Why the NWSL's best team can't beat the Chicago Red Stars

ISI Photos-Andy Mead

The North Carolina Courage lost all three meetings with Chicago thus far. The fourth time still might not be the charm in the semifinals.

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Sitting in the lobby of the Chicago Red Stars’ hotel, the mood among the players is noticeably light. Considering it’s still March, and a day ahead of the team’s next preseason game, that might be expected. Yet, even head coach Rory Dames — who over the years has gained a reputation as a prickly curmudgeon — is affable, relaxed, and gracious.

There’s a quiet confidence to the team this spring, something that has been absent in years past, especially in the pressure of back-to-back semifinal playoff losses in 2015 and 2016. This year, however, the Red Stars have brought back nearly every player from last year’s squad and the players carry with them the poise and experience of a team that has been through its fair share of battles. Even seven months ahead of the 2017 playoffs, it’s obvious this group knows what it’s like to be in the thick of a postseason chase.

“I’m more of a glass half-empty than a glass half-full guy,” Dames told FourFourTwo at the time. “But there’s no reason for my glass to be half-empty at this point.”

Seven months and 24 regular-season games later, Chicago is finally back to the moment it has spent the entire year preparing for. The season carried the Red Stars through a loss on opening day, a seven-game unbeaten streak, and a three-game home losing streak in August, in which it briefly looked like the wheels were falling off. Through it all, Dames repeatedly insisted the team had only one goal: to finish anywhere in the top four and get back to the playoffs for a third consecutive season.

Standing in the way of Chicago making it to the NWSL Championship for the first time is the league-leading North Carolina Courage, defending champion under a different name. So far this season, Chicago has consistently had North Carolina’s number. Three of North Carolina’s seven defeats in 2017 were at the hands of the Red Stars. Even North Carolina’s defense, the envy of most NWSL teams, gave up an average of 2.67 goals per game against Chicago despite only giving up an average of 0.67 goals against the rest of the league.

North Carolina has tried a different tactical setup in each meeting in an attempt to neutralize Chicago, and particularly the Red Stars’ midfield. In May, the Courage trotted out a 3-5-2 formation. Chicago made short work of that experiment, swarming North Carolina’s backline and getting out to a 3-0 lead at the half before finishing with a 3-1 victory. Six days later, Courage head coach Paul Riley tried again with a 4-5-1. And while North Carolina did manage two goals in that 3-2 loss, both tallies came on set pieces and forward Lynn Williams spent much of the game chasing the ball as an isolated striker.

In September, the teams met again and the Courage tried matching Chicago’s diamond midfield with a diamond of its own. This netted the best results for North Carolina — who dominated long stretches of the game — but the result remained the same. Chicago forward Yuki Nagasato entered the game at the start of the second half and gave her best performance of the season, leading the Red Stars to a 2-1 win with a goal and an assist.

Chicago is a problematic match-up for North Carolina for a number of reasons. The Red Stars match North Carolina’s athleticism in a way no other team in the league can. Chicago boasts speed across its entire back line, and the unit has done an excellent job limiting the effectiveness of North Carolina forwards Williams and McDonald in their three matchups so far. Red Stars defenders Arin Gilliland and Casey Short have also thus far contained North Carolina’s fullbacks, Jaelene Hinkle and Taylor Smith, both of whom love to get forward in wide positions.

The development of Naughton, who has drawn praise from Dames all season, has also allowed Julie Ertz to move into the defensive midfield position this year for Chicago. As the best No. 6 in the league, Ertz has shut down Sam Mewis’ ability to dictate games in the way Mewis typically does against other opponents.

Chicago’s pinched midfield, going toe-to-toe with North Carolina’s own talented midfield, also makes space in the middle hard to come by — and leads to the type of choppy, physical affair which Chicago relishes. The Red Stars may also have the only midfield in the league which can match the work rate of North Carolina’s Mewis and McCall Zerboni.

As with any contest between two heavyweights, luck has played a factor in Chicago’s wins, especially the last. In the September contest, a would-be goal by Williams was controversially ruled offside and the center official swallowed his whistle when Alyssa Naeher mauled Ashley Hatch in the box late in the second half.

Chicago enters the playoffs as the No. 4 seed, dropping from the third position in the final round of regular season. In that match in Portland, Dames elected to bench many of his key players, a decision which made star forward Christen Press “angry,” according to reports after the game. The coach, for his part, insisted those remarks were taken out of context and explained that he has since spoken with Press to make sure the two are on the same page.

Another wrinkle in the upcoming contest involves late-season acquisition Morgan Brian. After struggling with injury for most of the season with Houston, Brian missed Chicago’s last game completely and, according to Dames, she is not expected to play in the semifinal match, either. At this point, it appears unlikely the midfielder will play any further role for the Red Stars this year.

Brian’s absence will make the re-entry of attacking midfielder Vanessa DiBernardo — coming off an injury layoff of her own — even more important for Chicago. Since coming back two weeks ago, DiBernardo has provided a boost to the Red Stars offense which had become stagnant in her absence. “It’s not coincidence,” said Dames of his team’s improved attacking play. “It’s because Vanessa’s back on the field.”

Through five seasons in the NWSL, Chicago has prided itself on its blue-collar attitude. This season, the Red Stars have added a business-like mentality, never getting too high or too low. And while most teams might be content with earning a playoff berth, the Red Stars have something to prove after two straight semifinal exits.

“There’s been no celebrating,” said Dames of the team’s playoff berth. “Until we accomplish the things that we’ve laid out, nobody will be excited about anything.”

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