“There are people [ownership groups] that will come in and out [NWSL] based on whether they think there is a financial return, or [if] it’s right strategically, or whatever. But the people that are still here? The people that have been here for 10 years? Are the ones that’ll be here 10 years from now. I’m not going anywhere. Chicago is not going anywhere”
With roots that stretch back into days of the WPS, and WPSL, the Chicago Red Stars find themselves ready to start their sixth season in the NWSL. It’s a familiar position where they can focus on being optimistic as the offseason winds down and they navigate themselves through preseason— and that includes the Red Stars front office and long time owner and CEO Arnim Whisler.
While the Red Stars are on the radar as playoff contenders once again, their offseason started earlier than they wanted as they were defeated in the NWSL semifinal for the third consecutive season.
After the loss to North Carolina Courage, owner Arnim Whisler shares that the first thing the organization did in the offseason was take a mental break, “We were all frustrated” he said. “I’m talking about the fans, the players, the front office, the coaching staff. Everyone was frustrated with the way that season ended. We had stretches [in 2017] where we were playing by far the best soccer in the league. We had beaten North Carolina 3 times, it sure seemed like that was our year. So, that was hard for everyone.”
After a brief period of reflection, the organization went through making changes and adjustments for the team, which included bolstering the coaching staff for the Red Stars by bringing on, not one, but two first assistant coaches. “We went through a period of reflection, some fairly significant changes which will be revealed—not just in the personnel, which I think folks are aware of—but in the way that we’re going to approach games and play on the field . . . We were trying to hire a first assistant and when it came down to it, at the end of the search there were two.”
Being in charge, Arnim doesn’t miss moments for humor, elaborating on the hiring process, saying “I asked Rory what he wanted to do and he said ‘I want them both!’ which clearly wasn’t in our plan or budget but . . . after talking to the players at length, the first thing we had to do was really deepen and extend the coaching staff for preparation, for evaluation, for personal instruction.”
The addition of Craig Harrington and Gary Curneen are already making an impact in the team’s pre season, and their general experience is a welcomed addition.
“Rory is clearly in charge, but we have three folks who have all been very senior first team women’s head coaches and it’s great. I think the players love it, and I think it’s going to give everyone a lot more personalized attention on the plan that they’re trying to achieve [and] help them reach their goals. It’s going to help us train in an entirely new system, and make sure that Rory can pull back and be a bit more strategic—instead of also having to lesson plan and run all the practices . . . I think that was a significant change that has really made a great difference in preseason.”
Remember the old days, the ones you’ll never get back
Some personnel changes aren’t always so easy. Some offseason moves impact a roster overall and Whisler acknowledges the difficulties of moving a long time player in Jen Hoy to Sky Blue FC, having to deal with a national team player’s request to leave the team in Christen Press who is now with the Houston Dash - all while trying to remain steadfast in the team’s core convictions.
He further explains the various draft day moves saying, “Personnel changes are hard. We’re not a team that ‘likes’ to turn over players. Our belief is: we find you early, we grow you, and have you be part of what we’re doing for a long, long time. But that said, every year there are some changes . . . We try and make sure if players don’t want to be with us, we help them find their best situation. And yet, we have to take care of the other 20 to 22 rostered players, all of whom we owe a chance to win the championship. Which is what we’ve been trying to do for the past couple of years now. So, we made the changes that we felt were right for the team, that were right for the players, that were player requests, and away we go.”
The blockbuster trade that involved three teams, three superstars, various roster players, and draft picks left the league and it’s loyal masses in a buzz. While it might be easy for some to label this trade in old metaphors like ‘business as usual’ - in a young and growing league, it’s a huge opportunity for headlines and media attention. After all the draft day moves, it’s still a team first attitude that Whisler aims for.
“But I miss Christen.” says Whisler, as he talks about staying focused on the goal of an NWSL championship without Press and Hoy moving forward, “Christen is a wonderful player and a wonderful person and a big part of what we’ve done for 4 years and that is hard, but at the end of the day she didn’t want to be here - and we needed to take care of the team. Even Jen [Hoy] wanted a chance to play more and we weren’t sure with the roster we had and some of our projections . . . if she’d earn the spot—that she deserves on a lot of teams in the league—which is to start, and as a forward.”
It was an eventful draft day overall for the Red Stars as the big trade brought Nikki Stanton and Australian superstar Sam Kerr to Chicago, and picked up 1st round talent during later rounds in University of California’s Emily Boyd and Indigo Gibson.
