The Chicago Red Stars have played in four leagues since they were founded eleven years ago. Four attempts to make a viable top flight division for women’s soccer in this country, the country that incubates the historically world-beating USWNT. Three of these attempts fell apart, taking many of the member clubs down with them. But the Red Stars have remained.
They’ve had their struggles, of course. But the club has managed to navigate some incredibly dangerous waters and emerged as one of the premier women’s soccer clubs in the US. Chicago players are well-represented in the USWNT, and team has emerged as consistent playoff contenders (despite having yet to put a credible title run together).
But more to the point, the Red Stars have established themselves as a bona fide Chicago team. This is a club that reps its city proudly, down to the six-pointed stars and blue stripes on their shirts. At a time when our local “major” teams are sliding into embarrassment and indignity, the Red Stars are showing up for their city. The MKOT marketing campaign launched at the start of the season may have come off as trite at first blush, but they’ve demonstrated it’s not just PR. These women love their city, and it shows every time they line up.
The Red Stars desk at Hot Time sat down to debrief on the 2017 NWSL campaign before putting this thrilling, excruciating season on the shelf. We found plenty to love about this 2017 team, and a few things we wish could’ve been done differently. We have some concerns for next year, mixed with implacable hope. And we give our final verdict here with an overwhelming feeling of love— for this team, for the community of fans, and for the city we all call home.
Here’s our review of the 2017 Chicago Red Stars season.
Despite some stumbles at the beginning and end of the campaign, the Red Stars qualified for the NWSL playoffs for the third season in a row. They also got eliminated in the semifinals for the third season in a row. How would you judge this season? How does it line up with your expectations for this team? Did they perform better or worse than you thought they would at the start of the year?
Sandra: I had the Red Stars finishing 2nd, hosting a semifinal at Toyota Park, and winning the Championship, so clearly, I judged this season horribly.
Admittance aside, losing a semifinal for the third time has got to be gut wrenching if you’re one of those players that has been around for the last 3 seasons. So if we’re judging just based on end results, they performed about as well as they did to start. They ended their season with an almost unexpected loss in a semifinal as they did in the start of the season with a loss to Houston.
In women’s professional soccer I feel like there is always that urgent sense of a ‘team window’. The history of these leagues are often short, retirements sometimes happen at the age of 28, or 25, or even 21. I think because of that, there is almost a feeling of “now or never.” But NWSL is a different league compared to those in the past, and I think that is the silver lining in all this really. Where before there was a sense of, this moment has passed, it’s not like that for a lot of teams in the NWSL— Red Stars included. When the Lifetime TV deal was announced, it came with the assurance of a 3 year contract.
The team has an obvious core in place, and are capable of getting into the playoffs. There’s no longer a question of that. They have to get to the championship and they have to win. The entire goal of the 2017 season was to get into to the final, and win. From the front office, to the coaches, to the players- have all been on record for the most part in sharing that common goal - and they have the talent and skill to do so.
Ralph: I really hate the cliche about “it’s not how you start but how you finish.” I feel the Red Stars are the exception to that rule. After starting the season slowly, Chicago began to fire on all cylinders before hitting an inexplicable end of season lull. To think they had only lose eight games at home in five years in an astounding record.
All that being said, I feel that this season was a build up to what is to come for this franchise. Rory Dames has assembled a great squad with a fabulous core. You already know the names of Huerta, Press, Ertz and so on but their are players on the squad that really give me hope. I’ve been saying this amongst us for a number of weeks that I believe the sky is the limit for Arin Gilliland. She is a defender this team can build around.
Sofia Huerta grew immensely as a player and as a person this year. Having time to process the loss to North Carolina, what happened was supposed to happen. The Courage were the better team, but the Red Star coaching staff and players will learn and come back stronger than ever.
James Bridget: I think for the most part I just wanted them to qualify for the postseason. That was my baseline from the start of the year and the team checked that box. BUT, there’s two caveats here. One, I really feel like they should’ve made it to the Final. They may not have been Championship material this season, but this team was good enough to at least get to the big dance. The fact that they couldn’t, and that they lost that semifinal against NC the way they did, is incredibly disappointing. And two, the fact that there were points toward the end of the season where playoff qualification seemed at risk is worrying. As is the fact that they slid down to finish in 4th place at the end. So they hit the bar that was expected of them, which is qualify for the playoffs, but I can’t help but feel that they only did so by the skin of their teeth, and that they were not set up to do anything once they got there. This team is incredibly talented, and yet sometimes it feels like they’re a dog chasing a car. Would they even know what to do with a Championship Final if they caught up to it?
