The Red Stars gave everything they had and it wasn’t enough.
That’s the simplest, kindest way of summing up last night and the 2016 campaign. They rebounded from a humiliating loss on the first day of the season at Houston, ground out results over the summer, remained in the playoff chase and ultimately secured a #3 seed. They were paired against Washington for their pivotal semifinal match, the team they had just beat the weekend before. Things were looked good for much of the season and they continued looking up as the Red Stars traveled to Maryland.
But Chicago were undone, in the end, by the one problem that plagued them all season— the defense. The centerback pairing between Julie Johnston and Samantha Johnson never quite clicked into place, and that rough-around-the-edges chemistry produced glaring errors throughout the season. Goalkeeper Alyssa Naeher managed to smooth over these mistakes with some heroic saves, but, as any Fire fan could tell you, competent goalkeeping will only do so much for you side.
Chicago’s defensive issues weren’t quite as conspicuous last night as they had been, but they did lead to nervy moments throughout the 120 minutes of proceedings and, ultimately, the two goals that sunk them. Washington captain and inexplicable USWNT prodigal Ali Krieger availed herself of a free header in the 36th minute to put the hosts ahead. The Spirit had spent most of the first half in the ascendency; if anything, the 1-0 score at halftime flattered the visitors, who spent too much of the half pinned back in their own half.
The second half didn’t start out much better, though the Red Stars did slowly feel their way back into the contest. Some promising chances were building, although that final ball seemed elusive. Finally, Chicago found their equalizer very late in regulation, thanks to a gorgeous one-touch volley from Christen Press.
Press would have a tantalizing opportunity to win in stoppage time when she found herself through on goal; she rounded Kelsey Wys, positioned herself, shot, and hit the crossbar. With the seconds ticking away in added time, a few inches down on the angle could’ve made for a very different article.
As it is, both teams were sent into extra time and the Red Stars simply ran out of gas. With just a tad more organization in the back, Chicago could have at least forced a penalty shootout and preserved a shot at the Championship Final. But this team’s Achilles Heel could not be compensated for, and Washington retook the lead when Chicago’s back line failed to deal with a low cross and Francisca Ordega tapped into an empty net at the far post.
Chicago had thrown everything they had at this game, but once Ordega scored, they knew it was over. They were too exhausted, too leggy, too demoralized to mount a comeback. And when Vanessa DiBernardo had to leave the pitch with a blown hamstring and forced the Red Stars to play the remaining few minutes with 10 women, the truth was inescapable.
Afterward, manager Rory Dames defended Christen Press to reporters and showed the sense of togetherness in the squad— win or lose.
It’s unclear what the Red Stars will, or can, do in the offseason to shape this squad into champions. It’s unclear whether the core of this team— Press in particular— will be here next year. The 2016 Red Stars season ends in disappointment and uncertainty. In years to come, this season will be seen as either the last obstacle to clear before reaching the top of the mountain, or the last hurrah before a slide into mediocrity. Needless to say, this offseason will be eagerly, nervously watched.