The Red Stars begin a crucial four-game road trip tonight in Seattle. Tonight’s result could set the tone for the whole trip, which in turn could have lasting ramifications for Chicago’s playoff hopes. We talked to Susie Rantz from Sounder At Heart to get the lowdown on the royal opposition.
Hot Time: On Sunday the Reign fought back from a goal down and playing with 10 women to steal a point. How much of a mental boost do you think this will give the team heading into their clash with the Red Stars?
Sounder At Heart: Laura Harvey brought this up after last weekend's match. Her exact words were, "Games like that can be a turning point for the season. I don’t think we need a turning point, but we needed something to live by." The team has been straddling a playoff position all season, but has yet to get that one convincing win that proves to them and the league what they're made of. This Seattle team seems to rise to the occasion when dealing with adversity, and there's no better example than what they pulled off with 10 players. It's exactly what they needed going into Wednesday's match, especially after a tough, tough game against Chicago earlier in June.
Hot Time: How will the Reign cope without Lauren Barnes?
Sounder At Heart: It's really hard to picture Seattle Reign FC without Lu Barnes, a player who missed just one game for the club in 4+ years. She's been the most important figure in the defense and has been working with a young backline this year, and her leadership will be sorely missed. It is quite difficult to predict exactly how Laura Harvey will adjust, but rookie centerback Kristen McNabb sure stepped up last weekend, and she will likely be asked to do the same again on Wednesday. I imagine the midfield will drop a bit more than usual at the start of the match to provide some defensive cover for the backline.
Hot Time: If you could pick one player to be absolutely crucial for the Reign's chances against the Red Stars, who would you pick?
Sounder At Heart: Can I answer with: the whole team? Kidding. I'd have to say Jess Fishlock. Chicago is going to be aggressive going forward, and the Reign have struggled, at times, defending against a direct style of attack. If Seattle wants to keep this game close, the team is going to have to be extremely organized defensively. Fishlock probably won't be asked to do that again from the centerback position, but her communication and endless energy in the midfield will be key. In addition, alongside whoever Harvey pairs with her in the midfield, she'll play a big role in helping shield the backline. If they can do that effectively, Seattle has a good chance of walking away with three points.
Sounder At Heart: This week is going to be tough for Chicago, as the team travels to Orlando after facing Seattle for a weekend match. What adjustments do you suspect Rory Dames will make to get through this road trip?
Hot Time: Honestly-- very little. For better or worse, Rory Dames has a system and he sticks to it. He'll make some tweaks as necessity dictates-- resting Taylor Comeau due to lingering injury aftereffects and swapping out Mautz for Huerta on Sunday-- but pretty much it's the same team and the same set-up week in, week out. On the one hand, having that kind of stability and consistency has definitely made a positive impact on the team. On the other hand, when things go wrong the Red Stars aren't really able to make necessary adjustments. So when teams manage to throw them off their Plan A, their Plan B is pretty to do Plan A but harder. A clever side can absolutely take advantage of that.
Sounder At Heart: At the start of the season, if you had told me Katie Naughton and Samantha Johnson would be holding down the centerback positions, I would have had some concerns. How is this defense so strong, giving up less than a goal a game?
Hot Time: I see two reasons.
One has been Chicago's excellent outside backs. Casey Short has been a revelation this season, and on the other side Taylor Comeau and Arin Gilliland have been more than capable of holding that side of the pitch on lockdown. The fullbacks have also been good about shifting to the middle when necessary. This makes for a backline that's solid enough to fend off direct attacks while also being stretchy enough to not get outflanked.
And Two, the backline has benefited from a strong midfield that shields them from attacks. Which leads me to...
Sounder At Heart: How has the team dynamic and shape really changed since Dames mixed up the midfield, sliding Julie Ertz in as a holding midfielder?
Hot Time: Julie Ertz as a holding midfielder has been a remarkable change in the team's tactical dynamic. While she does sometimes get forward, he best work this season has been as a deep-lying enforcer. She also sometimes slips in as a third centerback and even a sweeper, taking on something resembling a Franz Beckenbauer role. And she has the right mix of smarts and toughness to make her new position work for her. She's been instrumental in the Red Stars' ability to stop attacks before the backline ever has to deal with them, and that's reflected in Chicago's strong Goals Against number. Long story short, anyone who wants to score against the Red Stars has to get through Julie Ertz first, and, uh, good luck with that.