For better or worse, the Chicago Red Stars have a very different look this year.
I include that “worse” bit as a caveat, but I don’t actually think any of the changes need to constitute a step backward. Change is good, even if the positives aren’t immediately obvious. It’s clear that Rory Dames is trying to make some needed adjustments to the squad, in terms of personnel and in tactical approach.
But while there have been some pronounced changes, they haven’t amounted to anything particularly drastic. We traded away one of the best strikers in the league and replaced her with… one of the other best strikers in the league. Our bench depth remained at roughly the same level— which is good, considering the massive outbreak of injuries and other availability crises in the early part of the season. And while on the surface the shift from a diamond 4-4-2 to a 4-3-3 signals a fresh tactical approach, the team is still largely building the plane in mid-air.
The Red Stars are trying to make changes, but the implementation has been fairly conservative and measured so far. It may feel like a rebuilding year, but with one notable exception this is functionally the same team that we’ve seen since at least 2015. It’s a team that wants to grow and change— but not too fast.
This is a mistake.
I don’t want to speculate on what kind of mid-season roster moves the Red Stars may or may not have in mind. For now, I want to talk about Chicago working with what they’ve got. What they’ve got are a lot of talented pieces on the board, but with their heavy hitters out of active play for the time being. The Red Stars have had to rely on their depth in the first few games of the 2018, and despite some middling results— 1W 1D 1L— the second-stringers have delivered.
If the Red Stars want to have a new look and a new style, they need to use this transitional period as an opportunity and commit to making big changes. They need to try a lot of new stuff, even if it doesn’t all pan out. They need to lean into it.
They need to Get Weird.
Taylor Comeau’s form in the first three games has been strong, so much so that if the team were the meritocracy that Dames insists it is in public there could be a real selection crisis once Casey Short returns from injury. Sofia Huerta has displayed a degree of versatility in position and tactical nous; that, plus the fact that she’s currently leading the league in assists, should really earn her a consistent starting spot. Michele Vasconcelos has put in good shifts. Arin Gilliland has demonstrated that she can slot in wherever she’s needed— even as the #9. To say nothing of Dani Colaprico, who could very well have the best year of her career in 2018.
These players need opportunities to demonstrate that they belong in Chicago and that they belong in the Starting XI. That requires minutes, but it also requires flexibility in how they’re deployed and what’s expected of them. There needs to be a willingness on all parties to experiment— even, and maybe even especially, if it might cost the team points.
There’s been no shortage of grumbling among Red Stars fans about Sofia Huerta playing as a fullback for the USWNT— grumbling which, full disclosure, I’ve joined in on. But it may be worth committing to. Give her the minutes, give her some flexibility in her newly-adopted role and a mandate to make the position her own, and we might well see the development of the American WoSo’s next great attacking outside back before our very eyes.
I was one of many who rolled their eyes the first time the Red Stars teamsheet dropped that showed Gilliland playing up top. But you know? She did pretty well. It was a move born of necessity, to be sure, and the results didn’t go Chicago’s way, but Gilliland proved she can be a potent attacking threat. Why not try it again? If nothing else, having Gilliland-As-Forward in the team’s back pocket could prove to be a useful trick— one that could make the difference in the game.
There are so many other opportunities to experiment before the big names come back from injury. Colaprico tends to play as an #8 or a #6— why not try her out as a #10 until Vanessa DiBernardo comes back? Where else on the pitch could Vasconcelos slot in? Stanton has put in some real work in her first few games as a Red Star— why not let her off the leash for a bit? And for that matter, how committed is Dames to playing four in the back? What could this Red Stars team do in a 3-5-2 setup?
Again, so many opportunities to really try and do something different with this team. A lot of them won’t work, and one or two could end up proving catastrophic. But if the Red Stars really want to reinvent themselves this season, they need to try at least some new wild and bonkers ideas. Commit to the bit. The worst that can happen is we don’t qualify for the playoffs this season— which, frankly, is still a risk even if Dames insists on this current “controlled burn” plan. The team is already in a weird spot and the rest of the league is out for blood. Just go for it. And trust that the team will find ways to get results, because that’s what #ScamGang is all about.
Play Gilliland up top and Colaprico in the hole. Give Huerta time to figure out how to be a defender. Let Stanton run free. Eat hummus. Start a noise band.