The Red Stars had a few squad players step up and have career-defining years this season. Who was your standout performer in 2017?
Sandra: Hard to argue against Sofia Huerta. Scoring and assisting goals? Getting called into USWNT camps? Can’t wait to see what she brings in 2018. Also going to mention her fellow Santa Clara teammate, Julie E R T Z. From a staple in the backline in previous years to navigating the mid this year, it was just a joy to watch and to cover.
Casey Short has had remarkable year as a defender. Did not fall victim to a sophmore slump, and in fact, got better. Her possession and first touch on the ball this year are much improved from last season. 2017 Best XI and finalist for Defender of the Year. Can't wait to see more from her.
Ralph: Arin Gillliland. I can’t explain why but I really liked the poise and the confidence she showed in the later portions of the year. She seems incredibly battle tested and ready for what every comes her way. I think I was most impressed by her performance against the Courage in the last meeting at Toyota Park. She was able to handle Lynn Williams and Jessica McDonald with the greatest of ease. Also I have a feeling JBG is going to claim Julie Ertz and Sandra will show some love for her fellow Latina Sofia Huerta.
James Bridget: Ertz. Ertz Ertz Ertz Ertz Ertz. (Coming up close behind: Short, Huerta, Colaprico, in that order.)
How would you rate the Red Stars’ transfer business? What are your thoughts on Chicago’s major midseason acquisitions (Nagasato, Brian, K. Mewis)?
Sandra: I loved the signing of Yuki Nagasato, unfortunately injury kept her from what she could bring to this team and we only saw glimpses of it down the stretch late in the season. Thankfully she is returning for 2018.
Kristie Mewis and Morgan Brian were both head scratchers when they happened. Mewis proved crucial in her one game against her former team, Washington Spirit, where she scored a goal and helped gain a crucial 3 points in the standings in Chicago’s march to the playoffs. She has shown promise in Houston, and hope she continues building with them.
Now that it’s finally offseason, all those unanswered questions from the Brian trade will eventually come to light. Will she or won’t she go to Europe? How will this play out in the draft? Ultimately if she stays with Chicago, Brian will only boast an already solid midfield. It was evident that the Red Stars midfield desperately needed a healthy version of her in the semifinal.
Ralph: I get it, I think Rory Dames saw something in Nagasato and pulled the trigger at the right time and I always have felt that Kristie Mewis has been underutilized since she stopped getting called up after Tom Sermanni left the USWNT.
When you have a chance to get a player like Mewis you go for it, but when Morgan Brian is available you are foolish not to go for it. She will be back in due time and I think it’s similar to a Tobin Heath situation in Portland. She is going to be frustrated by injuries but will be better off after she makes a full recovery.
Jill Ellis told me that she was pleased with the way Mo was progressing, so I don’t believe all is lost yet.
Also, I want to get it on the record. If the Red Stars somehow got players like Ali Krieger and Erika Tymrak, Chicago would go from good to great.
James Bridget: Nagasato definitely made sense on paper, and while I don’t feel like she made a huge impact this year I think she could make some real noise in 2018. Kristie Mewis being here for all of one week is just baffling. And Mo Brian still has a big ol’ asterisk; I want her to be a part of the team and lead the Red Stars to glory next year, but who knows. Overall, kind of a weird year as far as transfers go.
What was the biggest surprise this season for the Red Stars?
Sandra: Literally the Morgan Brian trade. Like, what?
Ralph: I have to say Julie Ertz. Making a position change is never easy and she admittedly was her own biggest critic but she did a masterful job stepping into that No.6 role. I can see this being a position for her for many years to come. Maybe even when she becomes the captain of the USWNT.
I said it. Sue me.
James Bridget: Vanessa DiBernardo. I’ve always liked her but I never really saw her as a make-or-break player for the squad. But there were points in the season where she was really driving the Red Stars’ attack. And when she was injured, the team performance really suffered. It’s bonkers to think that this team could be without Christen Press— who is, to be absolutely clear, a total rock star— and they’d find ways to cope, but they lose DiBern and it all falls apart. It definitely made me see her in a new light.
What are your thoughts on Rory Dames as head coach? Is he the right person to lead the team going forward? Or do you think it’s time for a change?
