There’s a very particular sense of exhaustion that creeps into your body when you watch the Chicago Red Stars play the Portland Thorns. It can come in many tiny forms, whether it’s the knot in your shoulder when you see nine or so gloved hands shoot in the air in Chicago’s penalty box, or the weight under your eyes when the ball dings against the Portland crossbar in stoppage time, but the result at the final whistle usually feels about the same.
Blowouts are easier to compartmentalize, but the Red Stars don’t tend to get blown out by the Thorns. They play them tough, they expose weaknesses, and then they struggle to get themselves over the top. Such was the case Saturday evening, when two very unfortunate mistakes by two veterans put Chicago in a hole that they could never quite climb out of, falling just short 3-2.
That being said, this was much better than last week! The Red Stars came into this match with no returning players from their laundry list of injuries (feel better, Stephanie Mccaffrey), and they only had four substitutes on hand for the entire match — three field players and backup keeper Emily Boyd. However, Rory Dames made the smart move to slot Sarah Gorden in the starting XI at outside back and allow Arin Gilliland to play the whole match up front, a move that paid dividends with Gilliland making her mark all over the pitch.
Warming into the game slowly, the Red Stars found themselves in an early deficit in just the 9th minute, when a Thorns corner kick was miscleared off the body of a Red Star, and Lindsey Horan utilized a slick turn to put the ball in the back of the net with a shot that flew just over the head of Danny Colaprico.
Chicago didn’t let that faze them, however, finding seams behind the Portland defense that has yet to find its sturdiness seen in 2017. Gilliland brought a significant amount of energy to the front line, and Summer Green was an early standout, showing some of her strong form from pre-season. This paid off in the 30th minute, when she took a throw in from outside the Portland box and bulldozed her way through half the Thorns defense to drop the ball off for Alyssa Mautz at Portland’s far post, and suddenly the Red Stars had their equalizer.
This is where everything started to go a bit sideways. Chicago had been playing a high line for much of the half, relying on back passes under pressure for Alyssa Naeher to clear away from danger. Naeher’s been asked to play that sweeper role more often this year for both club and country, which doesn’t necessarily always coincide with her strengths as a goalkeeper. And in the 40th minute a particularly soft pass back from Sam Johnson had Christine Sinclair all over it. Naeher tried to slide the ball clear with her feet, but only succeeded in kicking the ball right back into Sinclair’s legs, who gratefully nudged the ball into Chicago’s goal without any opposition.
Sinclair would be back in an easy goal-scoring position again in the second half, when Danny Colaprico pretty clearly handled the ball in Chicago’s box in the 64th minute, awarding Portland a penalty. It was an uncharacteristic move from Colaprico, who usually stays more collected under pressure, but suddenly the Red Stars were down 3-1, and the difference came from self-inflicted wounds.
Despite the uphill climb in front of them, the Red Stars weren’t going to be deterred, and not 3 minutes after the Sinclair penalty Sofia Huerta ran the ball end-line (her first real spark of brilliant play of the season) and served it into the box for Mautz, who bagged a brace bringing Chicago back within one goal of a draw. In the end however, the Red Stars just simply ran out of time to find that final goal that would earn them a point.
This was a disappointing match, but the team pulled together some quality play from the same personnel that struggled to inspire anyone against Houston last week. While the mistakes were troubling, there was also a resilience to the performance that Chicago is going to need going forward. As the season progresses, they going to play better than they did tonight, and also probably worse, and the margin for error is only going to become smaller. Time for the international break, and many healing vibes before the Red Stars (0-1-1) take on Utah on April 14th.