“After the draft we added depth to every position to a team that has been a whisker away from the championship game for 2 years now.” said Whisler, who is excited to welcome his new star striker. “Sam is incredible. She is at the top of her game. She’s young with a bright future, and that’s what we all have to realize. Is that she’s 24 and really has a chance to continue to grow and develop in a system like Rory’s, so that’s super exciting.”
This to a moment’s glimpse at royalty
The Red Stars have historically utilized the draft to find club success, and while this year feels no different in that sense, the weeks leading up to the draft and the weeks following the draft held some troubling moments for other teams in the NWSL. Two of the original 8 teams were impacted in ways that changed the face of NWSL for the 2018 season.
Before the draft, the future of FC Kansas City team operations was reportedly unclear and ultimately ceased operations. The team roster, draft picks, and additional rights were relocated to Utah as MLS Real Salt Lake owner Dell Loy Hansen came in at the eleventh hour, and the team was rebranded as Utah Royals FC. For the Boston Breakers, it was a much sadder ending, with the team folding entirely. When the NWSL kicks off on March 24, it will open with 9 teams.
“The whole Kansas City and Boston stuff is unfortunate because frankly, it’s heartbreaking. Boston founded this league . . . and to see Boston go is truly heartbreaking.”
The NWSL will move forward into its sixth season, longer than any other women’s pro soccer league has existed. A current TV and media deal with A+E’s Lifetime, will insure the league has pro soccer through 2019. A Boston franchise that has been there through every pro women’s league, that had frequent matches, a multi league rivalry, and trades with Chicago, had it’s time cut short as the league continues to grow.
“I think it’s a market that will be back and we had a number of ways that this was solved so that we wouldn’t lose Boston this year. We had different markets that would’ve taken it, but ultimately we owed it to Boston to see if they could find a local owner - and we had one - but it fell apart literally at the last minute, which was awful. I think we’ve done right by the Boston players to find them, almost, all places in the league. But it was awful. Truly awful.”
Despite the troublesome turn of events for the two former independently owned clubs, Whisler remains optimistically certain of the future for both the league and the Red Stars. He believes in a league with diverse ownership and philosophies.
“The league will be stronger with diverse owners . . . if we’re all MLS owners, I don’t think that makes the strongest league. That makes us really tightly linked to MLS strategies and approaches, which may or may not be best for the women’s league. What I love about the independence is, we’ve been here . . . I’ve watched billionaires come and go, and at the end of the day, what’s required to grow women’s soccer to the level we want it, is commitment.”
Whisler recognizes that current teams and future teams can’t all follow one specific plan for growth, but the end goal should be the same, “I think it’s very market specific. The strongest play in Chicago may not be the strongest play in Portland . . . So we [NWSL] just have to be flexible. What we’re looking for at the end of the day are people that want to own a team - of, by, and for women - to allow the elite players that we grow in the US to continue to play and have a professional career just like every other men’s sport.”
The current perception of an NWSL team’s path to success in the league being tied to a men’s side isn’t some outrageous thought brought out of nowhere. Since the league’s founding, two of it’s expansion teams [Houston and Orlando] are MLS affiliated to go along with the inaugural Portland Thorns, and now Utah Royals. Last season saw the once independently owned Western New York Flash relocate to North Carolina partnered through USL ownership.
Despite the current trend and being one of the few remaining independent owned clubs, Whisler remains firm in his convictions on commitment being the real key to league success, saying, “I think we need a mix of commited owners. That’s ultimately what we’re looking for. There are . . . committed owners that have been in the league that are MLS and that are independent. . . It’s more about commitment than where it comes from.”
Thinking outside of domestic ownership is another segment for league growth, one that Whisler embraces, saying “Should it [just] be MLS? Or would you rather have an EPL or La Liga team? Or League 1 French owner? I can tell you that we absolutely we want to have some international super clubs that are part of this [expansion] picture as well. So, I don’t subscribe to one size fits all — [that] it must be MLS sort of jointly owned teams — I think there’s huge advantages in some markets to doing that and I think there’s huge advantages to other approaches [in] other markets.”
My Kind Of Town
If you’re a season ticket holder for the Red Stars, perhaps you have cautious optimism. Whisler understands, saying “We are having an awesome year . . . But it’s not about one year, it’s never been about one year for me and my family. We have one of the best front offices in the league. We have the largest, dedicated, Women’s soccer staff in the league. There is no MLS team that has more dedicated people working full time [solely] on women’s soccer than we have.”
