The SheBelieves Cup has concluded, and NWSL preseason is upon us. Despite an arduous defeat by France, the U.S. hosted (and created) event saw four players from the Chicago Red Stars see time on the pitch throughout the tournament. While the opening game gave us optimism for the matches ahead, many were left with the same positive outlook from tournaments past - the U.S. would have a slow start. They would get better, get stronger, and win, as the tournament went on.
However, the opposite of that happened. They did not overwhelm other teams with their superior fitness. They did not grow stronger and over take other teams. The U.S. appeared confused, frustrated, and evenly matched. Had the rest of the world caught up? That was hard to imagine during the match against Germany.
Opening Match vs Germany
The starting eleven saw Chicago Red Stars Casey Short, Alyssa Naeher, and Christen Press. A familiar 3 back was rolled out with Short, Allie Long, and Becky Sauerbrunn. The first true test of the backline appeared to work well. Allie Long finally looked like she trusted Casey Short. Long distributed and defended the ball well, instead of just shoveling it off to veteran captain Sauerbrunn. Short appeared to be unfazed under the bright lights against a top five ranked team. Her touches, pace, and decision making were all bright spots in this game.
The German side had notable injuries in Svenja Huth and Tabea Kemme, and some argued Alyssa Naeher wasn’t as challenged as many would’ve expected. However, the Chicago Keeper demonstrated enough of her skills to show the world why she should keep number 1. Along with her vision and organization, Naeher came away with a brilliant save and shutout.
Red Stars Captain, Christen Press, reminded everyone why she belongs on the pitch. The California native stole the ball and soon found herself into the final third, where her strong shot came off the cross bar. Tobin Heath was there for the rebound, and Lynn Williams was the beneficiary of Press’ hard work getting the ball into the back of net. The lone goal is all that was needed as the U.S. would come away with the win, 1-0
Julie Johnston: Lion Slayer
The second match against England saw Chicago center back Julie Johnston see the pitch. She found herself in the middle of the 3-back, playing defender and distributor. Red Stars fans are familiar with Johnston’s tackles, clearances, and defending - and her skills proved pivotal as the match was kept 0-0 until the 88th minute. An England set piece proved the game changer, when the Lionesses connected on a poorly cleared corner by the U.S.
JJ does not play around. pic.twitter.com/FIIDTLyoVR— Our Game Magazine (@OurGameMagazine) March 5, 2017
Although the national team had a stronger game against England, it was a lack of organization within the box that saw Morgan Brian collide with Johnston as England’s Ellen White slipped the ball past Ashlyn Harris for the game winner. It was England over the U.S at 1-0, and the U.S. would need to win against France to win the SheBelieves Cup.
Final vs France
Before the final against France, Casey Short spoke about her current journey with the national team. The Naperville native credits her other Red Star teammates with helping her adjust to the competitive environment around her:
“Initially, it was nice to have them coming into this environment, it’s very intimidating. It’s been nice to have them pull me aside and say ‘hey, here’s this bit of advice’ and just share their tidbits here and there to help me get comfortable.”
Short has been playing with the national team since last October and already has six caps with the team, and has made a case for herself as a future component of this national team.
After a strong game against Germany, she got the start against France. While the final match between France and the United States was to determine a tournament victor, the French squad quickly felt the trophy in their hand during the early minutes of the match. Les Blues finally exposed head coach Jill Ellis 3 back formation. Short’s strong pace was once again on display, but not enough against France. Allie Long, a defensive mid trying to convert to center back, was often overwhelmed by the French attack.
Gaping holes were on full display as Alyssa Naeher was forced to make a play on the ball that resulted in a penalty kick which was converted by Camille Abily. A minute later, Becky Sauerbrunn took a stumble and fell on her back as a long pass from Wendy Renard beat Allie Long and found French forward, LeSommer. Both, Long and Short, found themselves behind the French striker as LeSommer navigated the ball into the back of the net with ease. It took 10 minutes into the match for U.S. to find themselves needing to huddle and regroup.
Renard to Le Sommer. Wow. France up, 2-0. pic.twitter.com/2vcDz21ke7— Our Game Magazine (@OurGameMagazine) March 8, 2017
The U.S. would continue to play from behind and struggle. Christen Press received the start in this match, and could never find herself on the ball as she had done earlier in the tournament. After the first half, she was subbed off for Crystal Dunn. After 70 minutes, the French had collected their third goal and we got to see a 3 back combination we’ve all been waiting to see, in the most painful game to date. Julie Johnston subbed in and was played at center back with Sauerbrunn, Short, and Naeher in net. The reunion was brief as France played out the rest of the game to victory, and the U.S. finished in last place.
After a difficult game, Sauerbrunn spoke highly of Casey Short and her growth as a defender.
“Casey can be a center back or a left back when she plays. There’s going to be a learning curve, we’re going to make mistakes. But we’re going to build chemistry. I think they [Short & Long] had a wonderful tournament. We got burned tonight as a backline, as a team. So, we’re just going to live, learn, work on it, and then be better the next time”
Returning to Chicago
Casey Short elaborated on Ellis’ 3 back vs the 4 back she plays in Chicago under head coach Rory Dames.
“It [3 back] asks different things from me. I play more of a center back, it forces me to work on my communication, my spacing, my distribution, and those are different from when I’m in Chicago. There, I’m going up and down the line a lot more and always in constant attack, attack, attack. So, those are things I’d like to take back with me to Chicago”
Chicago fans won’t have to wait long for their team to be reunited on the pitch. Preseason is underway, and the season kicks off in April. Chicago recently launched a re-brand, complete with a new crest, logo, and slogan in “My Kind of Town,” a play on Sinatra’s song to Chicago. You may have seen the new hashtag #mkot along with new images with players around the city.
When the Red Stars organization unveiled the new campaign, it featured hometown player (Naperville) Short. On her rising profile within women’s professional soccer, Short remains humble:
”It’s an honor to be representing the brand, and representing my hometown as well. Each one of us [Red Stars players] represents the team, but I am definitely honored and humbled.”
Much of last year’s roster is returning for the upcoming NWSL season, and while the heart-breaking memory of a semi-final loss still lingers, the Red Stars are eager to bring what they’ve learned from this SheBelieves tournament. When asked if she’s still motivated by the memory of the 2016 semi-final, Short keeps it brief:
“I’m still broken from that.”
Alyssa Naeher further elaborated on embracing the 2017 NWSL season:
“We’re going to build off that loss in 2016. I think there’s a lot to learn from it, and grow and build off it. 2017 is a fresh start. We’re excited for that. Last year we wanted to win. You go into every season wanting to win a championship, and we came up just short. I think that we’re going to remember that feeling of having to walk off the field having lost the game. So, I think now going into 2017 - I’m excited for the season to get started, and with the players we have coming back, I think we’re going to be a competitive group.”
Many of the Red Stars have had busy off seasons. While there were players in U.S. national team camps (Press, Johnston, Naeher, Short, Gilliland, Colaprico) several Red Stars were active in Australia’s W-League as well. Despite the disappointing finish at SheBelieves Cup, the upcoming NWSL season is looking particularly bright for the Red Stars.