Sunday's match-up between the Dash and the Red Stars was, much like the other NWSL fixtures this weekend, meant to be a valedictory celebration for the returning Women’s World Cup heroes. Houston took 15 minutes before kickoff to give a hero’s welcome to their USWNT warriors— Morgan Brian, Meghan Klingenberg, and, Ms. 15-Minute-Hat-Trick herself, Carli Lloyd. The tone and overarching message heading into this round of NWSL games was recognizing those who fought for their country this summer in Canada - with special focus on the world champion USA - and using the vibe around the tournament to inject momentum into the country’s domestic women’s soccer league. Yet it was that game’s result that reminded everyone that there is still a championship to be won.
The Red Stars, who have spent most of the season at or near the top of the table, claimed a solid three points over the Dash in their quest to win their first NWSL title. Chicago midfielder Vanessa DiBernardo broke the seal in the 19th minute with a clinical finish at the end of Alyssa Mautz’ cross from the right flank. While Houston had a few isolated chances, the first 45 minutes were all Chicago, and they went into the tunnel at halftime brimming with confidence, despite not having any of their World Cup players in the starting XI.
The second half was somewhat more even, with the Dash slowly finding their way back into the game. The home side found an equalizer in the 57th minute when Tiffany McCarty hit a free header that goalkeeper Michele Dalton couldn’t rescue in time. Yet Houston’s surge was short lived— four minutes later, Jen Hoy capitalized on a defensive breakdown following a corner kick and struck home. Hoy’s effort turned out to be the game-winner, as Houston’s push to get back on terms ran into a brick wall.
Like MLS, the NWSL did not take the full month off for the World Cup, so teams were forced to cope without their USWNT and international players. For the Red Stars, that meant navigating some crucial fixtures without the likes of Christen Press, Julie Johnston, and Karina LeBlanc, who have been instrumental in Chicago’s exceptional run this season. Yet despite losing eight players to the World Cup- more than any other team in the league- the Red Stars survived that period undefeated, thanks to emerging stars like rookie forward Sofia Huerta. As head coach Rory Dames said on Twitter, "the ‘kids’ keep turning up!"
With the win, the Red Stars (6-1-3) remain at the top of the NWSL table, level on points with Seattle but with a head-to-head advantage and a game in hand. The team returns home this Saturday to take on Boston, where they too will honor their returning World Cup stars. With 10 games to go in the regular season and a tight race at the top, the Red Stars will need to stay focused— and get their World Cup players back in fighting shape as soon as possible.