Sandra: A solid defense, being organized, and playing direct are what the Red Stars are known for. It’s also been their downfall in prior playoffs. I have Sam Mewis on record essentially saying that NC Courage prepared for Chicago’s infamous diamond formation in the semifinal. Shifting things around and players in new positions, were all strengths for the Red Stars early in the season this year. However, their predictably eventually cost them in the biggest game.
3 semifinal losses and people look for accountability and unfortunately that usually lies with the head coach.
Establishing a culture, working the draft, building a team - are all things Dames has helped establish in this club. So unless Chicago is one of those teams talking to Pia Sundhage, I don’t see a change in coaching position happening.
Ralph: Rory has a brilliant soccer mind but I think he lacks the execution to get it done on the field. That’s not a shot at him per se but a technical director role would suit him wonderfully. I would like to see the Red Stars play a role like a Carlo Ancelotti team because they can play wide open but also could be fantastic defensively.
I wouldn’t say that it’s time to hit the panic button on Rory but it may be getting close.
James Bridget: I think in an ideal world Rory would transition to a sporting/technical director role and we’d bring in a new head coach to get the team to the next level. He’s great at building a team and getting the pieces in place, but the Red Stars under his direction play like a Tony Pulis team, and it’s just not working for them. And it’s also, frankly, a misuse of resources. Playing Route 1 soccer when you have players like Press and Huerta and DiBern just seems unconscionable. That said, I suspect that Dames would actively resist any attempts to move him to the front office. He wants to coach, and if he can’t do that here he’ll do it somewhere else. So I guess it depends on what the organization wants to do about him, which ultimately boils down to what Armin really wants from this team.
Was there anything the Red Stars could have done differently this season? What would have needed to happen for them to get into the NWSL Championship Final?
Sandra: Hard to gauge just one thing, since there isn’t a huge one that sticks out. It’s a team that was built to win, and at the moment, still is. Ultimately you want the players put in the best positions to get the best out of them. This league is indescribably competitive, and on paper, you look at Chicago and can’t imagine how they don’t have a championship - until you look at the rosters of the other 3 teams ahead of them in 2017 and go, “oh.”
Ralph: I think the team just needed to remain consistent but that is tough to do with match congestion and a continuing cycle of players. Let’s face it, some of the reserve players aren’t near the level they need to be to challenge for first team minutes. If this team manages to add depth, the consistency will follow and they will finish strong.
James Bridget: I don’t think it boils down to one thing. The bad news is that a lot of little things went wrong for the Red Stars this season that ultimately nerfed their shot at the title. The good news is that there are plenty of points of intervention, so even if the Red Stars pick just one thing to fix they’ll be in an immensely better position next year. I realize this comes off as something of a cop-out answer— “Could they have done anything different? Probably!”— but there was never a magic bullet for this season. The job was pretty straightforward, and they couldn’t get it done this time.
What does this team need to do differently going forward? What needs to happen for 2018 to be the big breakout year?
Sandra: Play with some width that doesn’t always have to come from your outside backs on the flank? Draft a backup Goal Keeper? Evolve? Vague, I know. But, again, hard to nit pick at some things just for the sake of it. I do often wonder how this team would play together if they are asked to change their formation at times. The depth has been questionable to some but has proven capable more often times than not.
Off season is going to be fun, that’s for sure.
Ralph: The Red Stars need to switch to a style of play that accentuates what they try to do as a squad. A wide open style such as a 3-5-2 may do the trick as they have two gifted wingers in Casey Short and Arin Gilliland and their midfield is great as well. If Steph McCaffrey could develop great chemistry Christen Press and improve this season I think a formation change would do wonders for the Red Stars.
James Bridget: The 2016 Cubs had a lot of problems which were routinely exposed during the regular season AND the playoffs, and they still managed to win the World Series. You don’t have to fix all your problems, but you do have to make sure you maximize your strengths in order to effectively compensate. The Red Stars, at the very least, need to learn how to do that. They’re a good team with rock star players. They’ve got all the components in place to be champions. They just need to get that secret sauce nailed down.
They also need to try and keep as much of this team together as possible, which won’t be easy if some of the rumors surrounding Christen Press are true.
My main concern is that this team is so close to being able to break through, but that the FO will decide it’s just not working and throw us into a rebuilding year. So I feel like things are super precarious with the Red Stars right now. Either the club will make a few adjustments that will set them up for a genuine title run, or the whole thing will come crashing down. The next few months will be interesting, and I mean that in the Chinese Proverb sense of the word.