Aesthetics matter. Stretch goals matter. Final place in the table matters. But league campaigns are like marathons— sometimes finishing the race is the only thing that matters. Last night, the Red Stars got over the line.
In a game in which the home side looked low on energy and low on invention, the Red Stars managed to squeeze blood from a turnip and draw a point from their clash with Western New York to book an appearance in the NWSL Playoffs for the first time.
For both teams, the stakes were exceptionally high as the season winds to a close. The Red Stars, having stumbled in recent weeks and are now nursing a six game winless streak, needed at least a point to clinch a playoff berth. Meanwhile, the Flash needed to win in order to keep their postseason hopes alive.
Yet for long stretches of the game WNY seemed content to not lose. While they held firm in the back as best they could, they only really threatened to score in fits and spurts, with Chicago goalkeeper Michele Dalton doing most of her handiwork in the last 10-15 minutes of the game.
The Flash’s lack of attacking threat seemed to suit the Red Stars just fine, as they seemed visibly gassed for much of the game. They had a fair amount of spark in the opening half hour, but as the game wore on- especially in the last 20 minutes- key runs weren’t being made and passes were drifting astray as the home side labored on their feet. For their sake, one hopes that the team that Rory Dames sends out next weekend for the return fixture against Western New York consists of fringe players, if for no other reason than to give the starters a week off before the playoffs.
The Red Stars have two games remaining in the regular season— next Saturday on the road against the Flash, followed by 2015 finale at Toyota Park against Houston. These last two games, other than hopefully giving some starters a rest, are all about securing home field advantage for the semifinal match, most likely against Washington. There’s a lot of work to be done over the next few weeks, but for now we can celebrate a massive achievement: the Red Stars’ first playoff berth in the NWSL era. Considering the current state of professional soccer in Chicago, it’s no small thing.