The Chicago Red Stars head into 2016 at something of a crossroads.
After a few seasons of middling performances— coupled with instability as they migrated from one league to another— CRS made the playoffs last season thanks to a first half of the season where asses were kicked and names were taken. The team struggled after the World Cup break but still managed to nail down playoff qualification while only losing three games all season. Their dreams of glory were cruelly dashed in their first ever playoff game, with FC Kansas City bagging a 3-0 win at Toyota Park.
Despite the playoff berth, the Red Stars were forced to rebuild in the offseason through a combination of retirements and trades. While Chicago was able to hold on to some key players, including Christen Press and Julie Johnston, they still lost a lot of depth and veteran experience. These pose questions that the Red Stars will need to answer early in the campaign if they want to remain competitive.
Chicago’s big bet this season will be on the raft of rookies coming in. We covered their draft picks back in January, and with the roster now finalized it’s clear that these young women will be counted on to step up in a big way. The Red Stars have a solid track record when it comes to draft picks, with Danielle Colaprico and Sofia Huerta being major contributors to the 2015 campaign. If the Class of 2016 can fold into the squad and deliver, not only will it go a long way toward another playoff berth, it’ll help craft an identity for the Red Stars as a team where youth is given a chance to shine.
In previous seasons, playoff qualification seemed like something of a stretch goal. In 2016, it’s become the expectation. The Red Stars will be under tremendous pressure to prove that last season wasn’t a fluke and that they’re a major force in the NWSL. While the back line looks a little shakier this year, there’s still enough quality in the midfield and up top to make playoff qualification a reasonable expectation. If they don’t, Rory Dames and the Red Stars organization will be under a lot of scrutiny.
Karina LeBlanc GK (Retired), Lori Chaulpny M/D (Retired), Michele Lomnicki D (Retired), Taryn Hemmings D (Expansion Draft, later Retired), Michele Lomnicki D (Retired), Abby Erceg D (Traded), Adrienne Leon M (Traded), Zakiya Bywaters (Waived), Rachel Quon M (Deallocated), Melissa Tancredi F (Deallocated)
Incoming (not counting draft & amateur call-ups):
Alyssa Naeher GK, Casey Short D, Amanda DaCosta M
Full Roster (19 of 20 spots filled):
GK (2): Michele Dalton, Alyssa Naeher (USWNT)
DEF (6): Arin Gilliland, Sarah Gorden*, Samantha Johnson, Katie Naughton*, Casey Short, Julie Johnston (USWNT)
MID (7): Danielle Colaprico, Taylor Comeau*, Amanda Da Costa, Vanessa DiBernardo, Mary Luba, Alyssa Mautz, Courtney Raetzman*
FWD (4): Jen Hoy, Sofia Huerta, Christen Press (USWNT), Cara Walls
- Can the forwards sort out their chemistry issues?
One thing that tripped the team up last season was link-up issues among the forward corps, with Hoy and Huerta struggling to develop a rapport with Press. Hoy and Huerta seemed to do better while Press was in Canada for the World Cup. The forwards will need to develop some chemistry with each other if the Red Stars hope to maintain their potency in attack.
- Can the rookies deliver the goods?
As mentioned above, the Red Stars have a decent track record when it comes to draft picks. With the loss of depth and leadership in the offseason, the incoming draftees will have to hit the ground running and contribute in a big way.
- Can the team avoid an Olympics hangover?
The Red Stars looked indomitable for the first half of the season and looked like viable contenders to finish the regular season at the top of the table. And then the World Cup happened. The team did reasonably well during that layover, but when the national team players returned to the side things started to come off the rails. With another major international tournament happening this summer, the Red Stars will have to figure out how to compensate if they want to avoid their missteps from last year.
What the experts are saying:
In their preview of the 2016 NWSL campaign— and kudos to them for providing such high-profile coverage of the league— FiveThirtyEight gives the Red Stars a 47% chance of making the playoffs, a 23% chance of making it to the Final, and an 11% chance of winning the whole dang thing.
Much as it pains to say, the Red Stars are probably not championship contenders. As tough as the squad is when all cylinders are firing, FCKC and Seattle are just too strong to brook any serious challengers. The name of the game in 2016 is making the playoffs and establishing themselves as one of the elite teams in the NWSL. On paper, the Red Stars have everything they need for a second or third place finish and a strong showing in the postseason. Whether it’ll shake out that way remains an open question.
How to watch:
The 2016 season marks the Red Stars’ return to Toyota Park, so Fire fans who want to support WoSo in person will have a shorter distance and familiarity to lure them out. The league recently announced a limited late-season television deal with Fox Sports, and the first broadcast game will be the Red Stars’ home fixture against FCKC on September 7th. Barring a supplementary television deal, the remaining Red Stars games— including tomorrow’s season premiere away at Houston— will be streamed live on the league’s YouTube channel.