Heading into the final match of the regular season in 3rd place with playoff positioning still to be determined, Chicago faced Portland in a game that many assumed would be a semifinals preview. However like most things in NWSL being unpredictable, the Red Stars would end up in finishing 4th in the standings after a loss against the Thorns and a win by Orlando against shield winners North Carolina.
The match, a 3-1 loss, began almost the same way it began when both teams faced off the first time this season - back in March during the preseason invitational hosted by Portland. The starting line up for the final regular season match saw similar players get the start for the season finale.
Having the regular season starters on the bench to start the game, Coach Rory Dames discussed his reasoning behind giving his players a rest in the match, saying:
“The game wasn't integral in any kind of way for the league. Our players that have been in with the US team have played a lot. Casey’s played a ton. Julie the last two times has played a ton. Christen’s played a ton. The turf isn't good for Alyssa.”
Dames continued discussing giving his players rest and looking ahead to the semifinals, elaborating:
“There wasn’t anything at play really [Supportors Sheild/Playoff Clinch], it doesn’t make a difference to us if we play here [Portland] or if we go to North Carolina. We don't really care. We feel that we match up good with all three of the teams. So, it made more sense for us to rest our players.”
Here it comes, ready or not
The first half of the match started in a bit of a nightmare, as back up goal keeper Michele Dalton had a poor turnover in the 2nd minute, and Thorns forward Hayley Raso was there to convert the mistake into the opening goal. In the 13th minute the Thorns would connect on their second goal from Sykes, after Chicago was unable to clear a free kick attempt.
Chicago would continue to play from behind during the 1st the half. After a scary collision involving Samantha Johnson, and a discouraging 14-2 total shot stat, it was halftime and the Red Stars were looking like a team lost on their way to a semifinal.
You need a four hour praise dance
The outlook for the second half didn’t look as if would improve with Portland making subs with Tobin Heath, Allie Long, and Dagny Brynjarsdottir. However, after the backline began to settle due to strong play from Katie Naughton, and an offensive substitution for Sofia Huerta, momentum began to shift.
In the 70th minute an goal post shot from Vanessa DiBernardo, led to a long distance goal from Sofia Huerta to pull the Red Stars within one. Christen Press was subbed on immediately and momentum had shifted in the Rose City.
Huerta credits the goal with the work ethic from her teammates, saying:
“It started with Vanessa getting a shot off - it ricochet off and went to Lindsay [Horan], Lauren Kaskie had really good defensive work and the ball just came right to me and I just shot it.”
The momentum from the goal would be short lived, despite an additional goal attempt from Press. A penalty kick would be awarded to Portland in the 82nd minute, which was converted by Nadia Nadim giving the Thorns a 3-1 victory over Chicago.
Rose City vs Windy City on hold
After the final results over the weekend, the possibility of facing Portland in a semifinal, has now evolved into a potential meeting in the championship final. Semifinals bring their own intensity, combined with having to prep for a final regular season game and potentially play the same team the following week in a playoff, can be challenge in itself.
Ever the competitor, in post game comments, Red Stars Captain Christen Press commented on the frustrations of a loss going into a semifinal vs potentially playing the same team back to back, saying:
“I think its hard. We played the same opponent the last two games of last season. We beat Washington and then we lost to them in the semifinal. I think with the set up, with the likely semifinal match ups both being the same teams [POR v CHI/NC v ORL], there was a little bit of a mental confusion of like ‘how do you play with that?’ [back to back games] As a player? I wanted to come out here and win. Thats how I wanted to go into the semifinal. I want to go on a win. So, I’m disappointed and I'm angry, but I think Rory [Dames] hopes that that’s going to fuel us to make us even more appreciative next week, we’ll see.”
Don’t forget the happy thoughts
The semifinals are finally in place, and Chicago will face North Carolina Courage in Cary, NC. A bit of kryptonite for the Courage, Chicago has given them three of their 7 losses this season. The semifinals are a different level from the regular season, and despite ending the regular season on a loss, Chicago has motivation to get to the final.
Sofia Huerta remains optimistic and confident in her team’s ability heading into the playoffs, saying:
“I feel good. I think that we are going to do really well. This is our 3rd year making it to the semis, and the past 2 years - we haven't made it past semis, we’ve lost it, and it’s been really devastating. So, I think that we’re coming with more fire this year.”
The Chicago Red Stars face the North Carolina Courage on Sunday, October 8, in Cary, NC.
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