Semifinal failure becoming too familiar for stymied Red Stars

ISI Photos-Andy Mead

There's plenty of blame to go around, but how can Chicago fix this continued issue?

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Rory Dames came traipsing up the tunnel and dutifully stopped to chat with a small group of assembled reporters. Asked the assess his Chicago Red Stars’ 1-0 NWSL semifinal loss to the North Carolina Courage, the fifth-year head coach offered only brutal honesty.

“I thought it was a fair result,” the Red Stars coach said. “I thought we were second best in a lot of the game.”

Of the eight original NWSL clubs, none has grown into its soccer self quite like the Chicago Red Stars. Stymied by an average and repetitive inaugural national-team player allocation, the team slowly built through the college draft, a few shrewd trades, and the allocation of Christen Press in 2014.  After a season where they scrapped their way to .500, another when they missed the playoffs by the narrowest of margins, and then two semifinal exits, the Red Stars were supposed to put it all together in 2017.

“For the standard and the expectations I had for the team, we didn’t meet the expectations that I had for the group this year,” Dames said. “I don’t put that on the player, per se. We’re all in this together.”

The Red Stars have now lost three consecutive semifinals in three very distinct ways. In 2015, they were probably a bit ahead of their time, made some early mistakes, and lost 3-0 at home to FC Kansas City in a match they arguably controlled a majority of. Last year, they endured miserable, windy conditions in Maryland and looked like winners when Christen Press lined up a shot on an unattended goal in second-half stoppage time. But the ball hit the crossbar and the Washington Spirit eventually prevailed in extra time.

Sunday, in front of more than 10,000 fans in Cary, North Carolina, the Red Stars came into the match a tired team and played that way much of the day, particularly in the second half. They did a fair job of absorbing Courage pressure — especially Casey Short who answered the bell time after time as the Courage pelted her with constant attacks — but were rarely if ever able to get control of the midfield and, by extent, control of the match.

“It’s hard when we don’t get a hold of the ball,” midfielder Danielle Colaprico said. “When we don’t have the ball, we’re transitioning a lot, it becomes an athletic battle and that is difficult on our team.”

“We got caught chasing the ball a ton in the first half which is a credit to North Carolina. Just as the game got to the 60th minute and we were still chasing, we just never could slow it down enough to get a hold of it and do anything dangerous in the final third. We couldn’t make any last passes in to where we wanted to. So credit to them. They were great in the game.”

The hard reality is that the Red Stars did not finish this season strong. They went to the Tournament of Nationals break 8-3-5 but finished 3-4-1 to slip from Shield contender to No. 4 seed. Dames looked to rest what he called a tired group of players, but the team couldn’t clinch a playoff berth until the penultimate weekend of the regular season.

“We’ve known for about the last five to six weeks that we’ve had a lot of fatigued players from their Catapult scores and the reporting that we have them do,” Dames said. “That’s probably where we hurt ourselves the most by taking so long to qualify in was, if we could have done it a little earlier, we could have had some rotation and not have a mass rest like we did last week.”

Dames will share blame for the Red Stars’ shortcomings, and he seemed to recognize that following a match in which Chicago had few answers for the Courage, who outshot the Red Stars 19-6.

“As a staff, we obviously need to do a better job of managing the players throughout the season so that when we get to the end our players are able to perform at their highest level,” he said. “For whatever reason, we looked tired.”

Dames also intimated that some of his players “did not turn up” for the match, which Colaprico conceded as well.

“Some of the players on our team didn’t show up, myself included,” Colaprico said. “I don’t think I played poorly in the game. I don’t think I made as much of an impact as I could have.”

Dames said the loss will sting for a while but that it would soon be time to gear up for 2018. The Red Stars traded for U.S. women’s national team midfielder Morgan Brian at the roster freeze, but her hamstring never healed enough for her to become an integral part of the team. Yuki Nagasato began to make an impact late after she arrived from Japan injured and was sent home to recover. Brian was in North Carolina but did not suit up for the match. Nagasato came on as a second-half sub.

The Red Stars are also flush with draft picks in 2018. With two extra second-round picks, they currently own four of the first 19 selections. And they still expect to have Michele Vasconcelos, the No. 11 pick this year who sat out the season to have a baby.

For the moment though, the Red Stars are left to wonder how to find that final step on the day they became the first NWSL team lose three semifinals.

“This is a time for us to grow as a team,” Colaprico said, “and move on to next year.”

It’s an all too familiar sentiment for Chicago.

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