As wintry winds raged back home, Saturday afternoon afforded a bit of fresh air for the Chicago Red Stars in the inaugural Utah Royals home opener, spoiling the home side’s big day with Chicago’s first win, 1-0, courtesy of a bonafide rocket from midfielder Danny Colaprico.
The Red Stars injury report prior to the match didn’t give a ton of relief to Chicago supporters, with the news that Casey Short and Vanessa Dibernardo had been relegated to the 45-day Disabled List dropping on Friday. However, the team got forward Yuki Nagasato back from her hamstring injury, and she was an essential cog on the offensive side of the ball for the Red Stars on Saturday.
The brand-new, Laura Harvey-led Royals are known for their defensive organization, but also they also have a reputation of struggling to finish, so the Red Stars started the match looking to break down play in front of Utah’s goal both early and often. This press almost backfired, and Red Stars almost found themselves in an early hole in the 22nd minute, when a ball lofted over the Chicago back line found Royals’ forward Gunnhildur Jonsdottir, but Sam Johnson made a fantastic one-on-one defensive tackle to bail out her defense.
The Red Stars then got off to a hot start (at least by their own 2018 standards) with Colaprico’s strike in the 27th minute, when a poor clearance out of Utah’s box was controlled by the midfielder and sent back to the right upper-90 of the Royals’ goal, taking the air out of the over 19,000 supporters who came to see their new women’s side play their first home game.
Colaprico’s goal would have been impressive simply considering it was struck 18 yards out from goal, but it also had added weight due to the continuously solid play of Royals goalkeeper Abby Smith, who’s one of the best young keepers in the current USA goalkeeping pool. Smith had most of that right-hand corner covered in that moment with quality footwork and a full extension, but Colaprico lifted it just high enough to make it count. In American Football terms, that shot was sent only where her receiver could catch it, and it made all the difference. The goal is only Colaprico’s fourth in her career, and she, Sofia Huerta, and Alyssa Mautz all really stepped up today to lead the team after the bad taste left from the Red Stars’ defeat at the hands of the Portland Thorns before the international break.
The rest of the match was littered with the “bend but don’t break” defending Chicago is known for, which led to a particularly touchy moment in the 56th minute where the Red Star’s defensive positioning gave the Royals acres of space in front of Chicago’s goal. Alyssa Naeher came off her line to try to make a sliding save (feet first again, not dissimilar to the angle that led to Portland’s second goal in Week 2, let’s work on that), and Utah’s final shot simply wasn’t there. The 1-0 scoreline held fast until the final whistle, but the Red Stars have to work on keeping those defensive lines tight as the season progresses.
All in all, in a weekend that feels like it could be a hinge to the first half of the 2018 NWSL season, the Red Stars came a way with a huge three points, and some momentum to carry them through a very short week. They’ll host the Houston Dash at Toyota Park on Wednesday, before hosting Sky Blue FC this upcoming Saturday the 21st. Both of these are winnable games, and these are optimistic times for a team that is starting to feel like it can win again.