morgan Brian.
In the last hours before the NWSL’s roster freeze deadline, and only one month from the end of the season, the trade could be the move that finally puts the Red Stars over the top after being eliminated in the semifinal round of the playoffs each of the last two years.
To make the Brian trade work, however, Chicago will have to answer a number of questions, most importantly, figuring out how to use their new star in an already crowded midfield.
Brian is as talented as they come, and versatile enough to play any position in Chicago’s hybrid-diamond midfield. Combined with the talents of Julie Ertz, Vanessa DiBernardo, and Danielle Colaprico — who all, just like Brian, have the ability to play any position in the midfield — Chicago has the kind of problem that coaches frequently say they love to have: too many options.
Brian played 30 minutes off the bench as a “wide” midfielder in her Chicago debut on Sunday, a 2-1 win over the North Carolina Courage. However, after the contest, head coach Rory Dames said Brian’s position against the Courage was not “ideally where we’d like to use her.” Assuming Chicago elects not to change its shape this late in the season, that means the Red Stars are most likely to play Brian in the No. 6 or No. 10 position once she returns to full fitness and is ready to slot into the starting XI.
If Brian plays as the team’s holding midfielder, Ertz — who has played there most of the season — would need to either move into the backline, or push up into the attacking midfield role. Both could be beneficial to Chicago.
Making all the pieces fit
Over the past month, the Red Stars defense has struggled and Ertz is, obviously, a world-class center back. On the flip side, Ertz is also an effective, if untraditional, No. 10, as she has demonstrated on several occasions this season. While she isn’t a typical attacking maestro, breaking down opponents with her passing, she is a sledgehammer in the position, capable of using brute force to break down the door of any defense in the league.
But if Dames elects to use Brian as the team’s No. 10, Chicago gets to keep Ertz as the team’s destroyer, and Brian gets to pick apart opposing defenses with her inch-perfect passing. Forming a potent trident with forwards Christen Press and Yuki Nagasato, the Red Stars attack would instantly become one of the most dangerous in the NWSL.
There are downsides to this scenario as well. With Ertz and Brian in the middle, Chicago’s wide midfield positions — a generous term for a mostly central players — get crowded awfully fast. Colaprico, DiBernardo, and Sofia Huerta would all now be fighting for two positions and one of the three would have to end up on the bench.
That said, this setup seems to make the most sense for the Red Stars. With Ertz holding, Chicago’s center backs are protected on three sides by U.S. internationals, and Ertz’s physical presence limits their exposure. Brian would be given the keys to run the offense — which should also help Nagasato further integrate herself into the attack — Huerta would line up on the right to run the touchline and DiBernardo and Colaprico would split time in the deeper, more possession-oriented position on the Red Stars’ left side.
Some have wondered if Brian’s arrival this late in the season could cause chemistry issues, and the Red Stars did recently struggle in their first few games with Nagasato in the lineup. Both Dames and Brian dismissed the idea. Brian said on Sunday that between her time with the U.S. national team, the youth national teams, and the college ranks, there were only a handful of Red Stars she hasn’t already played with at some time in the past.
Dames, for his part, told FourFourTwo USA that, "Good players figure each other out pretty quick.”
Does Europe still beckon for Brian?
Another factor in analyzing the trade will be how long Brian stays in Chicago. Dames said that his new midfielder was very open during trade negotiations about the fact that she is looking at a potential overseas move this winter — widely rumored to be Lyon, perennial French champions and current UEFA Champions League title holders. Brian stated on Sunday that any such discussions are on the “backburner” until the end of the NWSL season.
Dames also said late last week that Brian “was looking to get herself into a different situation than what she was in to try and get herself where she needs to be for qualifying and the World Cup." Now with Chicago, Brian may elect to not go overseas at all. Even if she does, she could still return to the NWSL after the European season ends in May, much as Alex Morgan did this year, splitting time between Lyon and the Orlando Pride.
In the long term, this move should also help Chicago protect its roster from expansion. If and when new clubs join the league — assuming the rules from the last expansion draft stay the same — the Red Stars would lose only one of their five allocated U.S. internationals. That would leave an exceptional core in place, no matter which player is taken away.
Dames has become known for his prowess in acquiring talent for little in return. A year from now, this deal might register itself as another such steal.