Last season the Red Stars underwent a rebrand with a new crest, logos, and motto in ‘My Kind of Town’ and it is a theme that will continue into this season and beyond. “At the end of the day, we’re a Chicago team. We don’t want to be a Lisle team, or a suburban team. We want to be a destination that you go. It’s an identity play . . . We have a lot of work to do to get that brand out there. But we think we have the basis now, the look, the feel, the color scheme, all that stuff that we can continue to grow the brand.”
An argument could be made that the rebranding of the team took place in 2016 when the team made it’s permanent return back to Toyota Park in Bridgeview. The upgrade in facilities is not lost on the players, coaches, or it’s owner. “It’s wonderful to be there. We really work well with Toyota Park. No regrets.”
The move into the MLS facility hasn’t been without its challenges. The constant battle of location vs proximity to the city being a big one for both fans of the Fire and of the Red Stars. But the move back has given the Red Stars more pros than cons, “There are challenges. They get first pick on schedule, both on - for the main field for league games but also for practice time,” He continues “That part’s a challenge, but I think at the end of the day everyone understands that it’s far better to be consolidated with your locker room, training facility, backup practice field in the dome, all of it. In one single place that you can go to every single day that feels like home.”
Whisler points out the stadium benefits as an assent in player recruitment saying “ Folks may not appreciate, how much it helps with recruiting. We’re in a globally competitive market for the top players in the world like Sam [and Yuki].”
As for the ever present debate of location, “At the end of the day we’d love to be closer to the city, love to be on a train, sort of mass commuting train line, public transport - but that’s just going to have to wait.”
At the night show
As the season approaches, Whisler and his front office have a goal this season for a targeted attendance of 4,000. Coupled with a more experienced sales staff this season, and with more Saturday evenings  on the schedule, an advantageous schedule could help them reach that target.
“Everybody in the league wants a saturday night game. Saturday nights are those things that you sort of build your attendance model on . . . So if you play Saturday midday, that was about a thirty percent attendance drop for us every time we played mid day.”
Of course not everything works out sometimes, “We have a nice even spread in our schedule, we have good saturday nights. The one thing that we’ve gotten frustrated with the last 2 years is that we have no home games down the stretch. That was a battle we fought with the league, and the league did a great job on scheduling this year - took too long - but it was very complex with Boston and other things going on.”
Despite not having games during the final weeks of the season, Whisler knows a way they can solve that, “We just have to get on it early, and make sure we get that semifinal game at home.”
During the NWSL offseason, the soccer community in Chicago were introduced to an urban developmental collaboration with Sterling Bay. The Lincoln Yards project included a state of the art soccer stadium that was pitched in connection with the Amazon headquarters pitch.
“We’re thrilled with Toyota Park, it’s one of the best stadiums in the league and we’re not going to chase just any shiny object but that’s a beautiful stadium and concept that they have for Lincoln yards.”
In November it was revealed that the plans would move forward whether a not Amazon decides to come to Chicago. A USL club will be arriving to Chicago in 2020, with plans to be within the city. If fans are interested, they can even try to win season tickets in a team naming contest.
“It’s wonderful. Any of the major cities would love to have a facility like that,” Whisler says. “At some point, it makes sense to take on a deep pocketed strategic partner who shares the vision that we have for women’s soccer. I’m open to that, we could do it tomorrow, there are plenty of people. But you don’t want to do it just for the financial reasons, you’ve got to find a strategic partner, this is tough stuff.”
Given the recent success with a USL partnership in North Carolina, Whisler is not opposed to making a strategic move that is in the best interest of the club. And if in the future the right opportunity presented itself he says, “The answer is absolutely. I just want this league and this team to be around for generations. This isn’t a pride of authorship thing. I’m not going to get in the way of anything that’s better for the team full stop.”
“That’ll be a part of what I spend a lot of time on [partnerships] this year. Is finding ways to strengthen our hand, both in Chicago and in the league.”
“We‘re not going to be at the low end of anything in this league, we have every goal that everyone else does and in fact have been doing it for 10 years. It’s nice that new folks join and are excited about what they’re doing, but I don’t think they can forget that it’s easy to join now, it was a lot harder to do it and keep it going.”
Catch the Chicago Red Stars in their double header home opener on March 31 at Toyota Park on Saturday at 7:15 pm